Are your eyes listening? That's what needs to happen to hear my writing voice. Because of autism, the thief of politeness and friendship, I have no sounding voice. By typing words I can play with my life and stretch from my world to yours. I become a real person when my words try to reach out to you without my weird body scaring you away. Then I am alive.
–Excerpt from Are your eyes listening? Collected works by Sarah Stup
This quote from Sarah Stup's book reminds us how important writing can be to individuals with autism in their quest to connect with others through means beyond oral communication. It is a relevant quote for this issue of Topics in Language Disorders in which Issue Editors Matthew Zajic and Kristie Asaro-Saddler have recruited four articles devoted to writing instruction and interventions for children and adolescents diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Written language can offer a bridge between the interior world of a young person with ASD and the complicated society in which they live and, what is most obvious through this collection of articles, can and should be a focus of more research and intervention efforts in this population of students.
The first article presents a comparative case study of two adolescent boys with contrasting diagnoses—ASD and oral and written language learning disability. Zajic, Dunn, and Berninger (2019) administered a comprehensive psychoeducational battery to the students and found intra- and interindividual diversity of their learning profiles and their response to an intensive and comprehensive computer-administered writing intervention in which all levels of language and multiple aspects of writing were addressed. The authors’ results highlight the importance of carefully designing writing instruction for students with ASD who, as the young man in this study did, often respond in unexpected ways or use unconventional ideas when writing. Moreover, they remind readers that instruction shown to be beneficial for students with language learning disabilities likely will require thoughtful adaptations to be used successfully with students with ASD.
The second article by Asaro-Saddler, Ellis-Robinson, and Eacker (2019) presents a fascinating qualitative study in which biographical poetry is used as a vehicle for summarizing historical content information by students with ASD. The highly structured nature of the bio-poem format greatly facilitated the summarization process for the three middle school students in the study. Perhaps more importantly, qualitative analysis of discourse during the instruction and of elements included in the bio-poems showed how students used social cognition, written expression, and disciplinary literacy skills to learn from and interact with historical information, aspects of thinking and creating that may not be readily attributable by some practitioners to students who belong to this population.
The third article by Pennington and Carpenter (2019) presents a set of five recommendations for teaching writing to students with ASD and complex communication needs (e.g., due to comorbid intellectual disability) derived from a small set of studies using (a) cognitive strategies instruction and (b) systematic prompting techniques. These recommendations include teaching skills within a meaningful context, organizing instruction around predictable routines, employing technology-based supports, teaching explicitly, and using self-management strategies. They note, given the paucity of writing research in this population, that practitioners often will have to rely on knowledge of writing instruction for students without ASD as well as established practices for teaching skills other than writing to students with ASD.
The last article in this issue presents interview data from a small number of special education administrators about scaling up implementation of writing interventions for students with complex communication and learning needs, including students with ASD. Sturm, Asaro-Saddler, and Nitzel (2019) rightly recognize the important roles of supervisory and administrative school personnel for addressing the writing challenges of students with complex needs—these personnel often set agendas and policies, allocate resources, and “rally the troops” (i.e., the front line policy implementers—educators) to implement broad systemic changes to instructional services and supports for children with disabilities. Sturm and colleagues use an implementation science framework to design and analyze the results of their study, which is a unique and important contribution. Using this framework, they identified key barriers to effective implementation, such as lack of awareness that change in instructional practices is warranted and pervasive negative perceptions about the writing developmental capacity of students with complex communication and learning needs, as well as facilitators of implementation, such as a clear vision for scaling practices accompanied by a strong shared set of convictions.
Although the available research on writing and ASD is quite limited at this time, the authors of the set of articles in this issue are moving the field forward in important ways. This is critical to the success of individuals with ASD and complex communication needs and the teachers and other service providers who work with them. Given that approximately one in 59 children is diagnosed with ASD (Baio et al., 2018), much more obviously needs to be done to make sure these students have access to high-quality writing instruction that is evidence-based, that is adaptive to their unique learning profiles, and that capitalizes on the ways in which writing holds communicative power for individuals who might otherwise go unheard.
—Gary A. Troia, PhD, CCC-SLP
—Sarah E. Wallace, PhD, CCC-SLP
Asaro-Saddler K., Ellis-Robinson T., Eacker H. (2019). Exploring the effects of a bio-poem writing intervention on middle school students with autism spectrum disorder. Topics in Language Disorders, 39(2), 155–190.
Baio J., Wiggins L., Christensen D. L., Maenner M. J., Daniels J., Warren Z., et al (2018). Prevalence of autism spectrum disorder among children aged 8 years—Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network, 11 Sites, United States, 2014. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report Surveillance Summaries, 67(6), 1–23. doi:10.15585/mmwr.ss6706a1
Pennington R. C., Carpenter M. (2019). Teaching written expression to students with autism spectrum disorder and complex communication needs. Topics in Language Disorders, 39(2), 191–207.
Sturm J. M., Asaro-Saddler K., Nitzel A. (2019). Administrator perspectives on writing instructional practices for students with complex learning needs: A pilot study. Topics in Language Disorders, 39(2), 208–227.
Zajic M. C., Dunn M., Berninger V. W. (2019). Case studies comparing learning profiles and response to instruction in autism spectrum disorder and oral and written language learning disability at transition to high school. Topics in Language Disorders, 39(2), 128–154.