Autism and Writing: My Struggle
“I am a terrible writer.”
That was my message to myself and was it any wonder because that was the message of others to me.
So while I cruised through my math classes, I held on for dear life in my English courses.
Okay, in fairness, I was an honors student and took Advanced Placement (AP) English in high school. It’s just that it took everything I had to keep up and I now realize it should never have been that way.
But I didn’t know that then.
Diagnosed with autism as an adult, of course, my teachers had no idea I was autistic, so they didn’t know either.
Even still, the issue wasn’t that I couldn’t write. It was that no one was helping me with the few tips that could have righted my world, because again, who knew?!?!
My teachers in high school were outstanding. To them, though, I was an anomaly. So smart and yet, so uncoachable. I would listen, try, and fall short. And I did it again and again.
They would tell me I needed to vary my sentence structure. So I would change out all the words in my sentences without changing the structure at all. What the heck is this stuff and nonsense about sentence structure? I had no idea what they were even saying. Can you believe not one of them ever gave me examples??? And it never occurred to me to ask???
The rules of grammar and punctuation were nothing more than morse code for who knew what. Not me, that’s for sure. I put commas where I paused and hoped for the best. Now, periods at the end of sentences I could totally handle.Go me!!
Research papers. Ugh!! Anyone else dread research papers? Think you dreaded them as much as I did? Think again.
My high school had a very defined way to write research papers. There was a set series of steps. We had to :
- Chose a topic.
- Develop a thesis.
- Make detailed notecards in a particular format.
- Draft a formal outline (you know what I mean, all those Roman numerals and stuff!).
- Write several drafts before turning in the final paper.
Being honest, none of that process meant anything to me. Nothing. In fact, rather than helping me organize my thoughts, I felt buried in chaos. Why the heck did writing a paper require all those steps? Why didn’t they at least use steps that helped you go from the picture in your head to organized, powerful words on a page???
I did the best I could. I wrote my paper, then went back and did all the other steps. Writing research papers became outstanding practice in the art of reverse engineering. You may not find this impressive. Consider, though, that I had to have the paper written before the first deadline for notecards.
It stunk to be me if the teachers decided to change the assignment along the way. That meant the rewrite of a completed paper.
My ideas were never the problem. My teachers took points off my papers for the same errors everytime:
- I didn’t vary my sentence structure. I started my sentences with subject openers. In an opinion paper, those sentences generally began with “I.”
- I wrote using way way too many passive verbs.
- I couldn’t master the organization needed to drive home the points I was making.
A Cry for Help!
So one day, finally tired of being a smart kid who just could not improve, I approached one of my teachers. I told her of my problem. I explained that I did not understand the organizational structure of an outline.
“How,” I asked her, “do you reduce everything to this outline? When everything is interconnected, how do you separate it back out to make such a simple list?”
AAAhhhh! My teacher’s whole face changed, and she began to draw on the board. Hopeful, I watched her drawing come to life.
She drew something along these lines:
A word web. Super simple. Super organized, right?
Then why did I want to cry?
Rather than clarifying what I should be doing, her drawing clarified that she didn’t understand the problem. “That,” I told her, “is nothing more than a picture of an outline.”
“YES!” she excitedly replied, “see, you get it!”
No, no, no!
Defeated, I looked at her when she finished. She was not understanding the problem at all. What she was envisioning and what I was envisioning were totally different.
She explained to me that this visual would no doubt remove my confusion. While my frustration grew, she looked very pleased with herself. So I picked up the chalk (okay, yes, we still had chalk not dry erase boards because, yes, I am that old!) and connected all the bubbles in the web. The picture in my head looked more like this:
(I stopped drawing connecting lines on the graphic before I connected all the points, but you get the idea. (The network in my little head looks more like the picture at the top of the post!))
She thought I was going from loose ideas to a simple outline. I was trying to go from a NETWORK of interconnected ideas to her simple outline. We were so not in sync!!!
Let’s step aside to take a look at that again, shall we??
Check this out: She thought I was going from lose ideas and information to an outline:
I was trying to go from a NETWORK to a simple outline:
My teacher was trying to help me put things together, I was trying to take things apart!!!
Okay, back to the point!
Having completed my drawing, I felt like she had a few moments prior. I felt as though I had adequately explained the issue and would now get a great response. Instead, my teacher stepped into my shoes and looked dismayed.
So then I asked again, “How do I reduce this web into a web like the one you drew?”
It turns out, she had no way to describe to me how to simplify the information in my head to match her little drawing. She now seemed to understand that the problem was not that I didn’t see the information the same way she did.
She had no answer for me. No solution. No idea how to help me. In fact, she mumbled something and all but ran away.
And so I continued to walk around in the dark thinking I was dumb for years to come.
Finally, while in college, someone told me to reorder my ideas. They said that if I did so, my points would be more clear. They gave the example of swapping the order of the paragraphs. There was just something about the way it was said that made total sense to me. (Happy sigh!)
One problem solved.
With the advent of word processors (YES! I am so dating myself with this post. I am THAT old!), I could cut and paste to my heart’s content. Cutting and pasting helped me arrive at the order that best served to drive home my arguments. I felt like a girl in a dressing room, I could try on everything and see what fit best!
My second problem was solved while homeschooling my kiddos. Several of my daughters were “gifted” with my inability to see the rules of punctuation. I finally bought the most in depth, difficult grammar curriculum I could find.
Because by this time, I had realized that surface level information did not serve me. I needed immersion. If I needed immersion, maybe my daughters did also. (To read more about my need for lots of information on any given subject, you can read my post, “Autism and School: Down with the Blurb!”)
And so we began a dreadful, but fruitful journey into the wonderful world of grammar. I don’t yet have all the rules memorized, but I finally get it.
As for the complexity of the network in my head, I don’t think I will ever be able to translate that into an outline form. I am in awe of those who can. Good for them.
I struggle to understand how to break the seeming interconnectedness of all the ideas in my head. Taking a step back to my high school year, I tried (very creatively!) to use appendices to connect all the extra information that didn’t fit the outline format. My teacher, because she was no dummy, quickly put an end to my foray into appendix writing. She tried again and again to squish me into the box of writing conformity. Bless her sweet heart. I am pretty sure she retired frustrated….
First this, then that – such a linear system. I never did get it. This difficulty interests me as I autistics report that they life by “If Then” rules. Just another side note….
Enter the World Wide Web
(YES, YES, YES, I AM OLD! ). Now, I can write in a network!!!
And I love it!
Because I can create a whole interconnected world of my ideas – appendix free. I can link all kinds of “stuff” my teacher would never have allowed me to link. If I don’t have time to do it right away, my mind seems satisfied that I could, if I wanted to come back later and link more.
The joy of writing is finally mine.
I’ve had to overcome some bad habits and that took practice. Practice I didn’t enjoy, but if you want something bad enough, you can do it. My teachers never did come to understand me, but I totally believe that after the day at the chalk board, they respected me.
The message I used to tell myself about being a terrible writer? I rewrote it. (For more about the importance of the messages in our life, check out my post, “Dear Autistics: Society’s Message Is Wrong & What You Can Do About It.”) Now, I tell myself:
“I am a good writer.”
Better yet, I enjoy writing!”
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