C. S. Wyatt

Autism and Education

About the Author


With respect to high-functioning autism,
Scott displays a number of salient characteristics.
— evaluation, 2006

I love to learn. That’s why I kept pursuing my graduate education and teaching credentials. Information is out there waiting to be converted into knowledge. Unfortunately, the journey to the doctorate was difficult. Not because I struggled with the work, but because I struggled with the norms and traditions of our educational system.

With many academic pursuits, Scott is easily bored, frequently working ahead. [...] Timed testing became problematic for him secondary to boredom, and behaviors ranged from impulsivity to obsessive answer checking. For the most part, Scott has had low tolerance for the illogical and unscientific.


Our schools, especially our colleges and universities, are not equipped to deal with varied learning styles. Only select university programs are equipped to deal with the challenge of teaching gifted students, which includes many students with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs).

Evolving Definitions of Autism and Me

We are each a product of our time. I was born in the late 1960s. Until the mid-1990s, no student considered “gifted” would also be classified as having various learning disabilities. The diagnosis of “autism” was, in fact, countermanded by a high IQ during screening.

Autism diagnoses are based on observable symptoms. The definition of autism is maintained by American Psychiatric Association within the organization’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM).

“Infantile Autism” first appeared in the DSM-III, published in 1980. In 1987 the DSM-III-Revised added the criteria for Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Not Otherwise Specified. PDD- NOS includes children with “milder” ASDs. The 1994 DSM-IV broadened the diagnostic criteria for autism yet again. By the turn of the century, Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) and high-functioning autism (HFA) diagnoses were becoming common.

Throughout my life, various “personality quirks” had been attributed to everything from attention deficit disorder (ADD) to complex partial seizures. It wasn’t unusual for doctors to suggest gifted people were simply eccentric by nature. In 2006, a neuropsychological evaluation concluded my traits were consistent with autism. Two separate evaluations by a total of four experts have supported this diagnosis.

With respect to high-functioning autism, Scott displays a number of salient characteristics. Facility for social interaction is hampered with flat affect, limited eye contact, and compromises relative to the understanding of subtlety and nuance. Scott encounters difficulty with “theory of mind,” understanding what others are thinking. He is literal in response, experiencing reduced self-monitoring skills, thus, at times, verbalizing impulsively. Concomitantly, cognitive rigidity is evident with a good deal of literalness, misunderstanding of the theoretical and esoteric, and a strong need for logic, structure, and clear patterns. Thus, “gray” situations at all levels can create uncertainty and anxiety. Paradoxically, at the same time, Scott can be highly creative, displaying strong writing skills.


Interests and Skills

There is a stereotype that gifted individuals with AS/HFA diagnoses are drawn to the sciences and mathematics. Though I have pursued an interest in literacy instruction, I also cannot deny my innate abilities involve pattern recognition and mathematics.

Needless to say, Scott displays numerous strengths, being most comfortable with concrete, clearcut, factual material. His long-term memory is excellent. Facility for numerical analysis is quite good, and he does especially well with arithmetic conceptualization. Generally speaking, he is more comfortable with logical technical pursuits, doing well in terms of visual detail, spatial processing, and abstract visual perception. Certainly, his general reading skills are intact, and he displays strong writing capabilities.


Computers have been an important part of my life because they are predictable. I enjoy experimenting with technology, from computer hardware to programming languages.

Personality Quirks

Among the diagnostic criteria for autism are specific personality traits, particularly social interaction impairments. Although I recognize that a lack of social skills is at least an impairment in the workplace, I do not consider introversion necessarily negative. People are, in general, confusing and they tend not to communicate clearly.

Clearly, the social/pragmatic limitations associated with high functioning autism have impacted Scott emotionally. Coping skills, for purposes of allaying anxiety (secondary to misperceptions) have entailed a predictable, structured, and isolated lifestyle. Defensive responses related to control have become quite evident with perfectionism (including obsessiveness) and the need for clear, logical, literal, structured explanation. Thus, through time, Scott has engaged in significant self-criticism and personal questioning.


Educational Credentials

I have a doctorate from the University of Minnesota, a master of arts with distinction from California State University Fresno (a.k.a. Fresno State), and undergraduate degrees from the University of Southern California. My doctoral research projects covered special education laws and regulations, special education theory, and language arts education with an emphasis on written communication. The submission report for my dissertation:

Online Pedagogy: Designing Writing Courses
for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Dissertation / Final Research Categories
---------------------------------------------------
736 : Speech and Rhetorical Studies
810 : Educational / Instructional Media Design
835 : Special Education
864 : English Education

The doctoral thesis report is complex enough you need a key to decipher the information. The official degree program was "Rhetoric and Scientific and Technical Communication (RSTC)" at the University of Minnesota. The degree is granted by the Graduate School, but the primary departments overseeing the degree were the Department of Rhetoric and the Department of Writing Studies. The Department of Rhetoric was dissolved in 2008, as were a few other departments and programs within the university. The Department of Writing Studies became "home" though I took courses in other departments.

My interest remains writing, in general, though the degree indicates my technical bias. After all, I am a computer programmer interested in how technology shapes communication. The Online Writing Lab at the University of Minnesota was based within RSTC. I selected UMN because of my interest in how technology is affecting the writing, design, production, and publishing processes.

The focus on students with autism was to learn more about how a marginalized community is using technology to remove barriers to self-expression. As a faculty member observed, the same study could have focused on a minority population or any marginalized socio-economic community. Technology is creating new opportunities while also perpetuating some barriers.

I did study autism and its affects on language development in detail. I also spent a lot of time researching special education laws and regulations. What I did not study was the "rhetoric of autism" or any particular debates around autism. My only concern was how individuals with autism use technology to create traditional and new media content — and how the tools might be improved.

Professional Background

Autism advocacy is not my primary occupation. Vocationally, I have worked in both technology and media since the mid-1980s. I am also a freelance writer and editor.

I hope that by writing and speaking on issues related to autism and education, I can help students, educators, and parents avoid some of the challenges I have experienced.

— C. S. Wyatt, Ph.D.
cswyatt@tameri.com

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