cSCAN Rounds

Autism and narrative ability: A case study comparing successive written and oral retellings of 'The three little pigs' by a child with autism

In studying the language impairments and capabilities of children with autism, researchers have focused to a significant extent on narrative capacity: since narrative represents an encapsulated form of discourse which requires sophisticated skills of planning and information encoding, it has been considered to offer a unique testing ground for an individual's linguistic, socio-cultural and cognitive abilities. In this talk, we report on findings from a case study of a corpus of uncommonly rich narrative data by an 8 year old boy with autism. The corpus consists of a series of written narrative retellings of popular children's stories produced by the child spontaneously on his home computer for his own amusement, and subsequent oral retellings of the same stories elicited by the researchers. Our interest is primarily in the way in which the child tackles the narrative task, and the abilities and deficits he displays in doing so: in particular with respect to the episodic structure of the narrative; perspective marking; and the management of information attributable to the different roles of characters, narrator and author. Detailed discourse analysis of these stories has functioned as a pilot for a larger research program which we are just beginning. For this talk we focus in particular on a sequence of one written and two oral retellings of 'The three little pigs' produced over a period of 15 months. All three versions of this story are highly dramatized with extensive representation of the speech, thought and interaction of the characters, and are sophisticated in many respects, yet they are also recognizably unusual. We utilize techniques of discourse analysis in examining and comparing these stories to characterize both the sophisticated and the unusual aspects of the child's narrative performance and to show that he has acquired a story schema which he is able to instantiate and even embellish on different occasions of utterance. Furthermore, the sequence of stories exhibits interesting development over time as the story content is elaborated and the child's approach to the storytelling task is also modified.