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Five Strategies to Help Autistic Preschoolers Improve Their Drawing Skills

written by: Barbara Smith • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 8/2/2012

It’s a paradox — children with autism may have incredible abilities to draw accurate scenes from memory. However, drawing skills with autistic preschoolers may be impacted by decreased attention, motivation, tactile defensiveness, pencil control, cognitive and motor planning skills. How can this be?

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    Developing Motor Skills to Draw

    Building Hand Strength

    There are many skills that 1 to 3 year old children develop that will help them to draw — skills developed before they ever pick up a crayon or marker. Controlling a crayon requires hand and finger strength which young children develop by squeezing, pulling and pushing objects such as Duplos construction toys or Pop-It Beads. Since children with autism syndrome (AS) often have decreased hand strength and low muscle tone (due to task avoidance and their neurological disorder), it is especially important to encourage fun toys and activities that build hand strength. The following toys are also recommended:

    • Balls that squeak when squeezed
    • Digging and pouring sand into pails
    • Squeezing squirt bottles filled with water
    • Playing with heavy bean bags or socks filled with sand

    Crawling is also a very important activity that strengthens the shoulders, arms and hands so that children can sit with good postural control instead of sliding out of their seats while drawing. This is especially important for children with AS because they often have low muscle tone and decreased body awareness which impacts sitting posture. Crawling also promotes coordination between the right and left sides of the body, helping children to use the nondominant hand to stabilize paper during art activities. Encourage crawling through play tunnels and obstacle courses even after the toddler learns to walk.

    Developing Pencil Control

    Children between 1 and 1 1/2 years of age typically grasp the writing tool (such as a crayon) inside a fisted hand with the thumb on top of the fingers and the pinky near the paper. Between 2 and 3 years of age they start to grasp the crayon with all the fingers and thumb around it, pointing downward. The 3 to 4 year old child gradually learns to grasp the crayon using the index and middle fingers and thumb, forming a tripod shape. This grasp creates greater motor control for drawing. Young children including those with AS benefit from using the conical shaped crayons with the large bulb on top. These are sold for preschool-aged children because it promotes the more efficient tripod grasp. Toys and activities that are especially helpful in developing coordination between the index, middle fingers and thumb (in order to draw) include:

    • Lacing boards
    • Stringing beads
    • Folding paper in half
    • Ripping paper to use in crafts
    • Using toy pliers to pick up objects

    Vertical Surfaces to Promote Attention, Shoulder Strength and Correct Wrist Position

    Developing drawing skills with autistic preschoolers requires visual attention to task. One of the best ways to promote this is to present work on a vertical surface such as paper taped to the wall, an easel or coloring on a gigantic cardboard box. It is less distracting for the child when his work is right in front of his eyes rather than looking down at the table with a room full of distractions diverting his gaze. Use of a corral that blocks out visual distractions is also helpful. However, there are many benefits to working on a vertical surface, including strengthening shoulders and positioning the wrist more effectively for grasping the crayon. Young children should be given opportunities to play with toys positioned in the vertical plane such as

    • Flannel boards
    • Color Forms (the shapes stick to the board)
    • Putting stickers on a board
    • A Lego construction set board attached to the wall
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    Bulb shaped crayonDrawing on vertical surfaceForming round shapes in finger paintUsing toy pliers
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    Promoting Sensory Skills to Draw

    Children with AS often demonstrate a sensitivity to touch or an avoidance called “tactile defensiveness." These children often prefer deep pressure (such as when squeezing toys) as opposed to light touch (such as tickles). Offer a variety of drawing tools to determine the best size, shape, texture and weight. Weighted pencils are sold through therapy catalogs and provide extra sensory feedback that may encourage the child to draw. Motorized pens such as the “Squiggly Wiggly Writer" (sold by Hart Toys) provide the sensory feedback and fun that may motivate autistic preschoolers to grasp drawing tools. In addition, it may be helpful to provide deep pressure sensory activities such as wheel barrow walking, squeezing play dough or rubbing hands together before bringing out the crayons and markers.

    Sensory media such as wet sand, corn meal or Oobleck (cornstarch mixed with water) can be used to form lines and basic shapes used in drawing. I suggest these activities because it will take some force to move fingers through these materials providing the type of sensory experience many children with AS enjoy. Some children will also want to finger paint or draw in whipped or shaving cream — go ahead and explore what an individual child will tolerate as long as materials are nontoxic. Sensory activities such as these that don't require grasping a tool (i.e., paint brush or chalk) place the focus on creating designs rather than on motor control to manipulate a tool.

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    Developing Cognitive-Visual Perceptual Skills to Draw

    According to the authors of "Autism: A Comprehensive Occupational Therapy Approach" (Kuhaneck & Watling, 2010), studies show that visual perception is a relative strength in children with AS. Puzzles and mechanical tasks such as construction toys are often calming. Author and lecturer Temple Grandin has written on his website that “One of the most profound mysteries of autism has been the remarkable ability of most autistic people to excel at visual spatial skills while performing so poorly at verbal skills."

    Young children with AS often demonstrate poor eye contact, ocular motor control and have visual preferences (such as viewing objects at close range). However, art often provides an opportunity to show off their excellent memories and visual perceptual abilities. Researchers at the University of Sidney report that the ability to draw natural scenes from memory may occur because children with AS make no assumptions about what is to be seen in their environment — viewing all the details as equally important.

    Preschool age children typically learn the following cognitive concepts that help them to conceptualize what to draw on paper:

    • Counting concepts in order to form the five fingers of the hand
    • Shape identification
    • Color identification
    • Directionality concepts such as top and bottom (i.e., the chimney goes on top of the house)
    • Understanding boundaries and filling up spaces such as when coloring inside a shape outline

    Parents and teachers can promote these concepts using fine-motor activities such as stencils, lacing shapes, people puzzles, placing stickers in the sections of folded paper and matching shapes, sizes and shapes. The Velcro railroad tracks shown below demonstrate how to teach that the short vertical lines fit inside the long horizontal lines. The picture frame made by cutting a shape out of a folder and inserting the art work inside teaches children about boundaries.

    Early fine-motor experiences teach young children with autism the many concepts and skills that will help them to draw. Adaptations can make learning easier, fun and promote attention. The results may be nothing less than amazing!

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    Fitting Vertical Velcro StripsFolder Picture FrameX shaped lacing board
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    Kuhaneck, H.M. & Watling, R. Autism: A Comprehensive Occupational Therapy Approach. AOTA Press, 2010.

    Snyder, A.W. & Thomas, M. "Autistic Artist Gives Clues to Cognition",

    Grandin, T. "Thinking in Pictures: Autism and Visual Thought",

    All photographs have been taken by the author. Activity ideas are based on the author's professional experience.