Saturday, May 7, 2011

Strengthening Little Hands

I'll never forget the big, fat, lump in my throat that used to form as I watched other toddlers and preschoolers joyfully scribble and color.  I used to long for lazy afternoons coloring and creating with my own little girl. I had all the gear: crayons, side-walk chalk, markers, paper, coloring books, stickers. It didn't matter. Even magna-doodle was sadly left untouched and unwanted. 

Do you have a large cashe of unused crayons too? If all the fat, triangular, and ball shaped crayons in the world don't seem to appeal to your toddler either, here's some tips that you can take, tweak, or toss!

Many autists have weak hands, poor coordination, and/or sensory issues making it difficult to hold a writing utensil.  One clue is a refusal to use a spoon/fork. You may think he only likes finger foods; however, his ulterior motive may be that he only eats what does not require using utensils. A second clue is no interest in scribbling by 18 months. If you see these two early warning signs, consider it a red flag that you'll need therapy to strengthen those hands and fingers before he will want to color, draw and write. Don't worry, you don't have to go anywhere or spend a ton of money.  If you have a kitchen table and some play dough, you can do it!
If your child has an aversion to play dough, start by simply getting him to touch it; to poke it. Weeks may pass before he is even willing to do this, so practice everyday, until he does.  Play dough is wonderful because you can either purchase it ready to go or you can make your own and even add oils that can change the scent.  This may encourage him to handle the play dough.  Always use soft dough for play.

Once your child is okay with play dough, form a ball sized for little hands. Ask him to squeeze it in his fist. Don't be alarmed if he doesn't quite have the required strength.  Next, form a ball, set it on the table and ask him to press it, palm down, flat, on a table.  Once again, if he is not strong enough, don't be surprised.  You have clearly identified what you need to work on!  Last, have him poke a formed ball hard enough to make a hole with each finger and thumb.  Do these activities daily, consistency is always key, and increase the number of times that he squeezes, presses, and pokes each day until he has mastered the tasks. Your next job is to increase his play time with the dough so he can mold, shape, stretch, rub, pick, squish, and get his little fingers moving and build strength.

we made hair for our animals

To encourage play with the dough, try incorporating it into his obsessions.  If his obsession is trains, use play dough to make trees, or bridges (for example.)  If his obsession is dinosaurs, use play dough to form rocks and create your own dinosaurs.  You can also use molds or cookie cutters.  Have cutting tools and small rolling pins on hand.  He may not use them just yet, but when he's stronger he may, especially if he has been watching Mom.

As your child's confidence increases, be sure to have markers about the house. They are fatter than crayons and don't require as much work to get a result. They also do not feel waxy in his hand.  Instead of giving him paper, let him marker his plastic animals, dinosaurs, his trains or cars instead.  He may have never known how much fun markering could be until he markered his toys!  Don't worry Mom, most markers are labeled as washable and come right off.  Only do the activity together and at the table. Autists turn everything into a routine and he will know this is always done at the table with you.  As he gets stronger, use paper on an easel, at an angle, or a white board. 

painting plastic animals

 Other activities include using (washable) water color and paintbrushes on his plastic animals, squeezing squishy balls, using a Leapster, teaching him to use the mouse on a computer, 'painting' the house outside with a bucket of water and a large brush. All of these activities continue to build those muscles while improving coordination and they give him control over the type of media he is using. 

using a mouse

The hand strenthening he can get by playing with play dough is practically unsurpassed.  It also improves coordination and fine motor skills while working those muscles and all that playing with Mom helps build social skills.  Clean up is fun when your child gets to dunk all his markered or painted toys in a sink filled with water too!
Here is a link for lots of different kinds of play dough you can make including a basic and gluten-free recipe, there are also recipes for colored play dough, edible play dough and more!

Annie Eskeldson writes for parents of very, young autists.  She has two published children's books, Ashi's Gift and the sequel, Ashi: In a Class all by Myself.  visit

Her own autist was reviled by play dough and did not have the strength to squeeze or smash a small ball of dough until after a year of practice. But by the age of 4 1/2,  she regularly used 4 cans of play dough per week!  She learned to use the mouse at age 4, could navigate the internet by age 5 and finally used her first crayon at age 5. She used markers at school until she used her first pencil at age 6. Now at age 7, she is doing pre-cursive writing, and drawing is one of her favorite activities.  We owe it all to Play Dough!


  1. AnnieEskeldson Added: 09 May, 2011 10:21 pm

    Hey all! Thanks so much for your encouragement!! I have provided all of my daughter's therapy and homeschooling - about 50,000 hours worth as it has been round the clock for years. Jennifer - that is exactly what my daughter did! I used to have to draw for her for hours!! She didn't want to do it, she just wanted me to do it. Now she is becoming quite the artist herself. Thanks again you guys! It means the world to me that you read my blogs! delete

    JenniferFroelich Added: 09 May, 2011 6:54 pm

    That's wonderful! All the attention and time you devote to your child now will definitely be rewarded! When my son was very little, I bought him a MAGNA DOODLE (around $15). He couldn't press hard enough with a crayon or pencil, but since the Magna Doodle works with magnets, he didn't have to press at all to make marks on the board. For a long time, all he did was watch me draw. He would reach over and erase my drawings and tell me to draw again. Eventually he picked up the pen and went to town. He grew to LOVE that thing more than any other toy, calling it his "drawing board." He's now 13 and an Amazing artist! Blessings to you all. delete

    jason_halloway Added: 09 May, 2011 6:36 pm

    Amazing how much your daughter has accomplished all from play-dough. wow. Just great. Thanks for sharing. delete

    r_savadosh Added: 09 May, 2011 11:53 am

    This is so cute.. delete

    Patsy Added: 09 May, 2011 12:51 am

    Annie, have you been doing this with your daughter...and if so, for how long. This sounds very intriguing! Looking forward to possibly trying this out ! :-) delete

    sschell73 Added: 08 May, 2011 9:39 am

    I remember that writing was difficult for me when I started Kindergarten.

  2. BarbaraHutch Added: 10 May, 2011 3:51 pm

    I agree. Amazing how much time you have spent and given your child. Truly inspirational. delete

  3. UK_CHARLIE Added: 11 May, 2011 5:30 pm

    Great Post. Love the "Painting the Plastic Animals". Adorable pic :-) delete

  4. Well done, Annie. Ashi can be so proud of how far she has come with her hand development, and we are so proud of how you have helped her reach these mile stones of development. Both of you keep amazing us! Dad and Cindy

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