Storytelling, learning, and autism

Storytelling is part of the therapeutic interventions that have been tried in autism. The idea for using storytelling is to facilitate language skills and increase attention in autistic children. These lofty goals have to overcome a major stumbling block as keeping an autistic child engaged in a classroom setting is a difficult endeavor. This is why teachers use props, cards, songs, and technical devices such as IPads during storytelling, otherwise, storytelling by itself, without the props, would probably prove disappointing to both student and teacher.

In a previous blog I mentioned my recollection of asking an autistic individual about the last movie he/she had seen. In this instance, the question prompted a detailed narrative of the patient’s experience. The narrative went from beginning to end in orderly and detailed sequence. During the narrative the child failed to gauge the listener’s level of interest, attention, or even confusion. If interrupted, he/she would start over again from the very beginning. I was struck because we usually tend to learn the initial and last items on a list better than those in the middle. In this case all episodes of the movie appeared to be equally recalled, albeit triggered by a series of necessary sequential events.

It should be stressed that it wasn’t the intent of the autistic child to memorize the movie; it happened without his/her conscious effort. This sort of experience is different from the problems that I introduced in the first paragraph. In effect, in the classroom environment learning appears to be labor intensive and not that productive. In the movie theater environment or while watching TV at home, learning happened effortlessly. Why?

This episode which allowed me to test memory in an autistic child reminds me of Aesop, the ancient Greek, who would go around different towns telling stories. Storytelling in this case was part of our evolutionary history. It was a way by which knowledge was preserved. Storytelling reinforced our memories at a time when books were not available. People learned what meant to be Greek or Trojans, i.e.., their moral obligations, duties, religion credos, by figuring out their place in the stories. This type of storytelling did not require a major skill like math or science; there was neither a problem-solving phase nor effortful need to use empirical or logical paradigms. The orator wasn’t primarily a teacher but an entertainer.


Our ability to learn depends on the sense of effort that something may require. If we believe something is hard to learn (i.e., in a classroom setting) we diminish our own sense of having learned the same. If we believe something is easy to learn (i.e., when nothing is expected of us as when watching TV), we will subconsciously use appropriate learning strategies. If something is perceived as new, the innovation factor may also offer an incentive to learning. Finally, repeated testing (as in the classroom setting) elicits reluctance on the part of the student. Repeated testing can easily be interpreted by the individual as a fault of their own; as his/her own inability to learn which may lead to decrease motivation. It is for all of the above reasons that I am attracted to the Montessori model of education where children are usually given choices as to what they are going to learn. In the Montessori system learning is its own reward (an intrinsic autonomous reason), not the result of performance based testing.

Storytelling requires language, memory, and even a sense of self. As long as a person can talk of themselves as objects from an outside perspective (i.e., looking from outside) it denotes having Theory of Mind. Autistic children also have their own reality tunnel and may mold their recall according to past experiences and prior beliefs. They do exhibit strong preferences and even confirmation biases, e.g., it is unfortunately a common occurrence for them to assign significance (self-deprecation) to bullying.

Storytelling is a helpful strategy for learning, especially in autism. I especially like those with a redemptive theme that turn a bad sequence of events into an opportunity for growth. An engaging teacher may use storytelling to help the autistic child bond with other people. It keeps track of changes throughout the years, of experiences that were displaced in time and space. In addition, it helps explain experiences without having to use others to fill in the gaps.

3 responses to “Storytelling, learning, and autism

  1. It is also used to try to improve social skills, through social stories, trying to help a child understasnd what to do in social situations. However, life is spontaneous and does not follow a script, so I doubrt this intervention is very effective for most. There are no simple solutions to the harsh problems that are faced by individuals on the spectrum.


  2. Very interesting. We haven’t seen any improvements from using social stories with my 10yr old son, but he is thriving in a Montessori classroom.


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