Access Type

Open Access Dissertation

Date of Award

January 2013

Degree Type


Degree Name




First Advisor

Jeff Pruchnic






August 2013

Advisor: Dr. Jeff Pruchnic

Major: English (Composition Studies)

Degree: Doctor of Philosophy

My dissertation project investigates the rhetoric of cognitive disability in relation to the theory and teaching of rhetoric and composition in entry-level writing courses. Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), who frequently struggle with generalizing as well as feeling and expressing emotions, are often perceived to have a decreased intellectual ability and thus not often considered part of the traditional student body of higher education classrooms. Yet, as ASD diagnostic criteria has changed and diagnoses have continued to grow, it seems that likely that this cohort will be an increasingly larger presence in college and university classrooms. This dissertation analyzes cultural understandings of ASD in clinical discourses and popular media, presents a study of interviews conducted with students with ASD at Delta College (MI) and concludes with suggestions for creating what I term "cognitively enabling classrooms."

In Chapter 1 I focus on the inclusion of cognitive diversities within the realm of Disability Studies and Composition Studies. As I describe the interview studies I conducted and the project's research methodology, I simultaneously examine the (dis)abled body in the fields of Rhetoric and Composition. Doing so allows for the opportunity to discuss the ways in which such bodies can be more enabled in the Composition classroom and thus, hopefully, more successful.

In Chapter 2 I look at the history of Autism as it emerges and develops within the culture of cognitive diversity. To do this, I utilize Georges Canguilhelm's analytical framework in The Normal and the Pathological and J. Blake Scott's "rhetorical-cultural" approach in from his text Risky Rhetoric: Aids and the Cultural Practices of HIV Testing to show the extent to which the cultures of normativity dictate the way we socially construct various disabilities. To further examine this point, I also analyze the post-Fordist American culture and its particular constructs of difference in contemporary media portrayals of people with ASD.

In Chapter 3 I first discuss the design of the interview study before sharing my interview study participants' insight into their experience of diagnosis, their communication practices, and their conception of their own cognitive processing behaviors with a specific focus on how these issues impact their experience in the composition classrooms and their writing process most generally. Also in chapter three I share these students' perspectives on the world of work--a world these students seem eager to enter with specific career goals in mind.

In Chapter 4 I examine specific approaches to creating a cognitively enabling classroom through utilizing particular teaching strategies. These recommendations include utilizing technology comfortably, posting a daily schedule, using various hands-on and visual stimuli, modeling physical dynamics of critical, physical aspects to composition courses such as peer workshop sessions, creating a safe place for students with ASD to escape, as well as using straightforward, rather than non-verbal, ways to communicate. The dissertation concludes with an argument for recognizing the ways in which cognitive diversities have always affected Disability Studies, and why these influences are critical to contemporary Composition Studies

Included in

Rhetoric Commons