First-year composition (FYC) is one of few required college classes, which means FYC serves a diverse student population. Students are expected to practice and improve their critical reading, thinking, and writing abilities within a 15-week semester, which, theoretically, prepares them for the remainder of their academic written work. Beyond this pressure, there are other factors that make FYC intensive: It is often one of the smallest classes that first-year students take, and it is a fairly intimate class—students choose personal topics, share their work with other students, and work collaboratively throughout the semester. In many ways, these are the strengths of FYC, but these factors can also be downfalls. Because of the highly social and intimate nature of FYC, combined with an increasing number of students with Asperger Syndrome (AS) in postsecondary settings, it is important to brainstorm ways that students with AS can learn best within the FYC context.
Asperger Syndrome (AS) is an autism spectrum disorder that affects how individuals communicate and understand language, empathize with people and events, adjust to changes in environment and routine, and engage with body movements and behaviors (NICHCY, 2010). According to the Autism Society (2011), an AS diagnosis is often mild, and those affected frequently have “good language and cognitive skills.” Though students with AS may have good language skills, these skills are often filtered through social ability and how an individual is able to communicate in social situations. In a FYC classroom, for example, communication extends beyond written discourse, moving into arenas of both formal and informal oral communication (e.g. presentations, discussions, in-class activities, and peer review) that may prove difficult for students with AS. Because of its many characteristics, its relatively new disability status—it wasn’t formalized by the World Health Organization until 1992—and a general inattention to students with disabilities in higher ed, many instructors are unlikely to respond appropriately to AS: Does someone with AS need accommodations? What are the strengths and limitations of students’ learning and writing processes? Should changes be made to the curriculum or class environment?
In terms of college-level accommodations, the needs of students with AS vary widely. Adreon and Durocher (2007) argue that the majority of students with AS require the same types of accommodations as other students with LD, including preferred seating, note-takers, recorded lectures, opportunities to take exams in quieter settings, and extended time for exams (p. 276). In a qualitative study conducted by Smith (2007), he determines that many college accommodations for students with AS are not specific enough to meet their needs (p. 526). Adreon and Durocher (2007) agree, outlining some accommodations that may be more suitable to support the learning needs of students with AS, including course substitutions, permission to avoid collaborative activities, and flexibility in deadlines (p. 276). Because FYC is a mandatory course in many U.S. colleges, course substitution is not a viable option. And, as mentioned above, much of the work done in FYC classrooms—from in-class activities to larger class projects—is collaborative. By recognizing some of the more common characteristics of AS, we can construct pedagogies and classroom environments that support their learning needs.
It can be useful to understand a range of challenges and strengths that students with AS may share in order to gain a better understanding of our students’ needs. Students with AS are often challenged by nonverbal communications, such as gestures and body language, and following social conventions, which can make peer interactions difficult. According to Adreon and Durocher (2007), students with AS often have difficulties with “academic content, organization, time management, and study skills” (p. 274). And in terms of the classroom environment, students with AS tend to rely on sameness, which can lead to “inflexible behavior” when that environment is changed or when something within the curriculum is changed (Adreon and Durocher, 2007, p. 273). To address these challenges and better support learning, writing instructors should pay careful attention to scaffolding. For example, we can provide clearly outlined course schedules, set mini-deadlines within assignments to let students know how they can progress to complete a project, and practice different writing strategies in class.
Students with AS also have particular strengths that can be harnessed within a writing classroom. As Dillon (2007) observes, “Many students with AS are successful in college. They do not necessarily have intellectual or academic disabilities and may demonstrate exceptional abilities. In fact, preoccupation with specific interests has often led to gaining great expertise in a particular area” (p. 500). Here, Dillon transforms a “negative” into a “positive.” Many students with AS are interested in particular things to the extent that they may not engage with topics that lie outside their personal interests. However, this could be a useful trait in FYC because students always choose their own topics within assigned projects. So a student who is really interested in trains, for example, could write a personal narrative, a rhetorical analysis, and a research paper about different aspects of trains.
FYC revolves around rhetoric, and Bitzer’s (1968) conception of the rhetorical situation is always dependent on social context, audience, and individual constraints. No one skill is appropriate for every context; rather, particular skills have strength in particular contexts. It is useful to place students with AS within this context, too, and to think of strategies for developing pedagogies where they can learn best. For Smith (2007), students with AS learn best when schedules are clearly outlined, assignments and activities are explained, and students are given choices about what kind of peer involvement they will have (p. 517). For Madriaga (2010), this idea is articulated through the creation of “safe” spaces that allow students a release from auditory and visual overstimulation (p. 40). These authors suggest both structure and flexibility, which we can translate to the FYC classroom, particularly through multimodal pedagogies.
By promoting the use of different modes—textual, visual, and verbal—to present and create knowledge, multimodal pedagogies encourage students to learn in ways that are most valuable for them. Stein (2008) argues that multimodal pedagogies recognize students as “agentive, resourceful, and creative meaning-makers” (p. 122), which values the differences that students bring to the classroom. Within a multimodal FYC classroom, there are clear expectations and goals, detailed assignment prompts, and structured class activities that allow students to see the connections between activities and projects goals. However, there is also a lot of flexibility that can support different needs. For example, an activity like peer review initially seems like it could be a challenging activity for students with AS due to its intimate, social nature. However, peer review can be done in groups, in pairs, anonymously, through written or verbal discussion, in print or online. Students with AS can engage with the goals of FYC in structured yet flexible ways within a multimodal pedagogy that values difference and diversity, providing students with the options they need in order to learn best.
This video is a pretty cool example of a multimodal, collaborative project created by (British) children with Asperger Syndrome to educate others about AS. It provides a personal, more in-depth discussion of the characteristics, challenges, and strengths of having AS.
Adreon, D., & Durocher, J. S. (2007). Evaluating the college transition needs of individuals with high-functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders. Intervention in School and Clinic, 42(5), 271-279.
Autism Society. Asperger’s Syndrome. Retrieved from http://www.autism-society.org/about-autism/aspergers-syndrome/
Bitzer, L. (1968). The rhetorical situation. Philosophy and Rhetoric, (1)1. 1-14.
Dillon, M. R. (2007). Creating supports for college students with Asperger Syndrome through collaboration. College Student Journal, 41(2), 499-504.
Madriaga, M. (2010). ‘I avoid pubs and the student union like the plague’: Students with Asperger Syndrome and their negotiation of university spaces. Children’s Geographies, 8(1), 39-50.
National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities. (2010). Autism spectrum disorders. Retrieved from http://nichcy.org/disability/specific/autism
Smith, C. P. (2007). Support services for students with Asperger’s Syndrome in higher education. College Student Journal, 41(3), 515-531.
Stein, P. (2008). Multimodal pedagogies in diverse classrooms: Representation, rights, and resources. New York, NY: Routledge.
World Health Organization. (1992). International classification of diseases, ICD-10 (10th revision). Geneva, Switzerland: Author.