How Cursive Helped My Autistic Son
As followers of education controversies know by now, the Common Core academic standards, soon to be carried out by 45 states, don’t require the teaching of cursive handwriting.
The curricular gap has induced legislatures in four states to mandate cursive instruction and divided the country into pro-and anti-cursive camps. Yet many agree that the core standards reflect current practice.
At the elite university where I work, graduate students who teach classes tell me they don’t write on the board or grade papers in cursive -- the undergraduates, just a few years younger, can’t read it. This news makes it seem that my 22-year-old son, who is on the autism spectrum, was the last student for whom cursive mattered.
“Mattered” barely covers it. Before my son turned 3, teachers in his special preschool set him to the task of squeezing clothespins open, then perching them on the rim of a plastic cup. The idea was to strengthen his grip so he could someday grasp a pencil. When testing showed he could not copy simple figures, the worksheets began coming home, charting my son’s progress in connecting the dots in dotted lines.
Eventually a page of lines arrived bearing a triumphal, cursive note: “Independent!” The teacher guiding my son’s hand had let go, and he’d done it all by himself.
The point of these exercises wasn’t to ensure my son would play the violin or become a surgeon, but that he would stop using a fisted pencil grip, print clearly and write cursive. This sequence would in turn jump-start his development and nudge him into mainstream academics.
At the time, his official diagnosis was pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, and much of his therapy addressed the “pervasive” element. On all fronts. So, at home, he played pick-up sticks and tiddlywinks for their fine-motor-skill-building properties. In school, instead of using the traditional grainy-paper writing tablets, he wrote on special paper with raised lines so he could feel himself print and, eventually, form cursive letters inside them.
Then, during middle school, something happened that at first seemed separate from cursive writing. My son made a measurable academic leap forward -- in reading, math and science. An inveterate keeper of homework, I compared a stack of his eighth-grade work with some sixth-grade assignments. He still insisted on using a pencil, but the handwriting had changed; it was less effortful, more legible. He could write a decent cursive hand.
By then, of course, the idea of cursive as educational imperative was losing ground. Students with dysgraphia seemed to find it easier to be allowed to use keyboards in class -- perhaps because everyone else was. Entering community college, my son easily gained permission to use a computer for note-taking.
His lone throwback class was basic composition, in which students were required to write their final essay by hand (to prohibit use of a spell-checker). Anxious over the high-stakes assignment, my son produced a heavily erased, messy document that he, not to mention the teacher, probably couldn’t read. And he didn’t pass.
Does this experience suggest that my son wasted hours of pencil-squeezing labor on a pointless skill, no matter how proud he was of accomplishing it? Or, by extension, that the freshmen at my university, proficient at calculus if not cursive, didn’t miss anything?
Much of the debate over teaching cursive centers on its relevance in an era of tablets and smartphones, its role in brain development (not proved), and its use as a decoder of historical documents. Some educators recommend that students gain a reading knowledge of cursive -- as if it were a foreign language.
Few point out that learning to write cursive is hard, even for typically developing kids, or that mastering an essentially manual skill has value at a time when students aren’t much encouraged to learn hands-on, step-by-step tasks. Long hours of my childhood were spent making potholders, stringing gum-wrapper chains, weaving lanyards -- projects that involved more concentration than artistry (no examples survive, quite rightly) but offered much satisfaction: Look what I made.
Outside of structured camp sessions, few children practice such skills anymore. Given all that today’s students are mandated to learn, it may well be true that there’s not enough time in third-grade to squeeze in cursive handwriting. And that’s too bad.
(Polly Morrice writes on education and autism for the New York Times and other publications. She lives in Houston.)
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