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Kopelson, Karen. Workplace Guides for ASD Individuals. CE, July 2015. Posted 07/30/15.

Kopelson, Karen. “‘Know thy work and do it’: The Rhetorical-Pedagogical Work of Employment and Workplace Guides for Adults with ‘High-Functioning’ Autism.” College English 77.6 (2015): 553-76. Print.

Karen Kopelson examines workplace advice guides designed to help adults on the autism spectrum enter the workforce. She argues that, in the process of explaining how such adults can reinvent themselves to meet workplace demands, these guides underscore worker traits that fit a capitalist ideal, presenting ASD workers* as perfect embodiments of this ideal; they diverge from disability-rights agendas in advising ASD adults to downplay or even reject their identity as a disabled person; they participate in the American narrative of individual accomplishment and personal responsibility; and they disseminate an implicit but very visible rhetorical education in ways that shed light on tensions between composition and disability studies.

To illustrate these claims, Kopelson draws on Amazon rankings to select recent and/or prominent examples of these texts. With the exceptions of works by Temple Grandin and Kate Duffy, which she includes because of their prominence, she focuses on guidebooks published since 2010 in order to understand how the most recent research and terminology are presented and employed by these books (555-56).

Kopelson notes the disproportionate attention given to children with autism-spectrum disorders, suggesting that a recent proliferation of workplace guidebooks reflects the fact that once these “children grow up,” their lives will intersect with the larger culture, in particular the job market (553-54). The books, she contends, direct their arguments to multiple audiences: to ASD individuals and their health-care communities but also to employers, who may not recognize that the supposed deficits that accompany an ASD diagnosis are actually the kinds of qualities employers should value (554). Among these traits are the ability to focus, to be absorbed and satisfied by repetitive tasks, to concentrate on work rather than social interaction (558-60), to work long hours and accept “internal motivation” (560) in lieu of high wages, to remain loyal to an employer: in fact, to define themselves, as Grandin does, by the work they do (561).

In Kopelson’s view, the worker thus constructed is the capitalist “fantasy worker in possession of qualities valued most by contemporary workplaces” (571). At the same time, she illustrates through examples from several texts that in order to succeed in workplaces that continue to be structured around neurotypical expectations, ASD individuals must remake themselves, taking it upon themselves to “adapt” and “fit in” (564).

Kopelson includes examples from many of the texts under study that demonstrate the ways in which this adaptation is predicated on attention to the rhetorical principles of “imitation, delivery, invention, and, especially, to audience and context” (564). Foregrounding books by Barbara Bissonnette, Kopelson detects a pedagogic focus on eliminating the “hermeneutic deficiency” that makes autistic individuals struggle to “objective[ly] and accurate[ly] . . . interpret” situations and people (Bissonnette, qtd. in Kopelson 567-68). This exhortation to read workplace audiences accurately and objectively, Kopelson writes, seems at odds with Bissonnette’s insistence that “meaning comes from context” (qtd. in Kopelson 566). Bissonnette’s pedagogy involves providing examples and heuristics that ASD individuals can use to gauge audience and context as they work to overcome the “mindblindness” that dominant depictions ascribe to them and that reportedly prevents them from understanding others’ perspectives (559. 567-69).

In Kopelson’s view, larger issues emerge from her study of how rhetorical principles in line with much implicit composition pedagogy are used in the workplace guides. Among her questions is whether rhetoric is “inherently normative” (566), imposing pressure to match external standards of propriety, in the process engaging in the “the manipulation of subjectivity itself” (566). Kopelson, citing Paul Heilker and Melanie Yergeau, sees in this function a tension with a view more in line with those expressed in disability studies that “autism is its own ‘way of being in the world through language'” (qtd. in Kopelson 571). Kopelson compares this view of autistics’ methods of intersubjective interaction with other examples of difference in language and with efforts within composition studies to both expand students’ linguistic capacity and value their home languages (572). Kopelson further considers competing views as to whether mainstream rhetorical pedagogy like that practiced in the workplace guides can in fact transform ASD individuals in the ways Bissonnette and others envision or whether entirely new methods of rhetorical education must be invented to meet the needs of autistic students (570-71). Ultimately, Kopelson calls for more study and analysis to understand the intersections of ASD individuals with the larger culture, while urging composition scholars to recognize the realities that have fueled the proliferation of guides like Grandin’s and Bissonnette’s:

And so, while our field may be invested in such notions as “rhetorical accommodation” ([Jenell] Johnson 476, [qtd. in Kopelson 572]), or a “revised” and “expanded understanding of rhetoricity” ([Cynthia] Lewiecki-Wilson 157, [qtd. in Kopelson 572]), and while we may be committed to . . . facilitating access to languages of power while valuing languages of culture or nature, we need to be aware that pedagogies far more public and powerful than those of writing studies, or of higher education at large . . , conspire to ensure that neurotypical and other monolithic norms of language and selfhood are sustained. (572)

*Kopelson notes that the preferred choice of major disabilities-rights groups like ASAN (Autistic Self Advocacy Network) is “identity-first” language rather than the “people with” language often used by the guidebooks  (556-57; emphasis original).


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.