Students with Asperger’s can have great difficulty starting, completing and handing in work on time. For me, I never knew why I couldn’t get started on a piece of work, which lead to avoidance of the work, feelings of anxiety and inadequacy, and inability to access help (I didn’t know what help I needed and couldn’t answer the questions I was asked about why I was finding it difficult). After many years I have identified some common themes in why my work has been repeatedly late or not handed in:
- Difficulty starting tasks (executive function)
- “I haven’t read *everything* yet”
- I don’t know what to write (decision making)
- I don’t know what the tutor wants (unclear brief, unspoken rules about freedom eg “you can write whatever you like [as long as it’s what I want]”)
- I’m too preoccupied with something else going on in my life (friends, family, relationships, money, health, shitty boy/girlfriends)
If any of that sounds familiar to you, then here is some information about how I approach written work now, which may give you some ideas.
How I work
I write essays by collecting all relevant information, editing it and rearranging it to answer the question. I need to get to grips with a whole topic before starting any work on it, and as you can imagine for most subjects it’s just not possible or practical to find out everything first. The lesson in writing a ‘good enough’ essay was very important for me, and I still only know it in theory, I find it very difficult to apply. Before I begin writing I need to know and understand what I am going to say, then I plan backwards until I reach the first step and can then begin. In a similar way, up until my final year of my PhD, I had difficulty explaining my thesis topic to anybody because I didn’t have the answers. I can’t give an incorrect answer, or an incomplete interim answer, I have to know and believe what I’m saying.
Things tutors could do to help: Encourage and check essay plans; providing example essays or essay plans; suggest working backwards (as may not have occurred to student).
Breaking down tasks
Before I write an essay, I write out a list of the steps involved. The list might look like this:
- open Word,
- write essay title & name,
- save document in folder for course with title as file name,
- find out word limit, deadline and where it needs to be handed in,
- put this info at top of document as a reminder
- write title in own words,
- check interpretation with mentor,
- make list of required reading,
- read required reading & make notes,
- list subheadings that need to be included in essay,
- drag list into coherent order,
- show to mentor,
- allocate a word count to each section,
- transfer referenced notes (from reading) relevant to each subheading,
- starting with the easiest (not the first), flesh out each subheading using notes but in own words,
- leave introduction until last when content written,
- when essay complete, delete notes to self, spellcheck document and check word count not exceeded,
- print essay and proofread,
- when happy, hand it in.
I keep the list in the same document as the essay and use ‘strikethrough’ font to cross each one off as I complete it. You could also keep it in a separate document or print it out and cross them off in pen. The list might seem very detailed, but by ensuring that all necessary steps are on the list and therefore will get done, I don’t need to constantly worry that I have forgotten something. Once something is done I can look at the list to know what to do next, rather than holding it all in my head. It takes the organisational pressure off and frees up brain space for doing the actual work.
This approach also applies to bigger pieces of work, and in a similar manner I wrote my 80,000 word thesis dissertation. I found a thesis online that had a similar subject area and structure (i.e., introductory chapter, then several experimental chapters, then discussion chapter). I copied it into a word document, and then deleted everything except the chapter and section headings (e.g., method, results, discussion). I saved it as ‘thesis template’, then I began pasting things in between the headings that I already had on my pen drive, for example, annual reports of experimental work which I had had to do for my department. Then for the rest I started with the ‘definites’, sections like the method and results, which did not need interpretation only description. I worked backwards, leaving the introductions to each chapter, the overall introductory chapter, discussion chapter and abstract until last.
Other tricks I used to get myself writing included:
- Telling myself that I was just writing for me, and that no-one else was going to read it ever.
- Telling myself that I was just going to write for ten minutes and then stop (seemed easy enough to do and then once I had got going it was easier to continue due to my natural inability to stop tasks once started!).
- Going on a course called ‘managing long Word documents’ which taught me how to properly use headings, sections and table of contents, and to cross-reference things like tables and figures.
- Listing the sources (references) I needed to include from the literature, and dragging them into the right order to tell a coherent story in my head, before fleshing them out into actual text about the work that had been done by others, which formed the rationale for my experiments.
- Writing each chapter in its own Word document and then joining them up at the end, so that the task looked smaller and was easier to navigate.
- Typing with my eyes shut(!) really helped, I have no idea why!
You may or may not find these tips helpful, but the important thing is to find the way YOU are able to work and stick to it. Don’t worry about what other people are doing, or the ‘right’ way to write coursework.
© Catastraspie, 2012.