Better at How but Worse at Why: Comparing Writing Produced By Autistic College Students and Non-Autistic Mentors

Poster Presentation
Thursday, May 10, 2018: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Hall Grote Zaal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)
E. Hotez1, A. Riccio2, N. Gaggi3, D. DeNigris4, M. C. Zajic5 and K. Gillespie-Lynch6, (1)City University of New York, Hunter College, New York, NY, (2)Department of Psychology, The Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY), New York, NY, (3)College of Staten Island, Staten Island, NY, (4)Psychology & Counseling, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Madison, NJ, (5)University of California at Davis MIND Institute, Davis, CA, (6)Department of Psychology, College of Staten Island; CUNY Graduate Center, Brooklyn, NY
Background: Although a rapidly growing literature focuses on the social, executive functioning and self-advocacy needs of autistic college students (Gelbar et al., 2014), the writing skills and writing self-efficacy of autistic college students have received almost no empirical attention (Gerstle & Walsh, 2010). This is surprising given that writing is essential for success in college and professional workplaces (“The Neglected R”, 2003). In addition, discrepancies between often high cognitive skills and variable writing skills have been documented since the earliest accounts of autism (Asperger, 1991). Autistic school-age children and adolescents demonstrate difficulties with both transcription and translation abilities (Brown et al., 2014; Griswold et al., 2002; Mayes et al., 2017; Zajic et al., 2016), but the nature of these difficulties is not well understood (e.g., Asaro-Saddler, 2015). Difficulties associated with autism may impact writing skills; anecdotal evidence from one autistic college student suggests that some autistic college students may struggle with writing for an audience due to Theory of Mind (ToM) challenges (Jurecic, 2007).

Objectives: Our primary aims were to determine if: 1) autistic college students face unique writing difficulties and 2) challenges associated with autism, such as difficulty understanding others’ perspectives and/or generating and organizing ideas, contribute to writing difficulties.

Methods: Autistic college students in a mentorship program (n = 27) and non-autistic mentors (n = 14) completed the Social Responsiveness Scale-2; Woodcock Word Comprehension; Reading the Mind in the Eyes, a writing self-efficacy measure (MacArthur et al., 2016); the Test of Nonverbal Intelligence; measures of generativity (e.g., how many uses for a brick and a bottle they could generate in a minute each), a verbal fluency measure (Jolliffe & Baron-Cohen, 2000), and a personal essay, wherein they were asked to share something interesting they had learned recently. A subset of participants also completed fictional (ASD = 19; non-ASD = 7) and persuasive (ASD = 14; non-ASD =9) writing tasks. After obtaining reliability, independent coders blind to diagnosis coded writing samples for perspective taking, contextual information, and elaboration. We used paper.rater.com to assess length (number of sentences), errors (number of grammar errors), and quality (AutoGrader).

Results: Autistic students reported heightened belief in writing conventions (e.g., “Good writers don’t make errors in grammar”), less frequently provided a reason for another’s perspective in their personal essays and fiction, and exhibited better grammar in their personal essays relative to mentors (Table 1; ps < .05). Among autistic students, lower belief in writing conventions and greater word comprehension, generativity, and ToM were associated with higher quality personal essays.

Conclusions: Findings suggest that the writing skills and writing self-efficacy of autistic college students are highly variable; few differences between autistic and non-autistic students were observed. Autistic students reported more perfectionistic attitudes toward writing and produced fewer grammatical errors than non-autistic students. Despite often high quality writing, they exhibited subtle difficulties using ToM in their writing. Low-stakes multimodal writing assignments wherein students can practice generativity and address others’ perspectives through enjoyable activities are likely to be beneficial for autistic college students.