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Walters, Shannon. Valuing ASD Students. RTE, May 2015. Posted 06/23/15.


Walters, Shannon. “Toward a Critical ASD Pedagogy of Insight: Teaching, Researching, and Valuing the Social Literacies of Neurodiverse Students.” Research in the Teaching of English 49.4 (2015): 340-60. Print.

Shannon Walters examines the experiences of students with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS students) and students on the Autism Spectrum (ASD students) in college writing classes. (She notes that many autistic people prefer the “identity-first rather than person-first language” [357n4] and uses this nomenclature throughout her article.) Walters argues that many of the difficulties these students face derive from the failure of educators to listen to them and incorporate their insights about themselves into classroom practice. A more productive learning environment for these students, Walters contends, will involve rejecting stereotypes, not least by redefining what is accepted as “social.”

Walters sees current research on the effects of autism on college students’ experiences as sparse, with what does exist seldom including the points of view of the AS and ASD individuals being studied (340-41). Problematic approaches in the education literature include a tendency for teachers who believe they have encountered autistic students to engage in diagnosis and discussion of the students without engaging the students themselves in exploring their needs and perceptions (341):

Discussions about ASD become stories about how teachers heroically accommodate students perceived as on the spectrum, rather than about how self-identified ASD students navigate largely neurotypical writing classrooms in the face of unacknowledged challenges. (341)

To address the lack of research that takes into account the actual voices of these students, Walters conducted a case study of two self-identified AS students enrolled in first-year writing classes in the program in which Walters taught. Walters provides a detailed account of her study design, including semi-structured interviews and coding, and her role as a researcher guided by the tenets of critical disability studies, which recognizes disability as a source of possibility and requires the recognition of people with disabilities as crucial agents in policies and conversations about them (342, 345). Such an approach, Walters argues, can lead teachers to “value writing practices and pedagogies that encourage socially neurodiverse ways of writing” (342). Valuing neurodiversity, in turn, leads to a recognition of disability as a source of “insight” (342). In service of this goal, the case studies asked how the students “characterized themselves as writers inside and outside of the classroom,” how they perceived their first-year courses, and what the decision to foreground their insights could tell educators about pedagogical best practices (343).

Although Walters’s student participants, Jen and Jon, both enjoyed writing extensively outside of the classroom. they “struggled” in their first-year writing courses (347). Jen took her course in a summer session, while Jon, who had been homeschooled since third-grade, took his individually in a modified format with a university teacher (345). Walters records each student’s definitions of “language” and “normal,” as well as their definitions of AS, which they consciously chose in contrast to what Walters describes as the tendency of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to “subsume AS into the broader category of ASD” (346). The definition of neurodiversity as “social acceptance of neurological difference as part of the broad landscape of human diversity,” from the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN), highlights the view that adhering to rigid definitions of “normal” that define difference as deficit precludes valuing the possibilities inherent in difference (346).

In Walters’s view, the “process or stage writing model” accepted widely by composition teachers did not serve the two students well. Jen found the pace of the summer course troubling and fell behind, although she ultimately passed. Jon resisted writing about issues that did not interest him and “just filling in details” as required by mandated revision (347-49). Walters argues that the process model labels different ways that individual students work as abnormal (349). She posits that her participants’ difficulties “differed not necessarily in kind but in degree” from those most students face (349).

To emphasize the degree to which the process model affects neurodiverse students’ activities as writers, Walters contrasts their struggles in the courses with the writing they enthusiastically pursue outside of the classroom. In each case, Walters explores how the students’ preferred writing activities functioned as the kinds of critical and social literacies composition teachers hope to encourage. Jen hosted both a private and a public blog addressing different audiences, wrote extensive fan fiction, and had made considerable progress on a novel (351, 354). Jon, who planned to major in geography, developed diverse community contacts “on his own terms” in order to create a local history and branch into a piece of historical fiction (352). Walters finds that the kinds of writing in which these students chose to invest their efforts and at which they succeeded did not meet what she views as the limited definitions of “social” and “critical” that governed classroom assignments (353-54). For example, Jen did not feel as if topics like anime, science fiction, and fantasy in which she was interested qualified as suitable for a rhetorical analysis of popular culture (354). Jon’s “lists of dates and maps” inspired his more extensive writing but, in Walters’s view, would not have been accepted as valid activities in a first-year writing class (355).

Both students, she argues, lived in rich social worlds that simply differed from those built into a process-model classroom. Thus, the perception that ASD students are “unconnected and asocial” did not capture these students’ achievements or personas (354). Not only did the students’ activities define them as good writers and demonstrate that they could interact with a range of audiences, recognizing the different uses of writing in different situations, their work also revealed their critical engagement with the power relationships embedded in the public conversation about AS and ASD, the kind of engagement called for by writing pedagogy (354). Walters recommends supporting the diverse ways that neurodiverse students meet the expectations of college writing courses, for example by a range of adjustments to the typical curriculum and scheduling of process pedagogy. Writing communities like Jen’s fan-fiction communities can become topics of discussion and study for students for whom they offer a more receptive writing environment (356). Instead of assuming that ASD students are limited in their abilities to respond socially, teachers can develop their own social responsiveness through activities like “rhetorical listening” (Ratcliffe, cited in Walters 357), which will foster the “social acceptance of neurological difference” (ASAN, qtd. in Walters 351), valuing rather than reshaping the particular forms of interaction and creativity that such students bring to writing classes.

Author: vanderso

I'm a recently retired associate professor of English in Southern Indiana. I've been teaching writing for twenty-five years, but I feel I have much to learn about how people really learn to write. In this blog, I'll be sharing research and thoughts and hopefully gathering information from others about the process of learning to write.

2 thoughts on “Walters, Shannon. Valuing ASD Students. RTE, May 2015. Posted 06/23/15.

  1. This post is fascinating, and it demonstrates the need for teachers to embrace a diversity of approaches to teaching. We should never assume that one way to teach material will fit all students. We must be flexible in our teaching–always.


  2. Reblogged this on Never Less Than Everything and commented:
    An interesting read addressing neurodiversity in the college classroom.