Autism and Keyboard: Typing

Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) struggle to express themselves in speaking and writing. Communication challenges can range from mild to severe. For example; one child with autism may speak fluently with an impressive vocabulary and another might be completely nonverbal. Some learners say the same word over and over, and others repeat a series of sounds, or the speech of others, a condition known as echolalia.

But experiencing difficulties with speaking does not necessarily mean an individual with autism cannot understand, process and use language in order to represent their own thoughts, it may just be he or she doesn’t have the ability to express what’s inside. That’s why it can be useful to explore alternative forms of communication, such as typing. Typing can help verbal and nonverbal individuals with autism learners as well as those who struggle to write by hand.

Autism can build a wall of poor communication between those struggling with the condition and their families. While a personal computer and keyboard can help bridge the divide, the distraction and complexity of a keyboard can be an insurmountable obstacle.

The story of Carly Fleischmann is the most well-known case of autism and typing. Fleishmann was a ten-year-old girl who had been nonverbal for much of her life when she first tried typing. To the surprise of her family, Carly ran over and typed out a message explaining she was feeling pain and needed help. During that time, her family did not know that she could spell.

Until that point, her therapists had not been aware of her literacy skills or actively taught her keyboarding. Carly quickly began to master the basics of typing and to carry a computer wherever she went, using it as her primary means of expression.

Through typing, Carly found her voice and today she uses it to run a forum on her website that offers advice to families of nonverbal people on the autism spectrum who are struggling to understand and help their loved ones. She also co-authored a book in which she shares her experiences and thoughts about being a young woman with severe autism.

Carly’s story is important because it teaches us that the communication difficulties of individuals with autism do not necessarily reflect a lack of mental activity or emotions. Being aware of this intellectual complexity can help family members provide support through engaging environments that introduce activities and strategies which help children with autism learn and thrive.

Speech Impairment

In certain cases of autism, verbal communication is impaired because of apraxia of speech. Apraxia is a motor skill difficulty that makes it hard to plan and coordinate the muscles of the mouth, throat, and face. Unlike in dysarthria, in which speaking is a problem because of low muscle tone, apraxia is about the signals sent by the brain to plan speech acts.

For this reason, individuals with apraxia may be able to say a word correctly one minute, and not the next. They can also have trouble with the prosody of speech, find longer words with more syllables challenging, and mix up the order of sounds in words, so that speech is no longer intelligible. In severe cases of apraxia, a person can misspeak or attempt to speak and have nothing come out.

Handwriting Difficulties

When writing skills are impaired, it may be due to either dyspraxia, a motor skills difficulty that makes it hard to write by hand, or weakness in the muscles of the fingers, wrist, arm, and hand. Like apraxia, dyspraxia impacts on an individual’s ability to perform fine and gross motor skills. This means it can make it hard to walk with a normal gait, play sports, brush one’s teeth and even use a pen or pencil to write. If writing by hand is painful for someone on the autism spectrum, you might try offering rubber pencil grips or thicker writing instruments, such as big markers that are easier to hold.

If the issue is to do with muscle weakness, some parents have tried having children with autism play with Play-doh, or paint or write on a vertical surface, such as an easel or paper taped to a wall. Early letter formation might also be facilitated by providing a paper with larger letter shapes. In this way, they can be traced over and over again until the movement pattern is acquired.

Learning through repetition is a recommended strategy for children with autism. It is also commonly advised to have individuals who struggle with dyspraxia learn how to touch-type because pressing a key is often easier than struggling with letter formation.

Typing Ways That Can Help Individuals With Autism


People with autism may feel trapped inside their bodies. They can have a lot they want to say but they are not always able to express these thoughts and feelings so easily. When speech and handwriting difficulties impair a child’s ability to communicate, it can become frustrating, demotivating and cause additional stress.

Typing is thus an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (ACC) technique, a way for people with autism to get their thoughts out, so others can understand. When instruction is provided, the process of typing itself becomes more fluent. Language is expressed on the screen and text-to-speech technology can be used to provide the child with a way of talking through the computer. Some people with autism carry tablets or smartphones with them in this case. They might also have small laptops or other portable electronic devices that have a keyboard that can be used to type.

Reading Skills

An individual with autism may be able to pair letters with sounds to spell and read in a fluent way. Typing with a phonics-based approach can provide an additional opportunity to enhance phonemic awareness through repetitive drills, and to build sight-reading skills without requiring a speaking component. This is as opposed to most phonics-based literacy programs that require spoken responses. This makes it harder for them to be used by nonverbal learners with autism.

Writing Skills

Some learners with autism have trouble with writing because of a desire to create perfectly formed letters and sentences without any errors. This “perfectionist” drive can cause anxiety and stress when writing by hand and is one reason why autistic students may enjoy writing on a word processor where language can be presented in a neat way and errors are easily corrected using a delete key.

Fine-Motor Skills

Learning to type can help children and adults with autism spectrum disorder develop their fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, particularly if the program they learn on is multi-sensory. It may take them longer to master the movements in typing and some learners may decide not to use a traditional or two-handed touch-typing approach but they will still benefit from regular practice at the keyboard.

Attention Skills

Sitting down to regular sessions at the computer can help with focus and concentration, especially when lessons are broken down into bite-sized steps that can be repeated as necessary.

Computer Skills

Computers are often a preferred learning tool for individuals with autism. There are a number of reasons for this. For example; computers provide visual input, don’t require social interaction, offer structured and predictable experiences, and learners with autism spectrum disorder who have sensory issues can adjust settings to ensure they are comfortable. Typing opens up access to more computer-based learning programs. It also helps learners with autism provide written responses and generally facilitates ease of use and comfort at the computer.

Sensory Processing

Some people with autism find it difficult to regulate their sensory system but rhythms can often be helpful, including music or the rhythm of typing out the letters in a word.

Tips for Teaching Individuals With an Autism Spectrum Disorder

  • Connect typing with literacy: Before beginning a program of typing you may want to demonstrate Text-based Aided Language (TAL), depending on the severity of the autism. This might mean using phone screens and typing to spell out words in context and offering written words as options that can be pointed to by the learner.
  • Find the right program: You will want to use a program that restricts distracting graphics and limits games that could be off-putting to a learner with autism who finds the sensory experience overwhelming. You also need to be able to adjust the settings, including volume levels, visuals, and any speaking prompts that may be included. Ideally, a typing program will include a reward system and provide some form of automated feedback.
  • Set up a typing routine: Choose a time of the day that works for the individual and set up a schedule, such as typing every other day in the early afternoon. You may even want to include in your routine the number of modules a student attempts to complete. It is important to keep an eye on progress and to end a lesson before the learner becomes tired and begins to make mistakes, which can be demotivating. For this reason, you may wish to start with shorter sessions and increase your time gradually, as skills develop.
  • Create a suitable environment for practice: Find a room with the right lighting, set-up, and temperature in which a learner with autism can feel comfortable so he or she will not be distracted by sensory issues that can affect attention to typing instruction.
  • Ensure lessons are step-by-step: It can be overwhelming for a learner on the autism spectrum to take on longer lessons, particularly if he or she struggles with a perfectionist drive and is attempting to master a level with 100% accuracy. Short, bite-sized lessons allow for repeated practice.
  • Let them take their time: Processing time can be longer for a student with autism, or they may simply need to decide for themselves when they are ready to move on. The best programs for learners on the autism spectrum are self-directed so users can repeat and review as needed and move through the material at their own pace.
  • Make sure they are comfortable: Sitting at the computer for long amounts of time can be difficult for some people with autism so it may be worth encouraging them to get up and move around.
  • Provide a reward system: This could be in the form of positive feedback or points earned within a program. It may also be that parents offer a favorite activity, object or experience following the typing lesson. Building positive associations can help encourage long-term success.

Swiftkey Symbol: Keyboard for Individuals With Autism and Other Non-Verbal Users

SwiftKey has a new keyboard app: Symbol. It is not a conventional QWERTY typer, but a visual-based system, aimed at non-verbal people with an autism spectrum disorder, and others with special needs. They wanted to build a free app that could help people with learning and talking difficulties communicate with their caregivers and others with similar difficulties. Of course, image-based communication tools for people on the spectrum aren’t new. But SwiftKey’s Symbols is uniquely different.

Symbols open up a different way for non-verbal people to communicate. It is particularly geared towards youngsters with autism, who may struggle with social interaction. Swiftkey has combined its predictive language keyboard tech with a range of hand-drawn everyday symbols in order to ensure speedy access to the right image at the right time. In general, a small team of SwiftKey staff, some with experience with autism in their families, came up with the idea.

A lot of the current communication tools are too slow to select a particular image. A small team of SwiftKey’s staff realized that SwiftKey’s core prediction and personalization technology would be a natural fit. It learns from each individual as they use it. Only SwiftKey Symbols attempts to simplify finding the right symbols through machine learning. It complements routine-based activity and learns from each individual’s behavior to surface images relevant to them quickly.

One key feature is that it factors in the time and day of the week. For example, if the child has a music class on Tuesdays at 11:00 am, and has previously selected symbols during that time, these will appear as predicted symbols.

If you have someone close to you who might benefit from using SwiftKey Symbols or just want to try it out yourself, go ahead and download it from the Play Store without any hesitation. It will be very beneficial.

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