Narrative skills in verbal preschoolers with autism


This study looked at verbal preschoolers with autism spectrum disorders’ (ASDs) ability to comprehend and retell oral narratives. Children listened to a short story twice while looking at pictures on a computer. Between readings, they were asked eight comprehension questions (factual and inferential wh-questions). Then, children were asked to retell the story (sans pictures).

Results showed that the children had low accuracy on the comprehension questions, with higher accuracy on factual than inferential questions. Five children did not produce a retell at all, four told an off-topic story, and one was excluded for unusually high performance. For the nineteen children whose retells were analyzed, microstructure was comparable to typically developing 4-year-olds’ in terms of length, number of different words, and MLU in morphemes, but was lower in grammatical accuracy. Children with autism included few macrostructure elements (e.g., setting, problem, plan, etc.). Most children, “…produced descriptive or action sequences, implying a lack of understanding of goal-directed behavior.”

Note that this is a small study that gives only descriptive information about narrative production. However, given that there is little existing research on narrative abilities of preschoolers with ASDs, the data give us a starting point for thinking about narrative assessment with these children. In particular, this study suggests that we need to look at narrative macrostructure (i.e., understanding the overall goal of the story), which may be hard for preschoolers with ASD even when their sentence-level language skills look relatively strong.

Westerveld, M. F. & Roberts, J. M. A. (2017). The oral narrative comprehension and production abilities of verbal preschoolers on the autism spectrum. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services in the Schools, 48(4), 260–272.