A new approach to writing for Autistic and ADHD students

Organizing ideas is a major challenge for Autistic and ADHD kids. Schools assign topics, leaving parents to tackle the "how to" of written homework. Here is a new approach to writing for Autistic and ADHD students.

Organizing ideas is a major challenge for Autistic and ADHD kids. 

The skill of writing down your thoughts is connected to how you narrate play scenes and retell stories. Schools give a topic and then parents are faced with the struggle of figuring out the “how to” for written homework. 

Static strategies in the forms of graphs and charts are linear, ineffective in forming the executive function skills needed to handle challenging assignments. We want to foster dynamic thinking that allows students to creatively approach a problem and learn to manage complexity.

The struggle of dynamic thinking: A neurodivergent child's hurdle.

When I first begin working with an Autistic or ADHD child, I am assessing their ways of thinking.  I’m looking for how they initiate ideas, connect pieces of information together, and use their resources to problem solve. Many neurodivergent children gravitate toward patterns with predictable beginnings and endings. 

Anything that veers off slightly is felt as an overwhelm because of its novelty and complexity. What results can be a shutdown state, like hiding, or explosive comments like, “You’re cheating!” and “That’s not fair!” The struggle isn’t a behavior, it is the brain’s perception of the unexpected. 

In these situations I let parents know that, even though what I’m asking seems simple, their child hasn’t had the opportunity to be guided through a dynamic process. 

How do we show neurodivergent kids that ideas can be bent, molded, and varied? 

We change the “how.”

How post-its can revolutionize learning in ND kids.

Let’s talk about the concept of writing. Written expression is one of the most challenging executive function tasks as it requires multiple areas of knowledge. For a neurodivergent child, being given a blank piece of paper, or one with a couple of boxes and told to “write a sentence and give details” is equivalent to asking them to explain Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. (Hint: You should have started with E=MC2). 

In comes the post-it note. 

That tiny, versatile stationary that’s been in your drawer. With an array of colors and sizes, post-its serve as visual anchors. When we first come up with ideas for a play scene or a narrative, one post-it is placed in the center of a space. (I say a space because it could be on a wall, the floor, or that blank piece of paper). 

Then comes the epic task of “Tell me what you know about [insert topic here].” In the beginning, most of the writing falls on me. Why? Because it’s hard enough to generate related ideas. Each idea is on a separate note and forms a circle around the main topic. As kids begin to notice how much they actually know, they become even more intrigued and internally motivated. 

I’m wondering how we can put these 2 ideas together” is now more tangible. There is a relief from having to keep all of those thoughts in your mind (as manipulating information in our heads is a working memory challenge). I had an ADHD 2nd grader take a look at how his idea map emerged, take a literal step back, and say, “Oh! It’s all connected!

Breaking down barriers with small squares.

Consider the executive function required to write a story or organize thoughts coherently. For a neurodivergent child, this can be daunting, especially when you ask, “So, how do we start?” Let’s take a treehouse example. Not only are we separating parts of a whole (yep, another concept), we are encouraging kids to use creative terms to identify the parts. 

Remember, it’s not about what word works for you and your adult mind, it’s what works for your child. Each object either gets a separate name and post-it, or is grouped into a category like “tools” or “roof materials.” 

Now it's your turn.

Start by letting go of static strategies and worksheets. Remember that sitting doesn’t equal learning. Instead of “first homework, then iPad,” tap into your playful creativity.

Consider how much effort it takes to complete a task that appears impossible. Move away from “preferred vs. non-preferred” and toward engaging your Autistic and ADHD kids in their own learning process. Think about how amazing it would be to contribute ideas without fear of making mistakes or being corrected for a wrong answer. 

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