Engaging Writers on the Autism Spectrum

Laura Sabella, Ph.D., University of South Florida

A Teacher’s Discovery

Ashley is an 8th grade language arts teacher in a mainstream class. She prides herself on offering myriad fun writing assignments to which most of her students respond enthusiastically, and most students are engaged. However, Ashley struggles to find writing opportunities that engage Ben, a student on the autism spectrum. Ben does not like to write in her class, refusing to even hold a pencil or use a keyboard.  Instead of writing, he wanders the classroom yelling how stupid the writing assignments are or talking about elevators, which distracts the other students and puts Ashley on behavior management alert. All total, Ashley can point to perhaps three or four sentences Ben has produced in writing in her class all year.

And then, in a parent conference, Ashley hears Ben’s mother again mention the elevators about which Ben rambles constantly, and a light bulb goes off.  In class the next day, Ashley assigns a research project about which students will write an essay, and students are given free rein over what they’d like to research. She specifically tells Ben he can write about elevators. She assigns an initial homework assignment of writing a single introductory paragraph for their topic. The following day, Ben returns with five pages of typed writing about elevators, and his mother sends Ashley an email expressing her thanks, stating Ben couldn’t contain his enthusiasm and worked for hours on the project, even though only the one paragraph was due.  

Ashley has hit pay dirt.

The Special Interest Area

Scholars in the field of autism spectrum conditions often call those favorite things about which an individual holds a great deal of knowledge, “special interest areas.”  Unlike with typical hobbies, it is not uncommon for people on the autism spectrum to possess such intricate details and knowledge of a topic that they actually rival experts and scholars in the field. Scholars have also written about special interest areas as ways to engage individuals on the autism spectrum.  

Some special interest areas seem pretty straightforward and easy to incorporate into writing assignments; however, others may seem quite unusual and pose more challenge for a teacher trying to incorporate them into the typical writing curriculum. For example, Temple Grandin, esteemed professor and international speaker, herself on the spectrum, has written about her intense interest in gates, latches, and chutes for herding and containing large numbers of livestock, and from that passion she developed animal husbandry practices used throughout the world.  

Sabella - Autism_GrandinDiagram

Detailed drawing of livestock handling facilities by Temple Grandin (credit: http://www.grandin.com/design/design.html)


Like the elevators aforementioned, this is not a subject that allows a student to successfully address more common writing prompts (i.e., writing about relationships, events, or memories) in most language arts classrooms! How do we incorporate surprising special interest topics into writing assignments?

Getting Creative with Writing Assignments

Greg writes about guitars and heavy metal music, and Travis, the development of video games. Sierra loves next-gen Pokémon, while Jackson writes volumes about NASCAR. All of these topics explored by students on the spectrum seem acceptable for adolescents, and teachers may find an easier time incorporating them into writing assignments. But uncommon topics, like paint brushes or Sesame Street, about which students on the spectrum may perseverate, might be deemed curious or not age-appropriate, and teachers may struggle with incorporating them. How do we allow adolescents to write about unusual topics?

The key is in recognizing the importance of every topic and the more acceptable writing slants inherent in any topic. Thank goodness someone wants to know all there is to know about paint brushes, because we all need good brushes when we tackle painting our bathrooms!  Allowing a student to be an expert is not a bad thing, and assignments can be tweaked to allow that expertise to shine through even while adhering to the intent of the writing assignment. Incorporating special interest areas draws on student-centered writing pedagogies, but asks teachers of adolescents to consider even unusual topics and perspectives. Rather than sticking with preconceptions of what students in general like to write, teachers can embrace an individual student’s topic preferences. Within the principles of Universal Design for Learning, using special interests provides maximum means of engagement in that they optimize a student’s interests, choice, and autonomy; provide relevance and value; and capitalize on authentic writing to promote effort and persistence. We must look for ways to incorporate those atypical topics into typical writing formats.

Take paint brushes and the kinds of writing we might do in a language arts class. Writing about paint brushes allows one to compare and contrast brushes, to chronicle the development of brushes over time, to argue for one bristle type over another, to investigate the people who’ve contributed to paint brush development, to write a narrative (with dialogue) about a time Tom Sawyer didn’t have the appropriate brush for whitewashing the fence, or even to write from the paint brush’s perspective as it sits on President Kennedy’s desk during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  

What about Sesame Street? The children’s show covers a variety of topics through many kinds of characters, all of which can be explored through writing. It can also be examined in more age-appropriate ways for its impact on learning basic skills, for the nostalgia it brings those raised on it, for its place among children’s programming, for its use of advanced puppeteering, for its inclusion of racial and heritage diversity, or for its simple discussions of complex topics. You can see that, with some investigation and creativity on your part, any topic can be made relevant to the writing task.

I and participants in my research have adapted writing assignments to incorporate such diverse and unusual topics as whales, rollercoasters, death by poisoning, Idi Amin, ducks, Call of Duty, the hip structures of dinosaurs, and gear-shifting restrictor plates in race cars, among others. Where the goal is getting students to write in a variety of formats, special interest areas can easily be incorporated.  

Four Tips for Including Special Interest Areas into Writing

  1. Embrace the knowledge your student possesses. We need experts on even the most obscure topics, and students on the autism spectrum often know incredibly complex and intricate details and are motivated to share that knowledge.  As Britton and Moll remind us, our students possess knowledge and have interests that far exceed the confines of our classrooms, and we are wise to draw upon their knowledge as they tackle the challenges of writing.
  2. Be creative with writing assignments. Frontload your own understanding of the special interest and learn more about it to look for areas that fit writing assignments. The more you know about your student’s obscure topic, the better you may be able to incorporate it into writing assignments. Consider various aspects of a topic such as research on it, its development over time, people who have invented or explored the topic, how a topic fits into dialogue, or tangential aspects of a special interest area that might make more suitable writing topics for a purpose.
  3.  Think about the factual side of literature. Sometimes, the affective, emotional part of literature is difficult for some students on the spectrum to appreciate, especially where high social knowledge is concerned. When assigning writing about literature, ask yourself if some aspect of a student’s special interest area is appropriate to explore. When reading about the Holocaust, for example, the tragedy of the human experience may be a bit difficult for a student on the autism spectrum to write about, but the special interest area of trains as they were used during WW2 could be explored with zeal.
  4.  Relate the details to the larger topic at hand. Individuals on the autism spectrum often have intricate knowledge and love of the details of their special interest area, but they sometimes struggle to see the big picture. They often delight in writing stream-of-consciousness type detail without regard for how those details add up to a whole, coherent paper. Be cognizant that you may need to help your students limit some of their knowledge of details for a grander purpose. Use graphic organizers to remind them that they are selecting relevant details to support a larger writing assignment.

A Final Thought

To be sure, there are times when we need our students to explore certain topics in writing, and special interest areas may not always suit those instances. But where we strive to have students fall in love with writing, to develop or extend writing skills, or to research and write extensively on their own topic, special interest areas offer a solid foundation for your students on the spectrum to explore the writing process, just as Ashley discovered when Ben was invited to write about elevators. Imagine what you and your class might learn when students are invited to write about engaging subjects you’d never before considered!

Laura Sabella, Ph.D., is the Coordinator of Secondary Field Experiences at the University of South Florida and a former high school English teacher.  She can be reached at Lsabella@usf.edu

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Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.


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