Disability Studies · Pedagogy

Autism Spectrum Disorder in the College Composition Classroom

Autism Spectrum Disorders in the College Composition Classroom by Val Gerstle & Lynda Walsh
ASDs in the College Composition Classroom, Gerstle & Walsh

Upon a colleague’s recommendation, I recently picked up Val Gerstle and Lynda Walsh’s edited collection, Autism Spectrum Disorders in the College Composition Classroom: Making Writing Instruction More Accessible for All Students. It’s an edited collection from comp instructors’ 2005 4Cs presentations about autism and Asperger Syndrome, published together in 2011. According to the introduction, the essays are “based on personal experience and corroborated by current educational and neuroscientific literature on ASD” (8). Throughout, the essays adopt different attitudes toward disability, ranging from the medical (e.g. “we need help from scientists”) to the social (e.g. “we need to change our classroom practices that stigmatize or isolate particular students”). In some ways, I think this is due to the dated nature of the essays: we know a lot more about autism in 2012 than in 2005 (and many of the authors, admittedly, knew very little about autism or ASD), but there is also a lack of disability studies background or attention to important DS work. This inattention becomes clear when we see repeated references to Temple Grandin as the (only) epitomic example of a “successful” autistic person and the representative figure of DS.

Gerstle & Walsh divide their book into two sections: accommodation and pedagogy. Although a lot of my own research interests fall into accommodation issues, these first chapters are largely intended to

  1. outline information about autism and ASD,
  2. identify some general issues that students with ASD may face in the comp classroom, and
  3. provide some statistical information and medical theories about ASD.

Many of these introductory chapters rely on statistical and scientific information, which immediately places the discussion within a more medical model, despite important claims. In the first chapter, Marcia Rubble claims that we must be prepared to work with ASD students because freshman comp is often at the front lines of undergraduate education—an important argument (15). To support this, though, she relies on the fear-based rhetoric propagated by organizations such as the CDC and Center for the Study of Autism, which warn that “the problem [of autism] could quickly become one of geometric proportions” (17, italics added). She also sides on the much-contested argument that comp instructors must have “expert” knowledge to work with ASD students: “Just as teachers in the K-12 system who work with students with special needs must have training to work with those students, I believe the same situation exists when we work with special needs students in college” (26, italics added). This is a good example of the dated nature of the arguments in this book. A DS perspective would contest the claim that instructors need to be disability experts in order to teach all students, and many readers can likely recognize that terms like “special needs” are outdated.

As mentioned, the collection is a mix of experience and secondary educational/neuroscientific information. Because of this, much of the research in the collection is limited to a) personal experiences that are difficult (yet easy) to generalize for others and b) medical-model knowledge. Katherine Wills’s chapter combines case study data and discourse analysis, but—with page constraints—we see very little of the actual research process. In her conclusion, however, she does offer some helpful general tips:

  • Pedagogy of the body (Offer instructions in multiple media),
  • Institutional (Create an inclusive campus culture),
  • Ergonomic (Make classroom spaces accessible),
  • Feedback (Provide clear and positive feedback in multiple forms), and
  • Tools & technology (Encourage multimodal technologies and activities). 40-42

In the next chapter, Walsh & Olman make it clear that they are approaching their chapter from a neuroscientific perspective, providing information about functional MRIs, mirror neurons, and neural connectivity. This focus, again, emphasizes the physical & neurological differences of students who seek accommodations.

Within the accommodation section, the most useful chapter for me was April Mann’s discussion of autism and the writing center. It is immediately clear that Mann is adopting a DS perspective as she acknowledges “it is not in understanding differences that we will make our greatest strides” (46); rather, “progress will come through learning to understand commonalities and through developing and promulgating strategies which acknowledge and encourage the abilities of the students in the AS population” (46). Part of this progress also comes in understanding that writing centers are equipped to help all students, not just particular students. Mann demonstrates that even though tutors may not be ASD experts, writing centers are by their very nature suited to help students with autism—such as breaking assignments down into more manageable parts (53), helping students establish their assignment goals (53), encouraging focused intellectual engagement (56), dialoguing about essay topics & interests rather than about the students themselves (59), using both verbal and nonverbal cues to convey meaning (60), and employing counter-questions to both promote understanding and show interest in the student’s ideas (61). According to Mann, the writing struggles that face students with AS—understanding audience, different writing choices, and when to ask for help—are problems that face all students (68). This is an important reminder: it is the pedagogy, not necessarily the accommodation, that deserves our focus.

After reading the accommodation section, which focused more on medical-model perspectives than I expected, I anticipated the pedagogy section to have more social understandings of disability generally and ASD in particular. For the most part, this rings true. Many of the authors in the second half focus on personal classroom experiences and observations that have worked for all students—ASD included. Like the previous section, though, there are mixed feelings about how exactly to work with a range of students and a hesitancy to jump into a fully DS-influenced pedagogy.

Kim Freeman starts the pedagogy conversation with her two experiences teaching students with AS, talking in-depth about her classroom experiences with these two individuals: one admittedly a failure and the second a more classically-textbook success. What’s interesting about this chapter is what Freeman asks about (self-) disclosure: “How do privacy and disclosure interact in the experience of AS students in college classrooms?” (96). For her, the vague letter from Disability Services coupled with the lack of college-level disability resources results in an inability for instructors to work effectively with ASD students. Ultimately, she argues that despite the possibility that instructors could prejudge students based on their diagnoses, “it is also necessary for teachers to be prepared and have some understanding of AS before students with that diagnosis arrive in their classrooms. The difference needs to be made visible” (97, italics added).

On one side, Freeman is advocating that we emphasize student difference. On the other, Freeman makes a good point: college instructors don’t often get the same kind of disability-related professional development opportunities that K-12 instructors do. And though I don’t agree with Freeman’s conclusion that differences need to be emphasized, I do agree that college instructors need to have more resources for working with students with disabilities or, for that matter, working with any student that fits outside the idealized “normal” student. Part of this solution, I think, is rethinking pedagogical practices to be more inclusive to different bodies, learning styles, strengths and weaknesses. This isn’t a groundbreaking solution, although it is surprising that Freeman doesn’t argue it—particularly because her chapter kickstarts the pedagogy section.

The other chapters in this section are more directly pedagogically focused. Val Gerstle makes a nice argument for using cartoon-centered pedagogy to lighten up student anxiety and writer’s block (99) and to engage visual learners (101). This pedagogy can range from analyzing a cartoon to comparing & contrasting different cartoonists to using political cartoons as support for political essays. What I find most engaging about Gerstle’s argument is what extends beyond the cartoon-centered classroom: “All students, including those with ASD, should be allowed an assortment of activities in any given class period” (111). This means providing students with opportunities to draw, to do group work, to read and write in class, and to learn using multiple modes and media. This also means remaining “flexible and open to changes in scheduled activities” (112), a key component to an accessible pedagogy. Muriel Cunningham makes a similar argument about visual images, replacing the focus on cartoons with print ads, which can be used as prompts for freewrite, objects of analysis, and texts for teaching larger concepts (i.e. describing small details in order to compare and contrast).

The final chapter discusses AS and plagiarism; specifically, the difficulty that students with AS may face when asked to integrate outside sources. According to Muriel Cunningham, incorporating sources can be difficult because students with AS want clear instructions, but there are many “grey areas” of plagiarism (138) that make it difficult for an instructor to provide students with a consistent script that shows students what is and isn’t plagiarism. The tendency to interpret language quite literally combined with overt attention to detail and errors can also make it difficult for students with AS to choose the right quotation or to make outside sources fit within the ideas of their own essays (140). Cunningham suggests the use of summary to help (all) students learn to integrate other people’s ideas with very small chunks of text. This solution is a great example of scaffolding: the student starts with very small pieces of outside writing, slowly building up to paraphrasing and direct quotations.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there is no conclusion to this edited collection. The authors all have such different topics and widely varying opinions about ASD and disability generally that it’s difficult to make connections about the collection as a whole. I do think there are some valuable take-away points, though:

  1. Comp instructors need to be aware of increasing numbers of students with ASD and disabilities in their classrooms, not to treat them differently, but to recognize that our students are diverse and have different learning needs that we must respect and address.
  2. Disability is not something to be feared. Many statistics warn that autism is increasing, hitting closer to home, infiltrating our once-undisturbed classrooms. This is an othering attitude that should be addressed in training, professional development, and comp scholarship.
  3. We can learn a lot about teaching diverse student populations by reading disability studies scholarship. Perhaps the most surprising part of this collection about disability was its disassociation from the great work of DS. Drawing from DS would have strengthened the claims of these authors and unified the collection, making it a bit more useful.

Above all, it’s important to highlight an under-mentioned point here: Teaching students with ASD is not about teaching particular students differently; it’s about creating pedagogies that include all students and their different learning needs, struggles, and abilities.


Gerstle, Val, and Lynda Walsh, eds. Autism Spectrum Disorders in the College Composition Classroom: Making Writing Instruction More Accessible for All Students. Milwaukee, WI: Marquette UP, 2011. Print.

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