Narrative discourse, or storytelling, is used in daily conversation and requires higher-level language and social communication skills that are not always captured by standardised assessments of language. Many autistic individuals and individuals with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) have difficulties with both social communication and language skills, and narrative discourse analysis offers an ecologically relevant approach to assessing those challenges.
This study investigated narrative discourse in individuals with autism and FASD, as well as an age- and sex-matched comparison group.
Methods and Procedures
Narratives from 45 adolescents and adults, 11 with autism, 11 with FASD and 23 age- and sex-matched comparison participants were elicited using a wordless storybook. They were then transcribed orthographically, formatted to the Systematic Analyses of Language Transcript (SALT) convention and scored based on the SALT Narrative Scoring Scheme (NSS), a standardised language analysis protocol. In addition to the NSS total score, which assesses the overall structure and cohesion of the narratives produced, local and global measures of language ability were also employed. The local language measures included the number of mental state and temporal relation terms produced, while the global language measures included mean length of utterance, total different words, total words, total utterances, rate of speech, the number of mazes (e.g., repetitions, ‘um’, ‘uh’ or self-corrections) per total word and the NSS total score.
Outcomes and Results
Using the SALT Language Sample Analysis tool, our results revealed that on global language measures, group differences were found on rate of speech, number of mazes per total words and the description of conflict/resolution in the narratives produced. The autism group produced significantly more mazes per total word and scored higher on the NSS conflict/resolution category score compared to the FASD and comparison groups. Both the autism and FASD groups spoke at a lower rate than the comparison group. On local language measures of narrative production, all groups were comparable, on average.
Conclusions and Implications
While many aspects of narrative discourse in the autism and FASD groups were similar to each other and to the comparison group, we observed group differences on global measures of narrative production and significant individual variability within groups, suggesting that narrative abilities considered at an individual level may provide important clinical information for intervention planning. Future research should also consider additional variables that influence narrative discourse, such as motivation, distractibility or decision-making of individual participants.
What this paper adds
What is already known on the subject
- Narrative discourse, or storytelling, is used in daily conversational interactions and reveals higher-level language skills that may not be well captured by standardised assessments of language. Many autistic individuals and individuals with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) show difficulty with pragmatic and expressive language skills.
What this paper adds to existing knowledge
- We found that many aspects of the narratives produced by the adolescents/young adults in the autism and FASD groups were comparable to each other and to the neurotypical group. However, the groups differed on three global measures of narrative production: rate of speech, number of mazes per total words and the description of conflict/resolution in the narratives produced. Also, significant variability was observed within groups, suggesting that narrative abilities should be considered at an individual level as opposed to their clinical groups.
What are the potential or actual clinical implications of this work?
- This study showed that narrative discourse is an appropriate task that can be added to routine clinical assessments of language abilities in autistic adolescents/young adults as well as those with FASD or typical development and has the potential to reveal higher-level, real-world language skills. An important clinical implication of this study is that narrative language abilities should be considered at an individual level and individual-tailored interventions based on ability level due to the variability observed across individuals.