Writing and Autism: Introduction
I have many writing projects on my to-do list, from the April Script Frenzy to my regular tech column for a California magazine. Recently, a special education teacher sent me an e-mail asking about how I write and how she might use that information to help her students with written assignments.
Exploring writing and autism is going to require more than a short blog post. I also don't want to compose an academic paper that would not help parents and students. Please let me know if this series of postings is lacking in some way.
Various books on education and autism cite writing as one of the more frustrating subjects for autistic students (see references below). When I speak to parents, educators, and students, written assignments are the most common academic challenges. Students excelling in math, science, or history find themselves running into a "brick wall" with writing.
In an era of graduation exit exams, the ability to write an essay is essential to earning a high school diploma in many states. Writing requirements can also be barriers to college entrance, with a third of students at many colleges now in remediation courses for which no college credits are earned. Writing, which I do consider essential, is now the "gatekeeper" academic skill: if you cannot write a formulaic academic essay, you cannot earn a diploma or degree.
Autism and Writing
The first question we should ask is if there is an "autistic" way of writing. Normally, I would reject the notion that autistic writers differ from their peers, but there is a limited amount of scholarship suggesting otherwise. Writers diagnosed with ASDs are considered moderate to high functioning. However, having been diagnosed with an ASD indicates social impairments and some difficulties with "theory of mind" conceptions (Happé, 1991, and Roth, 2007).
The issues identified by researchers Happé and Roth are the same most writing instructors identify among struggling academic writers, regardless of the challenges faced by the student. These issues seem to persist longer, however, in the writings of autistic individuals. Also, some of the issues do not seem to "fade away" with time and practice as they do among the general student population. Some of these issues include:
- Lacking organization in essays and papers, often jumping from topic to topic without transitions
- Assuming audience familiarity with information, generally assuming too much prior familiarity with the topic addressed
- Emphasizing the personal instead of the general, leading to a "first-person" perspective when inappropriate to the genre
- Failing to explain conclusions, again assuming readers share the author's experiences and views
- Using figurative language poorly or incorrectly, an issue associated with "undeveloped" metaphorical thinking (and second language learners)
My blog topics will be: organization, audience analysis, supporting arguments, and mastering genre norms. If you have specific questions be sure to ask and I'll try to address them.
I'm not going to repeat my full reference list. The books and articles listed below are my primary sources for what I will be writing over the next few days.
Grandin, Temple. Genius May be an Abnormality: Educating Students with Asperger's Syndrome, or High Functioning Autism. Center for the Study of Autism, 2001.
Happé, Francesca G. "The Autobiographical Writings of Three Asperger Syndrome Adults: Problems of Interpretation and Implications for Theory." Autism and Asperger Syndrome. Ed. Uta Frith. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. 207-42.
Harpur, John, Maria Lawlor, and Michael Fitzgerald. Succeeding in College With Asperger Syndrome: A Student Guide. London; New York: J. Kingsley Publishers, 2004.
Howlin, Patricia, Simon Baron-Cohen, and Julie Hadwin. Teaching Children With Autism to Mind-Read: A Practical Guide for Teachers and Parents. Chichester; New York: J. Wiley & Sons, 1999.
Martin, Nicola. "Asperger Syndrome: Empathy is a Two-Way Street." Neurodiversity in Higher Education: Positive Responses to Specific Learning Differences. Ed. David (ed) Pollak. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2009. 149-68.
Pollak, David (ed). Neurodiversity in Higher Education: Positive Responses to Specific Learning Differences. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2009.
Prince-Hughes, Dawn. Aquamarine Blue 5: Personal Stories of College Students With Autism. Athens: Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2002.
Roth, Ilona. "Imagination and the Awareness of Self in Autistic Spectrum Poets." Autism and Representation. Ed. Mark Osteen. New York: Routledge, 2007. 145-65.
Symonds, Heather. "Teaching, Learning and Assessment: 'It's Not Like You Think'." Neurodiversity in Higher Education: Positive Responses to Specific Learning Differences. Ed. David (ed) Pollak. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2009. 243-68.
Wolf, Lorraine E, Jane Thierfeld Brown et al. Students With Asperger Syndrome: A Guide for College Personnel. Shawnee Mission, Kan: Autism Asperger Pub. Co, 2009.