Autism & Writing

There are many good articles in the May CE besides my measly one, but one that stood out to me in terms of personal experience is the first one, Ann Jerecic’s “Neurodiversity.” She discusses, among other related issues, how to approach teaching academic writing with a student that has Asperger’s.

First – I’ve had students that match the definition of Gregory, her anonymous student. For one in particular, an excessive attention to details, rules, prescriptions – anything that enabled an analytical approach to writing – worked quite well. Once the rhetorical problem had been placed in a box, so to speak, and transformed into a mathematical equation of sorts, then some very readable writing emerged. There was still something off about it, a whiff of something overtly constructed – but that is a common observation about J. Random Freshman. There is a hint – a strong hint – in her article that the old C-T models of teaching writing are actually appropriate for this kind of student.

Second – a bit of an aside: having read some of Temple Grandin‘s writing (she is used as an example in the essay), I have to say I like her style quite a bit. The gaps work for me. Sometimes I don’t even notice them as she is so relentlessly linear – transitions, for her, are largely superfluous, in a Patrick O’Brian sort of way – it’s more about the flow than the water. If I didn’t have a ‘high-functioning autistic’ label to fall back on, I would call her writing passionate and driven. If she were a student of mine, I would, of course, suggest she make some of those connections explicit, and maybe combine some sentences with the same idea in mind, but it wouldn’t be for me; it would be for other readers. (And I would add that in the paragraphs Jerecic uses from Grandin, what better way to explain her associative way of thinking than by example – given it is, admittedly, the topic at hand?)

Third – I have been informed more than once – jokingly and not jokingly – that I am probably have Asperger’s. I didn’t dismiss it out of hand, but read up on the topic a few years ago to consider the possibility. And it’s true – I can be incredibly focused, working all day and night on a single problem. I can also be socially ineffective at times, to the point of being tongue-tied at a simple hello. And I can think almost exclusively in logical terms on highly inappropriate occasions, using strictly literal interpretations of language.

But I can also be incredibly lazy, getting nothing done and drifting from task to task, even highly interesting tasks (this post is a great example, as I am delaying a lengthy email on a completely different topic by writing here). I can visit with friends and family and carry on conversations with strangers. I can definitely react, quite frequently, without any recourse to logic whatsoever. And I adore metaphors, rhymes, and other such linguistic acrobatics.

So I cannot be simplified to a label – and this is a state that I would extend to others. No one can.

This brings me, obliquely, to the climax of Jurecic’s essay, where she seeks a “middle ground” and cautions against the extremes of, on one hand, classifying all students neurologically, and on the other, discounting all biological considerations. One of the key ideas I got from researching the subject is that there is a spectrum to Asperger’s and autism, and not necessarily a linear one; in other words, there is no typical set of symptoms. We can’t just point to anyone and say, “They have Asperger’s,” and then look up and apply the appropriate pedagogy – an ironically analytical solution. This idea lies behind Grandin’s Genius May Be An Abnormality – a mere label can block off possible educational routes, as well do hell for self-esteem.

So we must end up where we began, really – treating students as individuals, as new and different cases every time, as much as we might think, rationally, that we see recurring patterns of behavior that would allow us to put students in tidy boxes. We have to constantly fight the call to generalize and abstract our charges, even in a large classroom. Her quotes from Shaughnessy recognize, quite glibly, I think, that the problem at the college level is certainly not too much individual attention or that we know too much about writing. And in that sense, her article is about much more than its single-word title implies.

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