Has your son or daughter come home with the following assignment (or some derivation):
Write about your favorite holiday.
If your son or daughter is at all like Nathan, a client I observed at school last week, then you know this story all too well.
You see, when Nathan received this writing prompt in class, he picked up his pencil, jotted down his answer, wrote his name on the page, and put his pencil down. He began to read a book, meander around the classroom, talk to other students as they worked. Then, his teacher asked to see his “essay”. As a former journalism major and someone who is no stranger to the formulaic five-paragraph essay, I had a hunch that Nathan’s answer would be a few words short.
I could almost hear Whitman, Hemmingway, and Faulkner quietly chanting “Dead man walking” as Nathan approached his teacher with his paper. She looked at his paper, then at him, and then said, “That’s it?” “Yes. I wrote about my favorite holiday. My birthday.” “But,” she continued, “what do you like about it?” Nathan cocked his head and said, “Oh, well, that’s easy. My birthday is the same as my Uncle’s. He was born at 1:21AM. I was born at 1:21PM. Twelve hours apart. But, of course, he is much older than me. 43 years and 12 hours to be exact. Every year, my family and my uncle celebrate our birthdays at McDonald’s. He loves a Big Mac, which I can’t stand. The way the lettuce mixes with the special sauce activates my gag reflex. I vomited the first and only time I ever tried that sandwich. That was six years ago. I like the chicken nuggets. I mix ketchup — two packets — with honey mustard — one packet — and dip each nugget three times.” Nathan’s story continued, detailing their dessert routine and the near-fatal peanut allergy year. He talked, without interruption, for close to four minutes.
“Wow,” Mrs. Smith said. “Why didn’t you put that on paper?” Nathan replied, “I can’t.” “Why?” she asked. “I don’t know.” Given Nathan’s almost-five minute monologue, it goes without saying she was a bit confused. To be honest, the difficulties my clients have with writing — whether diagnosed with dysgraphia or not — confound me as well. Ultimately, I think it comes down to how much we all take for granted the intricate, high-order skills involved in the writing process. Even “writer’s block” doesn’t impair the ability to generate, organize, edit, and ultimately put to paper/screen our thoughts.
Given that an academic day is implicitly defined by written/typed output, it makes sense that we consider the reasons why Nathan can (orally) tell us but can’t tell us (in writing). This is a mystery that I work every day to unravel, but here are the roadblocks to writing, as I have discovered:
- Prompts are too vague and assume students will make the appropriate inferences about what is intended. This is what happened to Nathan.
- Questions are too specific, activating the part of an Aspie’s brain that has to figure out the exact, perfect answer in order to complete the assignment. Asking an NT student to write about his “favorite” movie is a quick, almost mindless activity in which our NT searches for the game of the moment and jots a few reasons why. Our Aspie, on the other hand, remembers every game, every detail, every experience and weighs these variables equally. Selecting a favorite means a comparison of the pros and cons, which means figuring out what those pros and cons are. The end result: Nothing is written because it is too hard to pick one. Or, often times, there is no favorite at all. Such a critique is not necessary.
- Prompts are too expansive. There is too much to say and our Aspie simply shuts down.
- Organizing one’s thoughts is impossible. Too fast to write down, too fast to remember, too fast to logically order. I liken the experience to ALMOST rear-ending the car in front of you and then IMMEDIATELY asking you to write about your favorite vacation.
- The Who-Cares? Effect rears its head. The WC?E defined the first year of my undergraduate career, but I made it through regurgitating what the professors wanted to hear. But that’s a theory of mind skill — what I know or think they want to hear — and that is founded on the assumption that I wanted a good grade enough to “lie”. Those aren’t skills that come easily to many with ASD. As a result, the assignment goes incomplete or NHI (not-handed-in).
- The information the assignment attempts to extract isn’t stored in a NT manner. We NTs store facts and figures with emotional content and with a built-in cross-reference system. We reference Halloween with all of our costumes, why we picked those costumes, the meaning of Halloween, that Halloween our neighbor was in a terrible accident, how much candy we typically hand out, what candy we are allergic to, and so on. We emotionally embed and automatically generalize information without trying. When we extract from this system, millions of other thoughts and ideas are triggered. From what my clients have shared, this process is not the same for those with ASD. It appears more isolated and, at best, like dominoes. That is, if they push hard enough on one domino (or idea) they can have some others fall into place. But, it takes the right push.
Snoopy doesn’t offer any additional insight, but he does provide some comic relief and a gentle reminder of the struggles we all share with writing. What are the reasons you have uncovered that make writing so laborious for individuals with ASD?