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Autistic Bloggers Display Exceptional Writing Skills, New Study Finds

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Recent research published in the journal Educational Review reveals that autistic bloggers often exhibit superior writing skills compared to their neurotypical counterparts. The study challenges traditional views on autistic writing abilities, demonstrating that when writing blogs, autistic individuals often produce more complex and sophisticated content.

The study analysed the blog entries of 30 self-identified autistic bloggers and 30 age- and gender-matched neurotypical (NT) bloggers. The researchers employed Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) software to assess various linguistic and psychological categories, along with measuring the Flesch Reading Ease (FRE) of the blog posts. The primary aim was to understand the writing complexity and thematic content differences between the two groups.

The findings were striking. Autistic bloggers used longer words and more complex sentence structures, resulting in lower FRE scores compared to NT bloggers. The average FRE score for autistic bloggers was 68.8, indicating more challenging readability, whereas NT bloggers scored an average of 76.1, suggesting a simpler writing style.

The study also conducted a thematic analysis of the blog content, categorising topics into broad areas such as common hobbies, preoccupations, and academic domains. Autistic bloggers were found to write extensively about science and other abstract topics, often avoiding daily life events, which were more commonly discussed by NT bloggers. This thematic preference aligns with the cognitive style associated with autism, which tends to prioritise systemic and objective reasoning.

Interestingly, while autistic bloggers were more inclined to discuss topics related to science and sensory experiences, NT bloggers wrote more about food and drink, although this difference was not statistically significant.

The emotional tone of the blog entries also differed between the two groups. Autistic bloggers used fewer positive emotion words and more words related to inhibition, such as “avoid” and “hesitate”. This finding supports previous research indicating a prevalence of negative emotional expression in autistic individuals’ online communication.

Contrary to expectations, the study did not find significant differences in the frequency of social references, such as mentions of friends and family, between autistic and NT bloggers. However, a nuanced observation revealed that autistic bloggers often used “we” in a more generic, impersonal sense compared to NT bloggers, who used it more personally.

The study’s results contribute to the growing body of literature that recognises the strengths of autistic individuals, particularly in writing. This challenges the deficit-focused perspective that has historically dominated discussions about autism. The researchers suggest that the more complex writing style observed in autistic bloggers may be due to an intellectual orientation or that those with sophisticated writing skills are more likely to engage in blogging.

The findings have significant implications for educators and clinicians. Recognising that some autistic individuals possess exceptional writing abilities can inform teaching strategies and support mechanisms, potentially enhancing academic and career opportunities for autistic students.

In discussing the motivation behind this study, Catherine Caldwell-Harris, PhD, an associate professor at Boston University, said: “When my co-author and I first conceived of this study in 2013, we thought autistic bloggers would be an untapped source of written material to examine. Our goal was to hear directly from autistic adults, without the intervention of researchers’ questions and presuppositions. Interestingly, since those early days, there have been half a dozen or more analyses of autistic bloggers, using personal writing as a window into thoughts, experiences, and abilities. For example, in one recent study by researchers in Costa Rica, Henry Angulo-Jiménez and his team analysed how autistic bloggers experience foreign language learning.”

Caldwell-Harris explained the implications of the study: “Autistic individuals are well-known for having uneven cognitive profiles, meaning weaknesses in some areas, and strengths, even talents and superior abilities, in other areas. While visual-spatial skills are the most commonly found, our work contributes towards the growing understanding that language and writing can be strengths of autistic adults.”

Caldwell-Harris also shared insights into future research directions: “My colleague Anna Schwartz and I have proposed what we call two-tailed theory. ‘Two-tailed’ refers to the left (low-end) and right (high-end) of the normal distribution. Human abilities are varied and can often be conceptualised on a continuum from strong to weak. Most of our abilities, and most people’s overall ability level in any trait, are generally in the broad middle of the distribution. Our theory goes beyond the ‘uneven cognitive profile’ to propose that it is a fundamental characteristic of autism for the same trait to be weak in some autistic adults and strong in other individuals.

“Sensory processing is the most well-known example. Many autistic individuals report being highly sensitive in various sensory domains, such as hearing and olfaction. A smaller proportion, but still substantial, report being ‘hypo-sensitive’ to sounds and domains such as touch. Some individuals may even be hyper-sensitive to some types of sounds (such as running water) and hypo-sensitive to others, such as some speech frequencies. From the perspective of two-tailed theory, there is no universal language impairment in autism. Another domain is sensitivity to other people’s feelings. While autistic individuals were classically considered to be hyposensitive to others’ feelings, there is recent awareness of a great emotional hypersensitivity, with some autistics fitting into the category of ‘highly sensitive person.”

She concluded: “We are currently finishing a journal article on this topic. The open question in the two-tailed theory we are pursuing is the range of attributes where both hyper- and hypo-abilities are found.”

Future research could expand on these findings by exploring the writing abilities of autistic individuals who do not engage in blogging or other substantial writing projects. Additionally, employing computer-assisted sentiment and topic analysis could provide further insights into the unique writing styles of autistic individuals.

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