We love stories. We love listening to them, dissecting them, connecting the dots. What if an individual with autism was telling the stories that we love? How do we help the communication skills of children who live in their mind and reject the social world as we know it? One answer: storytelling.
Textbooks and doctors explain that Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a “complex developmental disability that typically appears in the first three years of life and affects and affects a persons ability to communicate and interact with others.” However, for me, clients with ASDs are so much more than their limitations. They are creative, inspiring, persistent, and determined to develop their own beings, despite the social arena in which we live.
Storytelling is a technique I use with many in my “difficult to reach through talk therapy” population of clients. For example, children with Asperger’s have an affinity for things that are concrete and written down. When this child tells a made-up story, the worldview they present is telling of their own. In this way, they are teaching us to be their therapist.
“Tell me what it is like for little Johnny to live in his house with his family,” I say. The answers can be surprising.
I had one child tell a story with such intensity for about 30 minutes about this make-believe “Johnny.” There were emotions and relationships, actions and consequences. It was our best session yet! After the story, he retreated back into his own head and barely made eye contact with me and later his family, who joined us at the end of the session. However, he had communicated with me, and it was mesmerizing.
The benefits of this technique are numerous. One can learn social skills and self-care, as well as adaptive, academic, behavioral, and social cues.
3 ways to use storytelling with autistic clients:
- Storytelling about hygiene and maybe even a “dress rehearsal” wherein the child will rehearse what he/she will wear all the way down to cutting fingernails/toenails (a dreaded task for ASDs).
- Storytelling about becoming social/reading social cues. The two of you can read books over and over with instructions on remembering your facial expressions and body language.
- Storytelling to help with behavioral issues. Instead of instructing the client to read a book with you, the client makes up a story and together the both of you work to fill in the gaps. This way, the client is allowing you into their world.
Don’t Ask Why
I have not had much success with using “why” as a prompt within these stories. It sometimes produces undesirable effects (e.g. meltdowns) and other times produces no reaction at all, as if I were a ghost in the room to be looked at with intense curiosity. Instead, try offering answers and see which one fits the best. If the child likes you, he or she will communicate. Patience is key!
Storytelling works best with higher functioning Asperger’s, but with the right guidance and support, a more concrete version, such as a comic strip, can be used with individuals with many levels of autism.
Treating a child with ASD means one has to treat the whole family. I have noticed in my practice that some parents do not know how to behave around their own children, and sometimes punishment is their own recourse. It is terribly frustrating to not know why one’s child or teen is crying. On the other hand, it is frustrating when one’s child is not showing emotion at all. Offer support to these parents, and give them communication tools to assist them with their children. Autism does not have to be a lifelong disorder. It is a myth that children will live with autism forever. In fact, when early interventions are in place, children have been able to “test out” of the autism diagnosis.
There is support out there in the form of support groups, online forums, and speech/language assistance (the ubiquitous iPad even has an App).
It is important to let these parents know that their children are not better or worse off than non-ASD children, just different. As therapists, we know to embrace different. Storytelling is just one way to make it easier.
Go ahead and tell stories! You’ll never know what you’ll find out.
Autism Society (n.d.). About Autism. Retrieved from
Adina Silvestri is a licensed professional counselor, researcher, and counselor educator who works with adults and children in her private practice, Life Cycles Counseling.It is her passion to work with individuals with addiction through counseling, research and advocacy efforts with the hope of raising awareness to the lack of gender specific treatment and recovery programs. Read more about her at www.adinasilvestri.com