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Writing and Autism: I vs. One

One of the challenges for autistic writers is the artificial nature of "academic perspective" in college writing. Instead of the concrete "me" and "you" of other genres, academic writing uses the distant, artificial, and abstract, "one" — or nothing at all. Academic writing avoids the first- and second-person point of view vigorously.

  • Emphasizing the personal instead of the general, leading to a "first-person" perspective when inappropriate to the genre

Readers of this series of essays will recognize that abstractions pose a problem for many, if not most, students with autism spectrum disorders. Since a diagnostic criteria for ASDs is concrete thinking, writing teachers need to resist the impulse to "fix" the autistic perspective. Instead, I argue that it is academia with the problem, not the students.

Writing and literature classes discuss the "constructed author" (or some variation of that phrase). The notion that the "persona" of a writer is artificial bothers me — and many autistics. When I write, I am not somebody else. I am always me, period. Yet, writing pedagogy doesn't accept my perspective. Sometimes, the resistance to the autistic experience is outright aggressive.

I've been told, "Of course you're playing a role. That's what writers do." No. That is not what I do.

Some writing scholars compare the persona of a writer to an online profile. Ironically, last night my wife reminded me that I might have too much information on a profile. I am me, even online.

From my dissertation:
[The] concept of an "invented self" conflicts with autistic conceptions of self and identity (Baron-Cohen, 1995; Baron-Cohen, 1999; Baron-Cohen, 2000; Frith, 2001). As students with ASDs have difficulty with role-playing, an issue addressed earlier in this project, the notion of creating an alternate self is likely to be problematic as well. I have observed that the social naiveté of students with ASDs includes not understanding why people would exaggerate or omit information from online profiles. If anything, it is possible that students with ASDs are too open and honest (Hane, 2004; Wolf et al., 2009).
When we discuss authorial persona, it is a discussion of ethos and credibility. Consider the word author leads to "authority" — a position of power, a command over the subject at hand. For an autistic writer, the only perspective from which I can speak with authority is my own. I'm not going to overstate or understate my qualification on that: I am me, so I know my motivations and intentions when I write.
To fully address the value of online persona in pedagogy, it is essential to define what constitutes "persona" in composition. The persona of a writer is both the image the author intentionally attempts to create and what each reader infers. Though the author normally asserts control over his or her persona, the reality is that no two readers reach the same conclusions about an author. This can be considered a negotiated, social understanding of the persona (D. Selfe, "Collaborating with Students," 2004).

Again, though, we find that individuals with ASDs are confused by notions of creating or negotiating an identity, a problem mentioned by most of the memoirs by individuals with autism. These individuals simply "are" themselves, unable to analyze with any ease how their actions create perceptions of identity. Without the ability to reference "self," there is little ability to consider "the other" in a writing or speaking context (Attwood, 2007; Frith, 2001; Nazeer, 2006).
College composition teachers, and academic writing in general, embrace the notion that being "apart from" or "distanced from" the topic of a paper gives the author more authority. To me, that's simply ridiculous. If I'm reading a paper by a distinguished scholar, his or her use of "I" or "me" is going to enhance the paper, not distract from the content.

I'll be blunt: writing that uses "one" and other rhetorical gymnastics to avoid "I" and "you" is annoying. It is absurd and reflects only the biases and stupidity of academic writing. Yes, stupidity. Does "one" really hide the "I" from a reader? Of course not. In fact, it draws attention to the artificial, stilted nature of the writing. It is as annoying as the overuse of a thesaurus to impress readers.

I use personal pronouns. If that means my works will be rejected by some journals and publishers, so be it. I'd rather be true to myself than to academic traditions.


  1. Interestingly, I'm a PhD student in natural sciences, and in my field, we use "I" and "we" a lot... "I propose..", "Here we did..." are commonplace and accepted. So I think its field specific. Though I was taught that you never use I/we in academic writing, so I've had to break myself of that habit...


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