Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Writing and Autism: How We Teach Writing

As I've been blogging about writing and autism, I have encountered a few books on the same topic. To be blunt, these don't strike me as particularly insightful. In fact, some of the articles and books on autistic students and writing only further the rote memorization of patterns (the dreaded "Five Paragraph Essay") that are used to assess writing for various standardized tests.

I'll be the first to suggest that I use patterns and guidelines when I write. But, when the emphasis is on the patterns instead of the content, the wrong lesson is being taught to students. I appreciate that students should understand the genre conventions; grades and test scores matter. Yet, we are letting the conventions become checklists for grades, instead of rewarding creativity and insights.

Yes, autistic students have insights and are creative. All students should be striving for creativity and new insights. The problem with inflexible grading rubrics is that students start to produce what meets the metrics, no matter how often teachers claim to want something more. Students are smart, and they will tailor their efforts to precisely what they assume will earn an "A" grade or passing test score.

We teach writing badly, and we get badly written papers as a result.

The books about autistic students and writing skills fall right in line with the rubric-obsessed, test-centered focus of education "reform" at the moment. Memorize the rules, mimic the models, pass the class. And the sad reality is that this approach will be successful for many, if by "successful" we only care about the grades and test scores.

I do believe in grades and organic, assignment-specific, rubrics. I do believe there are "A" papers and there are "D" (or worse) papers. But, as a writer I know that I could never apply the same rubric to a Shakespearean play and a modern screenplay. I could not apply the same criteria to Jane Austen as I would to Hemingway. I would not grade a science paper by the same criteria as a literature paper. Yes, it is a cliché, but good writing teachers can recognize good writing when they read it.

Do I grade grammar and mechanics? Do I insist on at least modest adherence to formatting conventions? Yes, I do, because students need to succeed in other courses. But, I also reserve the right, as a writing teacher, to shift my grading to the student and to the specific assignment. I do not want my students to write in a single, dry, academic style.

Autistic academic success in some fields has been attributed to our pattern-based skills. As concrete thinkers, many autistics do well in math, science, and technical fields. But the best writing isn't formulaic (and academic writing, in my view, is often horrible prose). The sole question shouldn't be how to apply patterns to the writing process, but we should ask ourselves how to help all students, including autistic students, harness their inherent creativities.

We cannot avoid teaching conventions, but maybe we should ask how to expand the teaching of writing to challenge these same conventions.

It's all much more than a single post can address, and there seemingly are contradictory ideals for writing teachers. In a book chapter (or more), I might be able to elaborate. For now, consider this metaphor: Composers learn music by first memorizing notes, scales, and common chords. Memorizing the foundational skills for writing is analogous. But, eventually, a composer moves beyond what has been done to create something new. Writing, called composition in our schools, needs to allow and encourage those moves beyond the basics. The problem is that taking chances, bending the rules, might not "score well" on standardized metrics.

In the end, this challenge goes back to audience analysis. We have to teach students to recognize when to adhere to the rules, and when to ignore them and embrace their creative impulses.


  1. Can you recommend any sources/methods for learning to write? I always struggle to communicate via words. As Temple Grandin puts it, "I don't think in language. I think in pictures."

  2. Any good book on writing applies as much to autistic writers as others. Writing, especially academic writing, is intimidating. It is a specialized form that is privileged by an elite group (educators).

    Myself, I suggest people just write. Keep a journal. Post to websites. Send emails. Every time you write, you are practicing the skills. I have dozens of journals, and I know those journals help me improve my skills.


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