Monday 17 March 2014

Research Bulletin: A Storybook Intervention for Autism

Past research has demonstrated that there is an association between a child’s exposure to storybooks and his or her socioemotional development (Adrian et al., 2005; Aram & Aviram, 2009; Mar et al., 2009). Specifically, the more a preschooler has been read to, the more likely that child is to understand how others think and feel. Based on this research, some have wondered whether reading might prove to be a useful intervention for children with developmental difficulties related to the social realm. Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), who are often characterized by a deficit in attending to and comprehending the mental states of others, might especially benefit from reading about others and their perspectives. A preliminary study from Japan recently investigated this possibility in 16 children with ASD (average age of 9 years old; Tsunemi et al., 2014). About half of the children were assigned to a storybook condition, in which they were read a special set of books geared toward highlighting the different perspectives of the characters and how internal states (e.g., preferences) relate to behavior. These books were read to the children in the storybook condition for around 6 days. The other half of the group were not read any stories at all. For all children, the ability to take another’s perspective was measured in a number of different ways, both before any introduction of the special storybooks for those in the storybook condition and afterwards. Although no differences were found for two of the perspective-taking tasks (i.e., visual perspective-taking and cognitive perspective-taking in the form of a false-belief task), the researchers did find more improvement in one perspective-taking task for those who were read the storybooks. In this task, children were read a short narrative and asked to answer questions regarding the characters, their perspective, and related possible scenarios. Four of the 9 children in the experimental condition exhibited increases in complexity when answering these questions after being exposed to the special storybooks. Only 1 of the 7 children in the control condition demonstrated this pattern. Most encouragingly, these increases appeared to be stable over time, still present when the children were tested again 40 days later. Because only a small number of children were tested these results must be viewed as preliminary. The findings are certainly encouraging, however, and will hopefully motivate future research into whether stories can help individuals with ASD to learn how to reason about other minds. 

Adrian, J. E., Clemente, R. A., Villanueva, L., & Rieffe, C. (2005). Parent–child picture-book reading, mothers’ mental state language and children’s theory-of-mind. Journal of Child Language, 32, 673–686.

Aram, D., & Aviram, S. (2009). Mothers’ storybook reading and kindergartners’ socioemotional and literacy development. Reading Psychology, 30, 175–194.

Mar, R. A., Tackett, J. L., & Moore, C. (2010). Exposure to media and theory-of-mind development in preschoolers. Cognitive Development, 25, 69–78.

Tsunemi, K., Tamura, A., Ogawa, S., Isomura, T., Ito, H., Ida, M., & Masataka, N. (2014). Intensive exposure to narrative in story books as a possibly effective treatment of social perspective-taking in schoolchildren with autism. Frontiers in Psychology. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00002

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Right Mind Matters said...

I recognize the value of scientific testing with control subjects; but there is nothing more heartwarming than a true story of one autistic child's success in gaining language and the ability to understand others' minds through parental involvement and intense training from professionals. This is the best I've seen, recently published in the New York Times Magazine:

Raymond A. Mar said...

Thank you so much for pointing out this article! It is a profoundly moving and highly fascinating account that illustrates how the social content of stories can provide a buttress for understanding social relations and ourselves. I would highly recommend this article to anyone with interest in the topic.

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