Reading, Texting, and Arithmetic for Special Needs Children

While on summer vacation as a child in the middle of the last century, I would pass booths along the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, NJ, where hucksters would proclaim their ability to accurately evaluate any personality by examining handwriting. Sloppy or tidy text, large or small font, left- or right-leaning, dotting i’s and crossing t’s, for example, were alleged to represent telltale signs about the kind of person you were.

Today, ‘graphology‘ continues to be a skill offered by trained professionals who scrutinize calligraphy to expose weaknesses, point out strengths and certain personality traits. There are even computer algorithms that claim similar results. Information may be used by the legal system and employers to better determine veracity, aptitude, and job success.

According to Wiki, the earliest reference appeared in “The Confessions of Saint Augustine” AD 401… For those first lessons, reading, writing and arithmetic, I thought as great a burden and penalty as any Greek.” The original phrase “the Three Rs” came from a speech made in 1795.

Handwriting has thus been included in the necessary skill set that any educated person should possess. Well, it’s the 21st century, and we need to revisit that requirement.

When calculators arrived, they were eschewed by an older generation, who claimed that, “If you were stuck on a desert island without a calculator, what would you do?” Of course, the answer was that, if you were so marooned, you wouldn’t need to cypher, you would need to survive! The point as regards mathematics, is that the concept needs to be understood – that 7 is greater than 5, and that 5 apples do not necessarily equal 5 oranges.

What about memorizing times tables? It’s basically the same issue; there is a larger concept that requires comprehension. If you don’t conceive of 12×12 = gross, you will have a difficult time ordering parts, making a budget, or figuring if you have enough money to buy a Big Mac and fries. Entire skill sets are based on math; from plumbing, to painting, to architecture, to all scientific pursuits. Understanding math is a basic necessary skill, handwriting is not.

An argument could possibly be made about reading being an archaic competency, as well. After all, computers can now read aloud, and podcasts and audible books are ubiquitous. Such reasoning will certainly rankle traditionalists. I am an avid reader, so believe me, I see holes in this line of thinking.

Most patients who experience fine motor difficulties, whether as a result of their autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, or various other physical challenges, find that they are terrible at handwriting. Practice, Practice, Practice. There is no pill for dexterity. If there were, we would all take them, and learn piano! But, what if you don’t want to learn to play an instrument? Should you be forced to, and will it make you anything but a terrible musician?

When my son taught Special Education to 5 and 6 year-olds, we would speak about the struggle that his students were experiencing as they tried to fit into a conventional academic experience. Later, while trying to instruct 10 and 11 year-olds, however, capitulating to the usefulness of typing became the logical choice. The child’s self-esteem would improve and the frustration of managing this skill would disappear.

Watch people use a keyboard nowadays. Some use their thumbs, poke with one digit, stab with two fingers, utilize the old qwerty touch-typing method, point with a stylus, and even talk into a machine that turns voice into text. How well would a 50-something do on a job interview, if thumb-texting were the required skill?

The only ‘C’ that I received throughout my academic experience was for handwriting, when I was in third grade. My cursive was – and still is – nearly unreadable.

You know what? My mom said that I could still be a doctor. She was write right (no thanks to my spell-checker).

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Brian D. Udell MD
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