ChildsWork News, Feb. 24, 2012: Spotlight on Minorities with Autism and the Importance of Good Penmanship

We will end this week’s news with two really interesting reports about some old topics. The first, from Medical News Today, reports that certain minority children with autism may experience even more severe delays in language and gross motor skills. As we strive to find ways to detect autism earlier on, these differences may play and important role in differentiated diagnosis and treatment.

Next, we revisit the idea of handwriting and, more specifically, penmanship. A report from Florida International University’s Laura Dinehart to be published in the Journal of Early Childhood Education and Development looks that the penmanship of 1,000 2nd graders in Miami-Dade County’s Public Schools. Dinehart found that those children who had an ease about their writing performed better in both reading and math assessments. In an era of iPads for all, some back-to-basics curriculum elements such as handwriting may prove more beneficial than we first thought.

Minority Toddlers with Autism May Be More Delayed than Affected Caucasian Peers

From Medical News Today

The first prospective study of ethnic differences in the symptoms of autism in toddlers shows that children from a minority background have more delayed language, communication and gross motor skills than Caucasian children with the disorder. Researchers at the Kennedy Krieger Institute concluded that subtle developmental delays may be going unaddressed in minority toddlers until more severe symptoms develop.

While the prevalence of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) does not differ across racial and ethnic groups, some studies have shown that children of African American, Hispanic and Asian descent are less likely to receive an early diagnosis of autism than Caucasian children. In this new study, Dr. Rebecca Landa, director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger Institute, investigated whether the symptoms of autism in toddlers play a role in this disparity in diagnosis as part of her work to improve access, education and outreach to minority communities.

“We found the toddlers in the minority group were significantly further behind than the non-minority group in development of language and motor skills and showed more severe autism symptoms in their communication abilities,” says Landa, whose study included children and parents of African American, Asian and Hispanic descent. “It’s really troubling when we look at these data alongside diagnosis statistics because they suggest that children in need of early detection and intervention are not getting it.” (Visit this online discussion with Dr. Landa for more in-depth information.)

The study, published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders (Epub ahead of print), examined development in 84 toddlers with ASD at an average 26-28 months of age using three standardized instruments that evaluate child development. Children were evaluated by their caregivers using the Communication and Symbolic Behavior Scales Developmental Caregiver Questionnaire (CSBS-DP CQ) and by research clinicians using the Mullen Scales of Early Learning and the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule-Generic (ADOS). After controlling for participants’ socioeconomic status, all three tools indicated a significant difference between minority and non-minority children.

Previous studies published by Dr. Landa and her colleagues at Kennedy Krieger show that detection of ASD is possible at as early as 14 months of age. While early diagnosis is crucial for accessing intervention services, studies examining children from minority groups suggest considerable delays in the diagnosis of ASD in these children relative to their Caucasian peers.

Dr. Landa points to cultural differences in what communities perceive as typical and atypical development in young children, the relationships between families and respected community physicians, and the stigma that some cultures place on disability as areas where education and awareness could have meaningful impact.

“Addressing cultural influences gives us a clear target to improve service delivery to minority children, but these findings may also suggest biological and other culturally-related differences between Caucasian and minority children with autism,” says Landa. “There are other complex diseases that present differently in different ethnic groups and more research is needed to investigate this possibility.”

The findings of this research prompted Dr. Landa and her team to begin a study that will document the age at which minority parents first noticed signs of developmental disruption in their children, the specific nature of the behavior that concerned them, and the children’s intervention history. Additional research is also needed to study group-specific differences in the presentation of autism symptoms between a variety of minority groups.

“Although questions remain on why these differences exist, by taking steps to develop more culturally-sensitive screening and assessment practices, with a special focus on educating parents, clinicians and health educators, I believe we can empower parents to identify early warning signs and ensure minority children have the same access to services as their Caucasian peers,” says Landa.  

Good Handwriting and Good Grades: FIU Researcher Finds New Link

By J. Prenaud, writing for FIU News

Who cares about handwriting, anyway? It’s the 21st century, after all. We have iPads and iPhones, computers that spell check and fonts that go from French script to Freestyle and back to Times New Roman.

But to Laura Dinehart, an assistant professor at Florida International University’s College of Education, handwriting matters. A lot.

In research funded by the Children’s Trust and soon to be published in the Journal of Early Childhood Education and Development, Dinehart discovered that 4-year-olds who demonstrate strong handwriting skills are more likely to excel academically in elementary school. Research on the importance of handwriting is just beginning to emerge, and Dinehart’s findings establish a new link in understanding how penmanship plays a role in a child’s academic development.

We talk about reading, we talk about math, but no one talks about handwriting,” Dinehart said. “It’s not even a subject area in many classrooms anymore. We don’t ask kids to spend time on their handwriting, when in fact, the research is clear that kids who have greater ease in writing have better academic skills in 2nd grade in both reading and math.”

Dinehart took a sample of 1,000 2nd grade students in Miami-Dade County Public Schools and linked their grades and academic scores back to the information gathered from them when they were still in pre-kindergarten.

Students who received good grades on fine motor writing tasks in pre-k had an average GPA of 3.02 in math and 2.84 in reading – B averages. Those who did poorly on the fine motor writing tasks in pre-k had an average GPA of 2.30 in math and 2.12 in Reading – C averages.

More impressively, those who did well on the fine motor writing tasks in pre-k scored in the 59th percentile on the Reading SAT in second grade (just above average) and in the 62nd percentile on the Math SAT. Kids who did poorly on the fine motor writing tasks in pre-k scored in the 38th percentile on the Reading SAT in second grade and in the 37nd percentile on the Math SAT.

There is still much research to be done, and many questions to answer. What exactly is happening when a child’s academic performance improves when his or her handwriting is practiced? Exactly how much practice is necessary before results are seen?

Dinehart will attempt to answer those questions in the second part of her research. However, one thing is clear.

“People should take a second look at how important handwriting might actually be,” she said. “And public schools should rethink how much they focus on handwriting in the classroom and how those skills can really improve reading and math.”

AD Midd

About AD Midd

AD is a college writing teacher whose work experience includes everything from coordinating YMCA after-school programs for at-risk youth to tutoring developmental writing students to general classroom instruction. In addition to writing professionally, AD currently teaches a range of adult community college students in both online and physical classroom settings. At home, she keeps in shape by running after her two young daughters. Follow her on Twitter @ADMidd and on Facebook (www.facebook.com/ADMidd1)

2 thoughts on “ChildsWork News, Feb. 24, 2012: Spotlight on Minorities with Autism and the Importance of Good Penmanship

  1. I am very troubled about the second article you posted. It stated that the study participants were 4 years old when they were first tested for their “strong handwriting skills”. Now as a parent of 5 boys and a teacher with more than 20 years of classroom experience, I can assure you that very few boys (and some girls) are not ready for the fine motor skills required to physically take pencil to paper at the age of 4. In fact, research has shown that most boys do not develop that level of skill until 8-9 years old. I am worried that this article will encourage parents to force their children into developing writing skills too early. Please, don’t make this a battlefield – especially with your sons – these things will all come in time. Remember that the GPAs shown were from second grade – not college. Let’s keep this all in perspective and let our kids be kids. :)

    • Hi Donne,

      Thank you so much for your perspective on handwriting and boys. I agree that often (especially in the last decade or so) we rush into “early intervention” with children (especially boys) who don’t live up to the arbitrary milestones we have set. I am fiercely protective of my own children’s childhood and chose their schools based on the amount of play vs. instruction given at a young age (my focus was on the former!).

      More than anything we all need to start a dialogue about what we really want for our children and try to work past labels that cause more harm than good.

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