How to Find a Writing Topic (Reluctant Writers on the Autism Spectrum)

As a second grader, in a curriculum that valued creative writing, Liam struggled.

If a student has a literal mind that focuses on specific topics and does not play creatively, sitting down to write a story about any topic you want is an overwhelming task.

Even at this early age, I recommended to his teacher that he identify a few topics about which he was willing to write, so that he would not shut down during writing workshop. Did it always work? No. But at least is was a concrete, viable place from which Liam could start.

For many writers, completely a Heart Map at the beginning of the year can be a valuable experience.


At the same time, with a less experienced writer, the Heart Map can still offer too many options.

For Liam, identifying Writing Territories worked best. He identified three topics about which he felt he was an expert and would be willing to write. The topics were: video games, his family, and building with Legos or K’nex.

One time, I was presenting in a professional learning session on “Literacy Strategies to Support Students on the Autism Spectrum” and a teacher raised a question. She shared that one of her sixth grade students would only write about wrestling. She felt that he should write on a wider range of topics as a sixth grader.

I agreed that this should be a goal for this writer. However, if he was not writing at all, unless he could write about wrestling, developmentally, he was not ready for more topics.

I asked the teacher to think about what her goal for her writers was that year. Was it to write about a wide variety of topics, like we need readers to read? Or was it to learn how to write in the different styles of writing: poetry, informative, narrative, and argumentative.

She shared that the latter was actually her goal. I offered that her student could write about wrestling in a variety of ways: write a procedural paper about how to complete a specific wrestling move; write a story about a wrestler going to a big match; argue that professional wrestling was a “real sport.”

I recommended that once the student saw himself as a writer, because he spent his sixth grade year comfortably writing, as he got older, then he could move out of this territory to explore new topics.

I am happy to share that Liam has written a few short stories (Nanowrimo)


and even flash fiction. He has written poetry about math. While he was thrilled to hear that there would be no creative writing in 9th grade English, he has moved past his territories, through the scaffolded support of wonderful writing teachers who allowed him to grow, in his time, to see himself as a student who could successfully write.

3 thoughts on “How to Find a Writing Topic (Reluctant Writers on the Autism Spectrum)

  1. This is a great strategy not only for students on the spectrum but for all reluctant writers or those who experience writer’s block. I like the heart map because it provides concrete topics that can be visited again and again! In Kelly Gallagher’s book WRITE LIKE THIS he provides an organizer to expand topics into different modes just as you suggested. Kudos to Liam succeeding and seeing himself as a writer.

  2. Such a critical topic. Creative writing “sounds good” but for someone classrooms there is huge judgement when the student does NOT perform the way some teachers perceive it should be. Personally, I always felt I was judged by a teacher when my writing didn’t measure up to her “unwritten” criteria!

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