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Writing and Autism: My Views are not Universal

As I continue this irregularly appearing series on writing and autism, I hope that some readers form connections from some points to others — and reach conclusions about how we might better understand autism's affect on academic writing. This post is a good point to consider a challenge many autistics face when writing:
  • Failing to explain conclusions, assuming readers share the author's experiences and views
A fair amount of autism scholarship focuses on issues of awareness of "self" and "other" when analyzing situations. Many of the instruments screening for autism include measures of how well, and how consistently, an autistic person can evaluate the emotions, needs, and desires of others. But, academic writing asks us to connect to the experiences of others — an impossibility.

Some writing instructors will say, "Don't assume your readers know anything." Of course, that's not really good advice. You have to assume audiences have some previous knowledge. What is necessary is audience analysis to form educated guesses about what readers know and what their experiences might be. It always helps to be specific for students with autism spectrum disorders; all students benefit from clarity.

Audience analysis is not intuitive, especially for autistics.

I only know what I know, and I can only recall my own experiences with any sense of certainty. I cannot understand how people form their viewpoints; my worldview seems "natural" to me. To guess about others is somewhat troubling, disconcerting.

The worst part of academic writing is that it is often a "lie" of sorts. I am rarely going to teach an instructor something new. What most teachers want is to see what I know, comparing that to what I should know. The entire academic situation is a falsehood.

A question to teachers: When have you assigned a written paper and not have a "right" answer in mind? Therefore, the real "audience" is you — the student has to impress you to earn a good grade. You're it. The entire audience, unless there is more than one reader or the teacher isn't the reader.

Teachers don't want me to write to them… but they want me to write to them. It's a complex game, at best, and an absurdity of audience. My audience, therefore is the person (teacher, editor, publisher, producer) who decides if my work is good enough for a decent "grade" in some manner. The reader is pretending to be an audience he or she isn't, and I'm writing for this fake audience. No wonder I get tense when writing academic papers.

My advice to autistic writers? Assume the teacher will feign ignorance of just about anything. Write to that ignorant audience. You can always remove any extraneous details later in the revision process. It is better to overwrite than under-write because editing is easier than adding content.

Start with an outline or brainstorm listing the points you need to make. I outline most long things I write. I even outlined this series of blog posts to ensure I addressed some topics. Learning to outline "just enough" takes practice. A good outline helps you avoid skipping around or skipping important points.

For any claim in the outline, develop a list of supporting evidence you might include in a paper. The list of evidence is what you can refine to the appropriate level for the (fake) "audience" of the writing. I often list silly things that "anyone should know" and try to decide which of those points can be safely omitted.

One model for academic writing is STRESS:
Statement (sometimes a claim)
"Trivia" (factual illustration of the claim)
Supporting evidence, and more
(re)Statement (for emphasis)

[Statement / claim] The federal minimum wage should be increased because inflation is reducing the purchasing power of workers' wages.
[Trivia] While the minimum wage has been $7.25 per hour since 2009, the average monthly rent has increased from $780 to $1050 (The People History, 2012). 
[Reason] As prices increase while wages remain the same, the affect is similar to cutting salaries.
[Evidence] According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Consumer Price Index has increased 8.5 percent between 2009 and 2013.
[Supporting evidence] The minimum wage was last increased by Congress in 2007.
[(re-)Statement, emphasized] The current minimum wage does not reflect the increased cost of living experienced by workers.
A teacher is going to be familiar with the concept of inflation. But, you still need to explain it. The same principal holds for literature, science, or any other topic.

Why do I have to state that William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet in a paper? The teacher clearly knows who wrote the play — he or she probably used Shakespeare's name numerous times in class. But, you have to include the author. On paper, or in a text document, I'd list as many facts about Hamlet and Shakespeare as possible. Any little detail might be important. As I'm listing the trivia, I try not to think too much about the specific assignment title or prompt. If I focus too narrowly, I forget to include details in the paper.

Pretend the reader of the paper has never read Hamlet — even though teacher certainly has! While most teachers don't want a complete summary of the knowledge being evaluated, it never hurts to be prepared. That's true of English literature papers and science papers. Yes, the science teacher knows that the benthic zone is the deepest part of an ocean, but you still need to state the fact to get a decent grade.

In future paragraphs of the above minimum wage example, opposing arguments would have to be restated and addressed in a manner favorable to the thesis. In the example, the thesis of the author is that the minimum wage should be increased to offset inflation. I would ask a student writing such a paper to list all the counter arguments he or she can imagine. I would also encourage the student to use Google, Bing, Google Scholar, and other resources to locate additional counter arguments. You might not be able to imagine what others believe — but you can find it online!

Counter arguments a minimum wage paper would need to address:
  • Increasing the minimum wage increases inflation, resulting in a spiral effect.
  • Increasing the minimum wage encourage employers to hire fewer people.
  • Increasing the minimum wage increases youth unemployment.
  • Indexing wages to inflation raises questions about "which inflation" (Core CPI, Inclusive CPI, or Chained CPI) to use as the model.
  • Analyzing poverty rates reveals that cities and states with higher minimum wages experience no decrease in poverty, nor an increase in the standard of living.
  • Appreciating regional cost of living differences, and existing state minimum wages, make a national minimum wage less meaningful today than it was originally. 
There are many more arguments that would need to be addressed. I always encourage students to use search engines to find other viewpoints.

Writing teachers need to work closely with all students, but particularly those with cognitive differences. Being autistic, being gifted, being different in any way, is a challenge for student authors. Encourage overwriting, and then help the students trim extraneous content.

When I turn to the narrow topic of a paper, I have to consider my viewpoint might not universal. Ideally, my viewpoint doesn't matter. I know writing teachers might cringe at my previous statement, but my "view" of Hamlet doesn't likely matter, nor does my "opinion" of the benthic zone. What matter is my ability to demonstrate knowledge and the ability to analyze information. I've learned that the less opinionated my papers, the higher my grades. (Yes, that contradicts many of the claims made about writing courses. But, reality is reality — focus on facts whenever possible.)

When a paper does ask for opinions and experiences, I struggle to earn the same grades I receive on factual writing. Other autistic students have shared similar experiences with me during interviews. For whatever reason, many of us struggle to express our views without offending others.

Working with other readers, people more experienced with college writing expectations, can help. If a college or university offers writing tutors, a writing center, or other free sources of feedback, then you should become a regular "client" to gain insights. Official writing tutors are students or adults with proven expertise with academic genres. They cannot write papers for you or evaluate papers, but they can guide you carefully towards the areas needing improvement.

Overwrite, to the point there's little doubt material needs to be removed. Take the overwritten paper to the writing center or tutors' offices. If they tell you something should be added, then you haven't overwritten! I always want an editor to tell me things need to be removed; otherwise, I might have left out important information or supporting evidence.

Best of all, writing tutors know the "audience" rules.


  1. Or just realize that high school English is going to be hard but when you write engineering design projects you'll do just fine.

    Yet, both essays are set up exactly the same way.

    Who new???

    Also, just because you spent 4yrs learning about Bernoulli's equation you still have to footnote your first fluids textbook when you take a soil science elective. Just because you know what you are talking about and it's general info to you... you can get in a lot of trouble for it and have to explain to the prof later... Thankfully, all I got was a 50% on the paper.

    I have found with my son, that even the bit of flexibility in thoughts and ideas that existed 25yrs ago, no longer exists at all. For whatever reason, people aren't interested in the argument but instead that the argument agrees with their opinion. That's disappointing in the time of the "internet"...


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