Telling Tales: Supporting Personal Storytelling in Children with Autism

We tell ourselves stories and live by the stories we tell ourselves.
-Joan Didion

Recently I had coffee with a friend. We talked about the trip he and his wife took to Vietnam. He told me about the beautiful places they saw, and also about the homeless woman he met outside his hotel. He talked about their friendly greetings every day, the things he learned from her as they tried to communicate with gestures, and his regret at saying goodbye. My friend was reminded that making a friend means so much more than just touring the sights. I found my friend’s story interesting, and I smile when I think about it weeks later.

Two recent articles make it clear that being able to share our stories is an important ability for connecting with others and for learning. These articles also show that it is possible to develop as a storyteller and listener – at any age.

What is a Personal Narrative?

Semantic memory is memory for facts: your birthday, the definitions of words, the name of the rivers that flow through Winnipeg, the first prime minister of Canada. Episodic memories are specific memories tied to space and time—the what, when, and where (the
time we went to Ottawa, the time I hiked the Rocky Mountains).

Autobiographical memory – personal narrative – is more than either of these. It is a specific type of episodic memory. It involves remembering one’s own feelings and actions in an event, and being aware of oneself as the person who experiences the event in the past and remembers the event in the present. A personal narrative is sharper and more meaningful because it includes an emotional shift – surprise, dismay, delight, fear, contentment.

Personal narratives matter, maybe even more than being able to understand and tell fictional narratives.

Being able to share and think about things that happen in our lives is important because:

  • Conversation is made up of storytelling. Being able to talk about our adventures at Red River Ex, what happened to our pet budgie last night, or what we remember when we were little connects us with our friends. They respond with related stories of their own, and that’s one way that friendships are built.
  • We learn about ourselves and the world when we tell our personal stories. “That was challenging!” or “I forgot how she would feel” or “That was amazing…I want to do it again” are reflections that help us make choices in the future.
  • In school, students are asked to make connections between their own experiences and what they hear, see or read – in both fictional and informational texts. Doing well in school requires being able to make those connections.

Developing Personal Narratives

I was both surprised – and not surprised – to read research that shows that telling personal narratives develops more slowly for children with autism. I see it with my own children. There are many possible reasons for this. The most obvious is that children with autism often learn to speak more slowly, and on a bit of a different pathway. Another factor is the way the parent-child relationship goes: at the time when parents typically tell their children stories about themselves, their families, and the world, kids with autism may not yet be ready to hear them, or respond differently than parents expect, and so parents stop trying. When our child is ready to explore personal narratives, we may not realize it.

The good news: according to the research, it’s never too late. A recent study in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that when parents of adult children with autism are taught strategies for supporting narrative conversation, those adult children began to tell more complex stories within a month, and had continued when the researchers checked again a year later.


Children learn to tell personal stories as they listen to their parents. Tell stories from your life, recent or long ago, and invite the child to tell about their own experience.

Share stories from books or articles, and ask if something like that has happened to the child.

Arrange for interesting experiences to tell about: field trips, art, science, construction, or cooking projects, and look for points in the experience tied to emotions – frustration, surprise, or success. Model or support retelling, and include those emotional high points.

Help them expand on their ideas, rather than trying to direct the conversation where the parent thinks it should go. Consider these two examples:

In this first conversation, the parent really wants to talk about the giraffe, and her prompts are all about concrete actions.  Her child, however, is not so interested and sticks with his original thought.  He doesn’t add any new ideas.

In the second conversation, the parent encourages the child to expand on his thinking.  She is helping him tell his story by asking questions and adding in the characters’ feelings. If the child changes topic, she goes with it. As a result, instead of repeating himself, the child adds new information.

Parents (or teachers, EAs, or cousins) can be collaborative conversation partners as they remember an event together. Comment on the child’s points, ask open-ended questions, and encourage the child to continue the conversation.

  • “I wonder…” is a very useful phrase.
  • Use “when” and “how” questions to bring out the sequence of events and the way things happened.
  • When the child is ready, use “why” to explore cause and effect.

View the movie Inside Out, and explain concept of core memories. One possible activity would be collecting photos that could represent such memories.

What About Nonverbal Kids?

It may be that there is a point of development when kids are ready for telling stories. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fill them up with stories, both personal and fictional. Kids learn language by hearing it, right from infancy.

For those who don’t communicate well verbally, it’s important to look for strategies that help them communicate in other ways (see this post).

With respect to storytelling, you can:

* Use written sketches, Pictello or another storytelling app to structure reminisces. Take pictures on outings or activities significant to the child, and write descriptions together. Include any emotions that went with the experience.
* provide scripts for practice, for retelling to others. A Pictello story, for example, works well for repeated sharing
* graphic organizers are useful for helping children see the structure of a story

Open an autobiography by a person with autism, and you’ll wonder what the problem is. Writers like John Elder Robison, Temple Grandin, and many others are very articulate and reflective in their writing. How they got there is an interesting question, and points to a gap in the research. However, the research does offer some good strategies for helping children, youth and adults become better at telling personal stories and reflecting on their experiences.

Best of all, conversation is something anyone can do, anywhere, to build relationships and expand thinking.

Further Reading:  

Talkability by Fern Sussman goes into detail on strategies parents and teachers can use to support conversation, personal narrative, and thinking.


Telling Tales: Personal Event Narratives and Life Stories. (October 2016). Carol Westby and Barbara Culatta in Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools, Vol. 47, pp. 260–282.

Parents’ Strategies to Elicit Autobiographical Memories in Autism Spectrum Disorders, Developmental Language Disorders and Typically Developing Children (2015).
Sylvie Goldman and Danielle DeNigris in Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders vol 45 (5), pp. 1464-1473.

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