Aspergers and writing – holding on to that thought!

Different people are affected by Asperger Syndrome differently, and to varying degrees – it is more of a ‘continuum’ than an ‘on/off switch’.  I am by no means an expert – but I have some experience in living with it, and raising kids who are also Aspies.  The following will not work for everybody, but it did work for one of my kids.  Perhaps it may help another family, too – if not to improve skills, then at least to build an understanding.

Many Aspies are quite capable of speaking their mind, but have difficulty writing.  Previously, I have noted several factors that could be at play.  Here, I would like to look at only one of these:  how to hold on to that thought long enough to write it down.

Whether it is some problem with short-term memory, a non-differentiation in the prioritization of our 7-or-so ‘attention slots’, or if it is due to different causality, the practical result is that many Aspie kids say: ‘there are so many ideas swirling in my head, I cannot hold on to one thought long enough to write it down’. 

This problem could be related to ADD – a condition which often occurs along with Aspergers.  And it is something that can be incredibly frustrating.  The child knows the answer, but there is some kind of a breakdown in the communication between the brain and the hand…  To an outside observer, it looks like nothing less than obstinance!

The earlier it is discovered that a child has this aspect of Aspergers, the easier it is to correct.  As is so often the case, the smarter the child is, the longer they can ‘mask’ the problem by ‘leveraging their core competencies’.  (Ooooh, I do love it when I talk bureaucreteese – while I don’t have to!  I amuse easily.)  This can be a good thing:  if the problem is mild, this can be a way the child ‘owns’ the problem and develops perfectly tailored coping mechanisms.

My son’s problem, however, was not mild.  Even though he did well, hiding his problem for quite a long time, half way through grade 2 he simply ‘got stuck’.  And even when we discovered it, it was completely new to us.  Nobody seemed to understand why he would sit at a desk for an hour and manage to write less than 3 words.

In grade 1, he tackled his inabiltiy to learn to read – and leapfrogged his peers, reading ‘The Lord Of The Rings’ on his own during the summer.  He had mastered the mechanics of forming letters – this also had been a struggle in grade 1.  (He had gone to a Montessori pre-school, where he learned to iron washcloths instead.)  So, we had been optimistic that we were ready for grade 2!

And now, this – to us – unprecedented and inexplicable inability to write even the siplest sentences.  The teacher was great, and even took a seminar to see if she could learn about this – but by this point, we had never even heard the word ‘Aspergers’, or what it means.  It took us a long time, but we finally worked out a way to get written work done.

  1. My son and I would sit at the table, he would read the question, and say the answer out loud.   
  2. I would write the answer in large, clear letters on a notepad. 
  3. I would place the notepad on the table, and he’d get ready to write his answer.
  4. Now I asked:  “What is the question?”  – He’d read it out loud again.
  5. “What is the answer?”  –  He’d say the whole answer again.
  6. “What is the first word?”  –  He’d repeat it.
  7. “What is the first letter?”  –  He’d repeat it and write it.
  8. “What is the second letter?”  –  He’d repeat it and write it.
  9. “What is the third letter?”  –  He’d repeat it….

And so on.

Except that, at the beginnig, by the second letter, he would forget what it was.  And what the word was.  And what the question was.  So, we’d go back to reading the question, answering it, reading what he had written, and forcing him to realize what the next letter was.  

It was hard, and it took a long time.  Especially in the beginning – it could easily take us an hour to write 4 sentences.  But, he was doing it!  And over time – long time – he built up the capacity to hold on to more and more information, before needing to go back and re-checking it.

At first, on the advice of the teacher, we had instituted a ‘reward system’.  She was one of those teachers who really care – and I don’t know if I could have done it without her.  And, because I did not give my kids too many sweets – she suggested that some very small candies or raisins could be used as ‘earned rewards’ – say once a sentence or a particularly long word is completed.

The reward system was working.  Not that it would make the work easier, or that it would motivate him to write faster.  It did not work in that way.  But, as hard as all this was on me, it was even harder on my son:  he had just spent a full day at school – good and bad – and now we were sitting at the table for hours, working.  That is a lot for a 7-year-old!  The ‘reward’ was exactly that – it allowed him to graphically see his progress!  As my pre-measured ‘pile’ of ‘rewards’ on the table was shrinking, so was the amount of work still ahead of him.

That is something neat:  Aspies like rules.  They are much more likely to reach their potential in a highly structured environment, where the expectations are very, very clear.  In a way, the ‘rewards’ were a little bit of ‘structure’, a measure of how much work is still expected from him.  Anyhow, he seemed calmer, and more ‘focused’.

Soon, I started finding the ‘rewards’ in his pockets when I would do laundry.  This puzzled me – so I asked him about it.  His answer?  “Well, I don’t really like to eat when I’m doing my work, but you looked so happy giving me the treats that I did not want to spoil it for you!”

After this, we switched from edible rewards to other non-edible ‘markers’:  marbles, poker chips, pebbles, or even coins from his piggy bank.  He got to pick what we would use that day, and helped count out the ‘markers’.  Once he had earned them all, we would put them back into their baggie, and into the ‘marker box’.  He liked that.

It was slow going.  After about a week of this, we both noticed that we would almost fall into a rhythm of question-answer-write.  And that really was the point when we both noticed beginnings (very, very beginnings) of progress!  Just to vary it – for fun – we started calling it out in the rhythm of that song soldiers sing to keep beat, with the question-answer called out loudly. 

My son loved it, and called it ‘writing with shouting’.  He explained to me that when we were ‘writing with shouting’, the sound scared away the other thoughts, so he could sometimes hold on to three or even four letters before needing to go back to see what word it was he was writing!  He would be excited by this, and ask for us to ‘do the writing with shouting’.

Excited by this progress, I reported back to the teacher how well we were doing.  Perhaps I was a bit hahazard in how it all tumbled out of me, but I was very excited and happy to tell her.  I did not get the reaction I expected.  She looked aghast, and started crying.  When I asked why, she said: 

“The poor child!  He’s trying so hard!  And you took away his treats and are shouting at him instead!”

I explained better.  So, why exactly does ‘relief’ make people want to punch my arm?

In conclusion, it did work – but it was a long, hard road.  The performance level at school rose faster than my son’s skills, so it could be downright discouraging at times.  But, we stuck with it – there was about a 3 week period when we worked 3-4 hours a day at it, and there was not a single day when we did not spend at least 2 hours ‘writing’ – without or ‘with shouting’!  And we beat it! 

Eventually, we would not need to go letter by letter.  Instead, we went word by word.  We got there during grade 3….  But the habit of having me write the answers down, and then writing them down himself with the notepad in front of him ‘for when he needed it’ – we continued that until the end of grade 5.  And, if the schoolwork really piled up, I would sometimes (with the teachers’ permissions) script for him.  One needs to be flexible when the workload is greater… and other learning must not be neglected.  Eventually, his writing skills have caught up with the amount of work required of him at school.   

It took a ‘few’ years, but we beat it!  It was not the last problem with ‘writing’ that we encountered, but it was by far the most effort-intensive to overcome.  But it was worth it!

7 Responses to “Aspergers and writing – holding on to that thought!”

  1. Bernard Says:

    Hello Xanthippa

    I have read your blogs with great interest as I work with Aspergers Syndrome students at a university and agree they all have different problems. I have one student I am hopeful you can give me some advice on. His problem is writing for assignments. He is able to sit at the computer and write about any subject I ask him to like discuss the good and bad things about his car, what is some thing that made him laugh, discuss the good and bad features of the last computer game he played. He wrote pages on these subjects in about an hour. When I asked him to write his thoughts on his assignment question he could not write one word, no prompting from me helped. He told me he could tell me the answer but could not bring himself to write it down. He told me he did not understand what was going on in his head. I would greatly appreciate any help you can give.

    Thank you


    Xanthippa says:
    Hi Bernard!

    I know EXACTLY what you are describing.

    Not only have I seen it in others, I have often experienced it myself.

    And, while I do not know exactly what IS going on, I can confirm that it is a reality and perhaps offer you a few guesses…

    In MY experience, it has to do with ‘importance’, or how much something ‘matters’.

    Writing about something you like, but which is just ‘personal stuff’ (car problems, games, etc.) can be much easier because it is a ‘light’ subject ;matter.

    An ‘assignment question’ is ‘serious stuff’.

    It’s like a block pops up and the self-censoring thing – on a completely sub-conscious, not controllable level – puts up a block.

    I experience it ALL THE TIME.

    Some days, when I want to write a post about really important stuff, I can’t seem to be able to write it up. It took me 10 months(!) to write up a post about ‘reasonable expectations’ of an Aspie student….and even then I didn’t get it ‘right’!

    Knowing more and more people rely on my advice about Aspies is pretty much paralyzing me when I try to write a post up about it. What if I steer them wrong? What if I word it poorly and people will not understand? What if i make it worse? What if people read it?

    But, when I am answering a comment, I don’t expect a lot of people (except the one who asked it, perhaps one or two others) to be reading it and so it makes it less ‘risky’ to type up the answer – and it flows pretty much effortlessly!

    Perhaps it is a weak parallel – but I do think it is a parallel…

    Plus, here, I am writing it up as if it were a conversation – not as if I am making a formal presentation. That makes it much easier…

    Strategies (which work for me – and are hopefully portable):
    1. Talk about it (or, in my case, type it the comments) as if you were having a conversation. Record that conversation. Either by using a recording device, or by typing as you speak, or by having someone else write or type up your words as you speak them.
    2. Take a lot of caffeine – it DOES work a little bit like ADD/ADHD meds do in lowering the ‘barriers’. Avoid sugar/sweeteners – they minimize the function of the caffeine. (Yes, this is self-medicating….but, at least, caffeine is not a narcotic or anything…)
    3. Put the ‘words you spoke’ into a word-processing file, version 1
    4. Re-organize the sections into the proper order for whatever format you require them to be in.
    5. Edit the words to form paragraphs in the proper format.

    (I sometimes answer the comment, then copy and paste it and re-work it into a post of its own. When helping my kids, I’d let them talk and transcribe what they said, type the words (approximately – I could not transcribe fast enough to get everything) into a word-processing file and let them edit it into the format they needed their answer to be in for school.)

    Sometimes, it helps to talk it through back and for – with another person as a sounding board, but in a pinch, with one-self. This helps clarify the importance of the various points, perhaps even the language which is most effective in expressing it, what comes ‘out’ clumsily and needs to be ‘tidied-up’, etc.

    As one is speaking, jot down the ‘big’ points as they are being spoken…just as a word or two of a reminder. Then, ‘saying’ the answer out loud, take the set of ‘big points’ as they were jotted down and build from them the answer.

    This is much harder and gets worse results, but, it is a method that most teachers will permit in high-school and so on, so it may be a starting point….

    Again, each Aspie is different, each one will need to build a set of strategies which capitalize on their individual strength. Yet, being stronger verbally than in writing seems a big part of the pattern for many of us.

    Therefore, building a methodology that uses the strong verbal skill, records the ‘spoken word’ in some format, then edits it to fit the required written format might be a set of skills we may indeed be worth the investment!

    I hope this helps. Please, do let me know!

  2. Stephen D. Hurley Says:

    Dear Xanthippa:

    Are you on Facebook? Do you have a book out? These blogs are really helping me prepare to teach writing to my aspie students.

    Thank You,

    • xanthippa Says:

      Hi Stephen!

      I do not have a book out – nor anything that fancy. However, I have tried to isolate my ‘Aspergers’ stuff in a dedicated spot.

      If you have any specific questions, please, do send them on to me: chances are that if we can work out some productive answers, they can be of help to many people out there!

      One day, when I manage to get organized enough, I would like to put it all into a website format – so that it can be a resource to teachers. Knowing what the best and most useful way to organize it – so that teachers would be able to use it – that would be most welcome feedback!!! So, any comments you can send my way, I will appreciate!

  3. Mike Says:

    Very interesting. I can write my thoughts out clearly, but I have such a difficult time expressing what I think to others that half the time my words are gibberish.

    Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading a lot of books.

    But, when I was a lot younger…. agh, I can barely remember my experiences in school. I want to share with this, I think I went through the same obstacles as your son when I was in Elementary school, but I can’t explain it….

    But this is a very inspiring article!

  4. kurtcagle Says:


    I am an Aspie (or close enough as to make no difference) as is my youngest daughter. My oldest daughter is probably ADHD. I tested as high IQ – SB 160 – when I was in first grade. I learned to read early, primarily because we had books around from when I was a baby, and was read to a great deal. My eldest was the same way – she was reading by three, and was a voracious reader, but struggled with math even through high school. My youngest, who has an Aspergers IEP, did the same thing your son did – she could navigate on the web even at the age of three, but reading books was a challenge. It didn’t help that she was in a split grade class in first grade and had an old school schoolteacher who ignored my daughter’s problems until it had become obvious that she was out of her depth. Yet one day, she apparently figured something out, and she went from not reading at all to reading the Harry Potter novels.

    Her writing has followed the same progression by about three years – she could barely write words until nearly fourth grade, but when she started working with word processors, she progressed quickly. Her computer-enabled writing now (in seventh grade) is about at par, and she spends a lot of time writing. Her math skills also follow that same pattern – and I think that’s the key word. She has to internalize the patterns, or templates. It’s not a matter of reading a set of rules then applying them – she has to see examples, and do examples, and anything that falls outside of the patterns she’s internalized are simply too hard. But once she has internalized the patterns, she does this at a very deep level.

    An experience from my own past may be illuminating as well. Like a lot of male aspergers, math was easy for me, but due to coming in to a school program in the middle of the year after a move, I ended up in a base math course while everyone else was in Algebra in eigth grade, meaning I started algebra in ninth grade, a year behind many of my peers. I had a math teacher who started out teaching us the axioms for algebra, and had us break down every operation into a step based upon those axioms. Over time, most of the kids developed short cuts, but I continued for most of the year to break down every step in the operation, meaning that after a while, I had developed what almost amounted to a machine language version of the proofs we were deriving. It was slower, certainly, but after a while it also meant that I made far fewer errors in logic.

    However, geometry threw me, because I had to start from a whole different set of base operations, and the geometry teacher was not a very logical person (he was the football coach). His approach was “Here’s Euclid’s theorem. Memorize and regurgitate.” Most people are good at memorizing things, but Aspies have real short term memory problems. Without some clear basis about how something relates, without being able to break it down into “machine language”, it’s very hard for Aspies to comprehend it. Fortunately for me, the next teacher went back to the original approach and I adjusted my learning style to recognize when I was running into problem, but I think this need to clearly articulate and understand the rationale for the rules is very deeply embedded in Aspies.

  5. καζινο mont parnes Says:

    I’m truly enjoying the design and layout of your blog. It’s
    a very easy on the eyes which makes it much more pleasant
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    Xanthippa says:

    Thank you – and no, it is one of the standard WordPress themes. The only thing I have done differently than most of the bloggerss I know is to not put ‘badges’ in the sidebar – by ‘badges’, I mean the logos of all the things one supports and/or wished to promote. I have not done that because I find them distracting on other blogs…


    Invaluable analysis . I learned a lot from the points , Does anyone know where my business would be able to grab a template Conversation Record to type on?

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