Personal narratives are the main way individuals make sense of the experiences they’ve had, and while they may seem simple to incorporate into everyday communication, they can be extremely difficult for someone with autism. Spectrum News reported that a child’s ability to tell story in kindergarten predicts his or her reading abilities in fourth, seventh, and tenth grade. Additional research has shown the importance of parent influence in terms of how children tell narratives. After a child begins telling a personal narrative about their day, if a parent asks mainly questions pertaining to “what” and “when”, their child will be more likely to tell action filled narratives in the future. On the other hand, if parents ask questions that focus around who was involved, their children will tell narratives led through dialogue.

Allyssa McCabe, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, conducted research with psychologist Ashleigh Hillier and found that individuals with ASD tell narratives significantly less well than their typically developing peers. As a result of this, both researchers set out to implement an intervention to improve narration skills in young adults affected by autism. There were 10 participants in total; half were randomly assigned to the intervention group and the other half were assigned to a waiting list group that acted as a control group. They collected narratives from participants in each group as well as an assessment filled out by parents addressing their children’s narrative abilities.

The intervention group received detailed instructions including:

  • Talk to your son/daughter frequently and consistently about past experiences
  • Be sure to always ask your son/daughter to describe how he or she felt about an experience
  • Listen carefully to what your son/daughter is saying, and encourage elaboration with simple responses or by repeating what your son/daughter has just said.
  • Ask plenty of wh-questions (who, which, how, why, etc.) and few “yes/no” questions. Ask questions about the context or setting of the events, especially where and when they took place.
  • Spend a lot of time talking about each topic. Give them plenty of time to respond; do not rush them.

After a year, parents in the intervention group reported a significant difference in their children’s storytelling abilities. Some parents reported their conversations with their children had doubled and all parents reported noticing an improvement in their children’s narratives.

Personal narratives are an extremely important way people interact with one another and become even more important when forming relationships with others. Individuals with autism can learn to improve on their storytelling abilities to improve their overall quality of life.

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