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