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ASD children and Story-Telling (New Survey)

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A parent survey of the narrative interests and skills of children with

autism, their siblings and peers:

Preliminary Findings March 2013

Dr. Evelyn McGregor, School of Education, University of Edinburgh

Funded by the British Academy



Parents of children with and without autism were surveyed about the ways in which they and their

children engaged with reading and storytelling at home. Initial findings suggest that children with

autism do take an interest in different forms of reading and storytelling, some of which is shared

with their parents, and this is not reduced in those with language or memory difficulties, though

the children with autism are less likely than other child groups (sibs and peers without autism) to

read on their own or talk about stories without prompting. Parents work harder at engaging their

child with autism than the other child groups. All the child groups like fiction, and enjoy humour,

pictures and lively characters. Where children with autism tend to focus on individual items and

details in a story, other children focus on the plot and characters’ feelings. Forms of reading do

not differ much between the groups, but some children with autism enjoy fantastical stories or

comics. All the groups write and tell stories, including over half of children in the autism group.

All have skills in the elements of storytelling, though the skills of children with autism are less

developed. Overall, findings indicate that children with autism are more engaged with a range of

reading and storytelling activities than earlier research seemed to indicate, with parents providing

active encouragement and support.



Storytelling ability uses many of the key skills that are restricted in ASD and even very able

children have difficulties. It has been assumed that the children have little interest in storytelling,

but pilot research has questioned this assumption: it reports that children engage often in

spontaneous narrative at home, describing experiences, listening to, reading and creating stories.

Understanding the context in which that interest is awakened and maintained is key to improving



The study aimed to address this topic through a questionnaire survey of parents of primary schoolaged

children with autism. Parents were also invited to fill in a questionnaire about the interests of

a non-autistic brother or sister, to compare them. Finally, parents of children where there is no

family autism were included, to provide a between-family comparison. The survey asked about

interests, activities, and story-telling skills, with the aim of understanding how they might be linked.


The survey spanned a range of ages to map developing skills and interests and any changes in

parental involvement as children get older.


The questionnaire consisted of 30 questions about (i) the child’s characteristics, reading skill,

related abilities and their style of storytelling; (ii) the aspects of books and storytelling that

particularly interested the child; (iii) the ways in which the parent and child engaged with stories.

Parents returned 336 questionnaires, with 78 about children with autism (ASD group), 53 about

their siblings (Sib group), and 205 about typically developing children in families with no autism

(TD group). Parents were recruited through the children’s schools and parent support groups for

families with autism in Scotland and other parts of the UK.


Describing the children

Age and Gender: The children’s ages ranged from 2 to 17 years. Of these, 214 were male, 124

were female and one child’s gender was not given. The sibling and typically developing (TD)

groups were evenly balanced for gender. In the ASD group 90% were male. The ASD and Sib

groups had a higher average age at 9 years than the TD group at 7 years. This was because the TD

group were recruited solely from primary schools, whereas the groups for the families with

autism were recruited both from primary schools and parent support organisations, and some

parents with older children wished to take part. For this reason the data analysis reports on the full

samples on some aspects, and on the age-matched children (under 13 only) for other aspects,

where matching for age might be important for comparing across the groups. There were 37

children under 13 in the Sib group and 67 in the ASD group.


Difficulties with language or memory

In the TD and Sib groups, parents reported that 4% and 8% respectively had difficulty with

language, compared with 60% of the ASD group. For memory, in the TD and Sib groups, parents

reported that 2% and 6% respectively had difficulty, whereas 39% of the ASD group did so. If a

child had difficulty with language they were more likely to have difficulty also with memory.


Engaging with Reading

Introducing books and reading:

The parents typically introduced their child to books before their first birthday: 76% of TD

children, 63% of ASD children and 67% of Siblings engaged with books before 12 months.

Similar findings from an Australian study suggest this is not unusual. Responses indicated that

children with autism learned to read a few months later on average than the other child groups, at

around five and a half. Almost a third of the children with ASD who could read did not read on

their own. This compared with one sixth in the other child groups. If the children did read on

their own, around two thirds did so every day, and that applied to all groups, and equally to

younger and older children.


Reading together (under 13s only)

The survey responses showed that about 40% of the parents in each group read with their child

every day. Asked who suggested reading together, 59% in the TD group said both they and their

child were likely to suggest reading together. This compared with 37% in the Sib group and 39%

in the ASD group. It was more common in these two groups for parents to suggest reading

together (44% for ASD children and 37% for sibs) than in the TD group (23%). So it appears that

parents in families with a child with autism needed to encourage shared story reading more than

was the case for TD children, but a large minority of children with autism and sibs nonetheless

were asking for shared reading.


What the children liked to read

Parents were asked what kinds of reading material their children liked. Across the groups, the

most popular choice was stories. The TD children showed the strongest preference (91%) but

parents rated 71% of children with ASD and 76% of their sibs also having a preference for

fictional stories. Factual reading was not so popular, but across the groups the greatest preference

was among the TD children (38% compared with 16% for sibs and 20% for children with ASD).

Both of these findings go against the perception that children with autism have no interest in

fiction and strongly favour books of facts. A few parents of children with autism were very clear

that their children were only interested in factual reading, but others liked fantasy, mythical,

magical, action comics, and football reading.


Age differences in reading interests

Different kinds of reading appealed to different age groups. Fictional stories were popular with all

age groups, but particularly under 10-year-olds. Those with autism were less interested as they

got older. The most popular age for liking comics was between 8 and 12 years, and for

newspapers 8 years and upwards. Factual texts were popular with 8 – 10 year olds, and the over

13s among the sib group; and rhyming books and poems were favoured most by children under 6.


Sharing the interest (under 13s only)

The majority of the children talked about the stories afterwards, with parents reporting that

around 30% of the ASD and Sib groups and 17% of the TD group did so if the parent initiated the

talk. Parents reported that the child initiated talk in 49% of the ASD group, 61% of the Sib group

and 71% of the TD group. This shows that the TD children were more inclined than the children

with autism to talk about books, sharing their interest. However, almost half of the parents of the

ASD children reported that their children did engage in talk about their reading, indicating some

spontaneous interest in this activity.


What children focused on (all ages)

For this open question, the three groups had some similarity in focus: some in all groups

responded to humour, and to bad behaviour in the characters, to events, and pictures of animals.

Older children liked comics. Some parents in the ASD group reported working very hard to

engage their children, who were not naturally interested in books, or not interested in sharing

them. Some parents described their children growing to like or even love reading. Although there

were some similarities in the focus of interest, there were also differences. Unlike the ASD group,

many of the TD and Sib respondents noted their children were interested in the story plot, in what

might happen next, in how characters felt, in how the characters or events might be similar to

something in their lives. A few children would speculate about what might happen if the story

character came to their house – or if they entered the world of the story. They seemed to set the

story or the characters in a wider context, linking to them or what they knew.


Writing and Storytelling

Writing stories (all ages)

Of the children who could read, 68% of parents of TD children, 64% of the Sib group and 48% of

the ASD group said that their children wrote stories. Parents noted that the most common form of

stories the children wrote was fiction, and there was no real difference between the groups (TD

group, 73%, Sib group, 86% and ASD group 63%). A higher proportion of children with ASD

than the other two groups wrote about, or re-wrote stories they had read. Around half of the TD

and ASD children wrote stories for themselves and 73% of Sibs did so, according to the parents,

and about half the TD and Sib groups wrote stories about personal experience and wrote for

family. However, only a quarter of the ASD group did so. So overall, a sizeable minority of

children with ASD wrote stories, mainly fiction, but they wrote mostly for themselves, not others.


Telling stories (under 13s only)

Parents were asked if the children ever told stories. Among under 13s, 78% of the TD group, 65%

of the sib group and 65% of the ASD group did so. The children’s stories took different forms:

The majority of children told their own fictional stories and there was no difference between the

groups. More than half of the children re-told stories they had previously read or heard and there

was no difference between the groups; 60% of TD children, 48% of the Sib group and 40% of the

ASD group constructed their own fictional stories, according to their parents. The gap widened

for telling stories of personal experience, with 72% of TD and 80% of Sib groups but only 37%

of children with ASD doing so. Nonetheless, as with the written stories, a significant minority of

children with ASD told stories in a number of forms, and the majority told some form of story.



In conclusion, contrary to the assumptions based on research on formal narrative skills that

children with autism do not have an interest in narrative or storytelling, the findings of the survey

suggest that children with autism do have an interest in a range of aspects of storytelling. This

includes reading or sharing books with parents, reading on their own, writing stories and telling

stories. There are differences in the ways in which children with autism engage with storytelling

compared with their siblings and children from families without autism, in the level and focus of

their interest and the purpose of these activities for them. However, the findings provide scope for

further research and possibly intervention on the contexts within which children with autism

engage naturally with storytelling.



I would like to thank the many parents who took part in this research. I really appreciate the time

they were willing to give to complete the survey, often giving valuable additional information

that I will be able to incorporate into the full report. It will also help me to plan future research in

this area.


I also wish to thank the staff and organisers from the many schools and autism support

organisations in Scotland and other parts of the UK who gave their support to the research, again

giving time in busy schedules to send out questionnaire packs to parents or pass information via

emails and newsletters.


Finally, I am most grateful to the British Academy for providing funding for the research study.


Evelyn McGregor

March 2013

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My son LOVES reading at bedtime. We have read books to both kids from under a year old and both have loved to turn the pages and choose the books they want to have read to them. When my son was younger, he used to prefer books with rhyme and we would read the same book over and over for weeks on end. He could recite entire books beginning to end by around 3 and a half years old using words that 'normally' he wouldn't be able to say or think to use even now at 5 years old as he has a speech disorder. I believe strongly that reading books has aided his speech development, has provided a way to bond and has helped across the board in his basic skills development. Now with his sister wanting to be with her brother at storytime when I am putting them to bed on my own when hubby is at work, it has been an opportunity to teach learning to share. The book of the moment is a Thomas book with 10 stories in it with 'highlighted' words that my son reads out loud. My son often wants his dad to read to him when he is home and he really looks forward to this time with his dad. Storytime is good on so many levels.


Thanks Antolak for posting. Very interesting :)

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I think story-telling is a very important ability. It's not about being "a writer" or anything literary like that. Its just that, as human beings, we live by stories. We tell one another stories all the time, about ourselves and others, our past , our future. The sense of "who we are" is a story we make up in our heads for ourselves. Sometimes we need to tell our ASD children the story of who they are, of their abilities and what they mean to us. Even our sense of "self-respect" is a story we have told ourselves (or have had imposed upon us by others. So the ability to tell a story is very much bound up with being human.


At its most basic level, we need to tell others about things that have happened to us, how we feel etc. In the school where I work, if an incident occurs in the playground, some ASD children have problems explaining what happened (the sequence of events, who did what to whom and who responded etc). They don't have a sense of narrative. Instead, they just resort to the standard response of "it wasn't me", while other more verbally able pupils can fabricate a very intricate story to back up their innocence.


So narrative, I think, is something we should try to instill in all children from a very early age. And continue working at it over and over.

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I do at some point intend to go to the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh which I think would be a great experience. However, it's far away for a day trip and don't really know how they cater for children with ASD, for instance if they have sessions which would be suitable for children who found it difficult to sit still for a period of time or had problems being close to other kids. I'll have to look into it.


It would be helpful if in this country we embraced our local brogue or dialect and that it was promoted in schools. I think it's very hard for kids to become interested in local culture and traditions, including local stories if their own way of speaking is seen as 'lesser' than what is the accepted 'norm'.


As an aside, my kids really enjoy watching 'Old Jack's Boat' on CBeebies which is Bernard Cribbins as Old Jack who tells tall tales of adventures out at sea.

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In the school where I work, we try to get "Broad Scots" versions of class novels whenever we can. The children love them. Roald Dahl's "The Twits" (Scots version) was done just recently by P6. I had fun reading parts of it out loud to the class (because I'm not Scottish).


Pupils also have opportunities to write their own stories and poems in the local dialect. There are also dialect words plastered over various walls across the school to get children to use them (which they do). But I don't know how typical we are of Scottish schools in general.


I must confess I've never been to the Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh, even though I don't live too far away. Must investigate over the Easter holidays.

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That sounds like fun - reading Broad Scots novels - and the best way to read them is aloud! I find it very hard to read Scots without reading out loud and I find it quite strange that I grew up with it all around me yet I don't recognise so many of the words in the Scots Dictionary. I recommend 'But n Ben a Go Go' (adult futuristic novel) by Matthew Fitt (but not to kids! I don't know if it's in the curriculum around here although when I was little we did quite a lot of Robert Burns...


It would be nice to hear about your visit to the Storytelling Centre if you go :)

Edited by Lyndalou

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Interest in stories, yes, but "story"telling only consists of describing the setting (e.g. a pirate ship), no action at all (at age 9).

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Does storytelling include things like explaining what they have done in school today? My son finds this really difficult to do, so i never really know how his day has been as the teachers arent great with feed back.

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Hi Noskcaj86,


yes, being able to relate what happened can be difficult for some children (and yet it's a vital social tool). A lot of the interaction between adults is to do with gossip, telling stories about other people.


In my EP, we often spend time trying to see if we can relate back what happened in a video we have all watched. The children fall into two groups: the first group remembers just snippets from the story, but the snippets are not in any order. The second (smaller group) remembers every single detail in sequence, but has no feel for what details in the story are important to the plot. So they give every single detail, however insignificant.

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Hi Noskcaj86,


yes, being able to relate what happened can be difficult for some children (and yet it's a vital social tool). A lot of the interaction between adults is to do with gossip, telling stories about other people.

... The second (smaller group) remembers every single detail in sequence, but has no feel for what details in the story are important to the plot. So they give every single detail, however insignificant.

To relate what happened is (still) difficult for me at age 42. I only give it a try because I've read some about "social grooming".

About that story thingy: by now, I know when to stop myself, otherwise I'd re-tell every detail and bore everyone to death.

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