An Interdisciplinary Reflection Interconnecting a Lifespan Approach to Writing Development with a Lifespan Approach to Autism Spectrum Disorders

Matthew Zajic, PhD Candidate, Education, University of California, Davis

The context for writing a response to the Lifespan Group’s Statement on “Taking the Long View on Writing Development” could not have occurred at a more opportune time. Over these last few weeks, I have had the great pleasure of attending three separate yet highly interrelated (at least to me) academic conferences: the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), the American Educational Research Association (AERA), and the International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR). Depending on your background, I’m imagining you might be familiar with at least one if not two of those conferences. CEC is the flagship conference for special education research, AERA is the flagship conference for education research, and IMFAR is the flagship conference for autism research. Three very different worlds for most people, but three worlds I am quickly calling home. But what does any of this have to do with the lifespan statement? I’m getting there, I’m getting there.

As I had mentioned, rereading the Lifespan Group’s statement on the way back from IMFAR created the perfect context to reflect. This year’s IMFAR program highlighted a number of organized panels on lifespan perspectives on autism spectrum disorders (or ASD), including increased efforts to incorporate voices and collaboration opportunities from those with ASD across the lifespan. These lifespan perspectives pushed our understandings beyond the early years of life, with some discussions encompassing development across 30 years of life or more. Within ASD research, much is still not known beyond the early years of life, though recent years has seen a growing amount of research focusing on school-age and beyond. However, our current understandings of ASD as a developmental difference, something that changes across time and impacts lives differently at different life points, is still very much within its infancy. To me, this echoes directly with the current perspectives stated regarding current lifespan approaches to writing development: we know a lot but only about a very little segment and not nearly enough to inform the larger developmental picture.

I did not realize my own interest in a lifespan perspective until very recently, but I should have seen it coming. When I finished my undergraduate degree at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I reached out to a faculty member in education interested in research on writing and composition studies because I wanted to know more about the field; I had a bit of a background in professional writing, but I really wanted to know about how people learn to write. I realize now how much I had lucked out when that faculty member was Charles Bazerman and that the first class I ever had on formal writing development was titled “Writing Development Across the Lifespan.” (I also want to give two major thank you’s to Karen Lunsford and Linda Adler-Kassner as two other faculty members and now colleagues who allowed me to sit in and learn a little bit more from them as well during my “pseudo graduate student” year.)

That was five years ago. Now as I near the end of my graduate program, I was fortunate enough to become a member of this new lifespan collaboration. And while I had no idea of the opportunities I would have over these last few years, my research interests have remained the same: to further understand the writing development of individuals with ASD informed by both ASD and writing theoretical perspectives. (I will say that my interests have shifted beyond development to also include how we assess writing and intervene with writing difficulties.) In a way, reading this lifespan statement just following numerous discussions on the needs of individuals with ASD across the lifespan came together as a beautiful interdisciplinary opportunity of two fields in very similar places. And yet at the same time, this collaborative statement reminded me why I became interested in writing to begin with.

Writing is difficult, hard, and, often times, ugly. But here I am writing this blog post wondering if I am writing this blog post because I was asked to, because I want to think through how I navigate in an interdisciplinary space, because I needed something to do while on the bus between San Francisco and Sacramento, or perhaps a combination of all the above? Never mind that for now; let’s go back to that first thought: writing is difficult. This is not a new belief whatsoever, and I love Lifespan Group’s contextualization of this concept in their second main takeaway, “Writing development is complex because writing is complex.” I have always been fascinated by the complexity of writing from cognitive and social perspectives (and am intrigued by the up and coming community intersections), and I have always been amazed at the coordination and the complicated feat we do every time we sit down and turn our thoughts into these tiny lines of symbols we call text.

But even more so, I love when people tell me they hate writing. Why? Because I know I’ll get to learn a little bit more about them just after they say it. I’ll get to learn about what parts they hate, who made them hate writing, why they feel like they cannot do it, why everyone else writes better than them, or why they just do not understand why so and so thinks what they wrote is not good enough. And to a certain degree, writing will always be a difficult feat (which is something I feel we don’t always share enough).

And though I could go on and on about writing development for everyone, I want to shift to thinking about the writing development of those with ASD. I was pleasantly surprised to see autism mentioned explicitly in the statement, and here’s a little context as to why. When I was an undergraduate student, I tutored numerous elementary, middle, and high school students, and I had the privilege of working with one high school student with ASD for three years across all the subjects, including writing. Now, he loved creative writing, and he had filled books upon books since he was in early elementary school with some of the most creative stories I had ever seen (and yes, he had some amazing pictures to go along with these stories). However, though he loved creative writing, he found academic writing to be a little bit of a different beast. I wondered why he found academic writing more difficult, so I turned to the research literature; the literature mainly said these children hated to write. Well, either I had found the one child who loved creative writing, or something seemed a bit off here. Little did I know that this inquiry would lead me to graduate school and leave me (hopefully) investigating it for years to come.

As I dug into the literature, I noticed that much of the beliefs echoed by the Lifespan Group were not present in the ASD literature. These theories I’d come to know were absent, and theoretically informed writing research seemed absent. While this has often been the case for research investigating writing difficulties in general (Graham and Harris (2011) provide a wonderful overview of this), informed writing research looking to better understand the writing difficulties of children with ASD seemed to be absent. And the tenets that the Lifespan Group highlight as needed pieces for exploration within a lifespan approach to writing echo almost too well with what must be done regarding better understanding how ASD may affect writing development (to both work with struggling writers with ASD but also to understand how investigating ASD may benefit our understanding of how “typical” writing develops).

The foundational knowledge we have pertaining to writing development across more than just a few years echoes with what is needed in the next steps with understanding writing differences in individuals with ASD. Reading the statement made me reflect on why writing development is difficult to capture in a neat little box. Theoretically informed research has been my attempt thus far in graduate school (Zajic et al., 2016), and we have a lot to understand still regarding how the social and cognitive features of writing development intersect and intertwine with the social and cognitive differences in ASD (Zajic, in submission). But development is ever ongoing, and much of what we currently know about ASD is either from an early development or school-age development perspective, often focusing on the difficulties over the strengths. Many individuals with ASD become highly proficient writers, especially when looking to the work exploring autistic biographies.

All of this is to say that a developmental, lifespan perspective is needed, and I plan to take that approach to the field of ASD research. We have much left to understand, and learning more about how children with ASD develop and use writing from multiple theoretical perspectives allows for better understanding what we may take for granted within writing (instructional, assessment, development, and intervention contexts), ultimately with the research being able to inform and benefit all children. But even then, at the larger picture, many teachers may feel as informed about ASD as they do about proper writing instruction, which we have learned isn’t all that great. We have opportunities to further the knowledge of the educators working with our children and benefiting not only classrooms that appreciate and prioritize the learning of all students but do so in ways that are meaningfully informed.

Returning briefly to the original comment, I have had the great privilege of finding my own researcher identity not only amongst groups of researchers who may never interact with one another but also amongst some amazingly thoughtful mentors offering guidance and thoughtful discussions along the way. I am grateful to Charles Bazerman for helping me view writing from a developmental perspective from the very beginning, to Peter Mundy for his mentorship in autism research, to Chris Thaiss and Steve Graham for their mentorship in different yet related areas of writing development, to Nancy McIntyre and Emily Solari for always pushing me to view the interconnectedness of reading and writing, and to Megan Welsh for welcoming me into the world of psychometrics. Academia thrives off collaborating with and learning from colleagues much more knowledgeable than you, and I look forward to the ongoing conversations that will come from our own lifespan collaboration as we stand on the shoulders of the giants and continue to wrestle with writing development across the lifespan for all writers.


Graham, S., & Harris, K. R. (2011). Writing and students with disabilities. In L. Lloyd, J. Kauffman, & D. Hallahan (Eds.), Handbook of special education (pp. 422-433). London, UK: Routledge.

Zajic, M. C., McIntyre, N., Swain-Lerro, L., Novotny, S., Oswald, T., & Mundy, P. (2016). Attention and written expression in school-age, high-functioning children with autism spectrum disorders. Autism. doi:10.1177/1362361316675121