Towards a socio-cultural, non-deficit perspective on academic writing by Canadian university students with autism

Detailed Description of Proposed Research Project (3 pages maximum)


The proposed project draws on cultural-historical psychology (e.g., Vygotsky, 2012/1934) and writing studies (e.g., Bakhtin, 1986; Miller, 1984) to inform the investigation of academic writing as experienced and produced by Canadian undergraduate university students with autism*. The research project poses the following overarching research question: What are the academic writing experiences as reported by undergraduate university students with autism and how does our understanding of these experiences feed into the development of a socio-cultural, non-deficit perspective on such students’ academic writing? The ultimate objective of the project is to provide theoretically grounded recommendations that would allow for further development of academic supports for such students, and, thus, for the increased accessibility of higher education for students with autism. The proposed pioneering project moves away from the traditional deficit view of autism (e.g., Baron-Cohen, 1999; Happé & Frith’s, 2006) by drawing on socio-cultural theories (e.g., Bakhtin, 1986; Miller, 1984; Vygotsky, 2012/1934) to tap into university students’ own accounts of their academic writing experiences and investigate features of their academic writing. The purpose of the project is: a) to develop a rich theoretically-informed understanding of such students’ academic writing experiences, supported by the identified features of their academic writing, and b) to draw on this understanding to initiate the development of a new socio-cultural non-deficit perspective on academic writing by university students with autism. The project intends to provide a novel contribution to the currently limited body of knowledge on academic writing by university students with autism. As well, the project promises to have important pedagogical implications by informing the design of targeted academic writing supports for students with autism, which will be developed in collaboration with university centres for students with disabilities.


Autism is a complex, neurodevelopmental disorder, currently characterized by “persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013, p. 50)**. In the past two decades, increasing numbers of students diagnosed with autism have been entering post-secondary institutions (e.g., Gelbar, Smith, & Reichow, 2014). Developing proficiency in academic writing is key to these students’ academic and, later, professional successes (Delano, 2007; Brown & Klein, 2011; Brown, Johnson, Smyth & Cardy, 2014), and the investigation of their academic writing experiences is necessary for both the development of a new theoretically-informed perspective on writing by university students diagnosed with autism and for building tailored academic writing supports for such students. So far, several cognitive theories have dominated the study of individuals diagnosed with autism: a) Theory of Mind (ToM) (Baron-Cohen, 1999); b) Executive Dysfunction Syndrome (Hill, 2004);  c) Weak Central Coherence (WCC) model (Happé & Frith, 2006), and d) a more recent Enhanced Perceptual Functioning Model (Mottron, et al., 2006, 2013). Overall, these theories posit that some of the challenges experienced by persons with autism when communicating with other people relate to their difficulties with understanding the mental states of others and with appropriate focus, planning, working memory, and organizational skills, as well as their focus on details rather than overarching ideas or concepts. To date, the studies of writing by individuals with autism have drawn on the cognitive perspectives reviewed above. The main emphasis of these studies has been on the deficits in the writing produced by children with autism (e.g., Brown, et al., 2014; Maxwell, Weill & Damico, 2017; Myles & Hagiwara, 2003). Several features of these children’s writing have been identified, such as a relative lack of awareness of the readers’ needs and an overabundance of detail at the expense of overarching concepts (cf. Baron-Cohen, 1999; Happé & Frith, 2006). However, very few studies to-date have examined academic writing by university students with autism (e.g., Brown & Klein, 2011); addressed the role of the social context in forming such students’ academic writing; focused on academic writing experiences as reported by the students themselves, or explored positive qualities which may be attributed to their writing. With the growing number of higher-functioning individuals with autism entering universities (e.g., White et al., 2016), there is an opportunity to explore such students’ own perspectives on their experiences with written academic communications. This exploration requires that researchers move away from the deficit view of academic writing by such students towards a new, non-deficit perspective that allows for the conceptualization of the effects of the social contexts on the academic writing by and writing experiences of these students as articulated by the students themselves (cf. Artemeva, 2005, 2008; Artemeva & Fox, 2010). Such socio-cultural theories (Vygotsky, 2012/1934) of learning and writing as Situated Learning (SL) (e.g., Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Rogoff, 1990) and Rhetorical Genre Studies (RGS) (e.g., Artemeva & Freedman, 2006, 2015; Bakhtin, 1986; Miller, 1984), which highlight the role of the social context in human learning in general and in learning to write for specific purposes in particular, provide a solid theoretical foundation for the proposed project. SL is defined as a perspective on learning that views learning as context-bound and occurring when people participate in ongoing activities (e.g., Artemeva et al., 2017; Freedman & Adam, 1996; Lave & Wenger, 1991), and RGS is defined as an approach to the study of recurrent and recognizable types of writing and speaking, or genres, wherein the concept of genre has been expanded from a classification category of stable forms of literary texts according to their formal features, to a more dynamic view of genres as typified responses to rhetorical needs of the audiences as determined by recurrent social situations (e.g., Bawarshi, 2000; Miller, 1984, 1995; Paré & Smart, 1994). The novelty and strength of the proposed framework lies in that it incorporates considerations of the social context into the examination of how writers experience writing, perform writing tasks, and what they actually write (e.g., Artemeva, 2005, 2008).

*In writing this proposal four years ago, we used person-first language, but we now use identity-first language which is recommended by the autistic researchers on our team.

**Similarly, we used this deficit-based definition from the DSM-5 when we wrote this proposal four years ago. We would now use a neurodiversity-based definition of autism such as autism is part of the natural diversity of human experiences, including strengths and weaknesses as are found in all people.