Storytelling is at the core of the human experience. Personal stories are what ground us; they give us a sense of purpose and identity. Storytelling helps children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) master language skills, improve listening skills, increase attention span, develop curiosity and creativity, and better understand nonverbal communication.
Storytelling is both an inbred talent and a learned skill. The storyteller is part teacher and part entertainer. We tell stories every day at work with our friends and to our children, but the art of storytelling is about making many small choices that add up to a compelling story that will provide a rich learning experience for a child with ASD.
Every storyteller has a different style and different ways to connect with his/her audience. A good storyteller must think about the five senses and must believe in the story. He/she must visualize the story, seeing in the mind’s eye what is going on and being vulnerable to live in the moment.
In children’s stories, there is room to make gestures bigger and characterizations more embodied. Children tend to respond better to storytellers who use their whole bodies. The storyteller must not adopt a flat or false persona when telling stories, because this lack of engagement will certainly lose the audience. Get to know the characters, imagine each of them, and bring each character to life.
Bringing the Story to Life
A storyteller uses voice, facial expressions, and body movements to make stories come alive. Some of the most dynamic storytellers make use of vocal intonation not only with individual characters, but also with how they use pacing, pause, and rhythm throughout the telling of the story. For example, the storyteller needs to ‘hear’ the sounds and then allow the audience to hear him/her. Instead of saying “a door opened,” the storyteller should use his/her voice to make accompanying sound effects, such as “a door creeeeeaked open.” Such vocal sound effects add to the sensorium of the story—the full array of senses that a story can evoke.
There is an emphasis on the ability of the storyteller to make the right facial expressions to go along with the story. The general rule is to smile when telling stories to young children, because they can be easily frightened by scary faces or mean characters. However, children with ASD are often unable to discern emotion from facial expressions. Thus, they find it difficult to distinguish the difference in meaning between a smile and a frown. Children with ASD typically find it difficult to link facial expressions, body language, and other nonverbal communication to the words they are hearing. Sarcasm or over-exaggeration could lead to misunderstanding—even to anger and tantrums.
The Benefits of Storytelling with ASD
Some studies show that a way to enhance understanding is by simply asking children with ASD to pay close attention to the facial expressions and other nonverbal communication of the storyteller. “Providing autism spectrum disorders children with explicit instructions to pay more attention to facial expressions and tone of voice elicited an increased response in the medial prefrontal cortex, part of the brain’s network for understanding the intentions of others,” according to Mirella Dapretto, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.
Repetition is a key factor. As the child becomes familiar with the story, he/she can focus on the more subtle aspects of facial expression and body language. Repetition allows the child to see and hear when and how emotions and body language are tied together. Children will develop an understanding of human nature and feelings, as well as an awareness of characteristics that people assume.
Because storytelling relies so much on words, stories offer a tremendous source of language experience for children. Language development can be promoted through the understanding of stories, vocabulary, and language patterns in stories, especially in folktales.
Folktales Are a Great Place to Start
The distinctive features of folktales make them ideal for beginning storytellers and children with ASD. The folktale usually begins with an opening, “Once upon a time….” The setting is generalized or universal, such as a road or a forest. The characters are flat and stereotypical, good or evil. These features can be presented in a few sentences, thus allowing the child to readily become familiar with the story while allowing the storyteller to concentrate on the development of the plot.
Generally, there are two plot structures: linear and cumulative. In the linear plot, a problem is introduced and followed by a series of events as the character attempts to solve the problem (for example, Sleeping Beauty). In cumulative plots, the character, problem, and actions build on each other. It often includes a repetition of phrases, as in the Gingerbread Man. Folktales usually have abrupt endings with a short, sweet resolution: “…and they lived happily ever after.”
Storytelling Can Also Teach Meaningful Life Lessons
Robin Borakove is an author and storyteller and happens to have Asperger’s syndrome. Dressed in the fairy queen costume of the character in her book Fairy Queen Flutterby, she encourages children to be proud and not ashamed of autism.
ASD children have their own reality tunnels and may mold their recalls according to past experiences and prior beliefs. They exhibit strong preferences and even confirmation biases. For instance, it is common for them to assign significance to bullying. Telling stories with redemptive themes that turn bad sequences of events into opportunities for growth is a way to let children know that, despite their differences, they can be just as successful as anyone else. In Little Edwin’s Triumph, Robin Borakove teaches children that they can overcome adversity to become a hero.
One of the first places children encounter stories is in their families. The family stories parents tell their children shape family continuity. Many repeated family stories are about small things, like the time a child skinned his/her knee when the dog bolted after a squirrel, but the child still held on tightly to the leash. Some of the most meaningful stories parents pass along to their children are about small occurrences that amount to big truths about who that child is.
The story about the child skinning his/her knee serves several purposes. When the parent tells that story later to the child, it will help to shape his/her sense of self and identity. The child will grow up knowing that he/she is brave by not crying when in pain and is strong by holding onto the dog when it decided to chase a squirrel. That story also lets the child know that he/she is central to the family. In telling a story about your child, you are choosing to remember his/her bravery and strength, not just the autism.
For a story to teach life lessons, the audience must be engaged. Children with ASD tend to get distracted easily. One of the best ways to keep them engaged is to invite them to participate by repeating certain phrases or performing certain gestures. Participation gives listeners a sense that they matter. A teacher from the Lionheart School (a specialized school for children with ASD) was telling the story of Jack and the Beanstalk. Since the children couldn’t visually see Jack climbing up the beanstalk, they couldn’t understand the action and they couldn’t connect to the character. To explain the concept of climbing, the teacher made the children pull a rope down and asked them to imagine Jack climbing up the beanstalk.
Using Props Can Be Effective
Storytellers sometimes use props, as the teacher did while telling Jack and the Beanstalk. Props can be simple, like a hand puppet, or more complex, like the fairy queen costume worn by Robin Borakove when she tells her Fairy Queen Flutterby story. Elaborate costumes limit the storyteller to only one character, but using costume pieces, such as a top hat or eyeglasses, can more easily lend themselves to different characters.
Hearing stories improves many language skills, including vocabulary and comprehension, as well as listening and speaking skills. By listening to and participating in storytelling, children are able to make connections between what they hear and what they see. In addition, they have an opportunity to interpret what they have heard. The act of listening to stories builds a cognitive framework for understanding, a framework that becomes even richer through dynamic storytelling.
Storytelling is one of the most important tools of any educator or parent of a child with ASD. It helps autistic children master language skills, increase attention spans, and build social interactions. Children can get involved by repeating certain phrases or by acting out a part of the story. When they become familiar with the story, they can begin to concentrate on interpreting the nonverbal cues, like facial expressions and vocal intonations.
Most of our lives are spent telling tales. Storytelling is an exciting way to engage children in listening and speaking. The gift of storytelling may be one of the most powerful tools one can use to help a child with ASD.
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Professor Susan Taylor is a recognized author, having written numerous educational and legal articles for publications that include The Adventist Journal of Education, Educational Digest, and Dance Spirit Magazine. She earned her Juris Doctor degree from Valparaiso University School of Law, as well as a degree in fitness and nutrition from Indiana University.
This article was featured in Issue 64 – Teaching the Skills Your ASD Child Needs