Sharing Stories with a Neurodiverse Population

Judith Black By Judith Black     © 2016

There are many shades and expressions of autism.  From children who make little or no contact with their surrounding world to students with Asperger Syndrome, who want mightily to make friends and ‘fit in,’ there is a broad spectrum of behaviors and needs.

What I will offer below represents the collective wisdom of our LANES community and what I learned from Dr. Monica Meyers, a developmental behavioral Pediatrician.

Prevalence of autism in U.S. children increased by 119.4 percent from 2000 (1 in 150) to 2010 (1 in 68). (CDC, 2014) Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability. (CDC, 2008)*  Often, when students on the autism spectrum are integrated into the larger body of students, it becomes difficult for a visiting artist, unless informed ahead of time, to shape material with them in mind.  Thus, our first task is to always ask hosts if students with any special needs will be attending a performance or workshop and what their specific diagnosis might require in terms of presentational style or material.

I learned this in the hardest way possible.  A thousand years ago, as a young teller, I was working with a couple hundred K-3rd grade students in the ubiquitous  ‘cafetorium.’  A group of students to my left were laughing uproariously in all the wrong places. Insecure and wanting the complete focus of the entire group, I eyeballed these students and let them know they were being inappropriate. When the morning was over and a teacher informed me that their responses had been ‘off’ because they were the special needs class and often responded in unique ways to stimuli, I prayed for the earth to open up and swallow me.  Now, I hang my ego at the door, and ask up front.

Sheila Arnold Jones, a teaching artist from Hampton, VA goes a step further.  She asks to meet with autistic students prior to the group performance:

“I introduce myself, explain why I am there and what I will be doing. I show them how my voice will go from loud to soft, and from fast to slow.  Then I give them some information that no one else knows yet. I share the title of one of the stories. I preview a song I will sing or a story character that I will become.  I ask them to keep the secret about who I really am when in ‘character.’ Having them arrive early lets them know they will be safe in the midst of change.  Also, they are spared the chaos and noise of entering with other students.”

I have always requested that autistic students be seated up front.  You can gauge their ability to take in the story, participate, and feel at ease. If hands go up to protect their ears, your obvious response is to dial back a bit.  If they exhibit recurring movements or outbursts, you can normalize them by making them part of the story.

Robin Brady suggests:

“Music, simple stories with repetition, (or not so simple…good to ask the teachers about the level of the children), and your full self.”  She also acknowledges the need to monitor sound and movement so that students are comfortable with your presence.

If your listeners are all on the spectrum, you have the choice and ability to shape the material and style of sharing it for them. Nyanna Tobin suggests:

“You need to build in for tactile and movement experiences that the kids can choose or direct if they want to. I used to do something that I called sensory stories, where the kids could hold the props and objects or pictures in the stories.”

She recommends a new book about autism: NeuroTribes: the Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Siberman

Joy Kelly encourages children to sing a taught chorus into her microphone:

“The teachers were so supportive when a child did this they gave a round of applause!

I didn’t touch any of the kids but a few would just come to my instruments to touch and look at them during a story or a song.”

She cautions:

“With some autistic children it’s difficult to tell whether they are with you, until they respond to some hands on activity such as playing an instrument or repeating a chorus or simply coming to touch an instrument.  In an Anansi story I asked the audience to pretend we were asleep and I’d show them a gesture and even some of the nonverbal children would follow along.”

Papa Joe brings up an essential truth, especially about children with Asperger Syndrome. “Some of the schools I’ve worked with have had great success moving some children from nonverbal to verbal using the tales on a daily basis. So work on getting those teachers and aides involved.”  Ritual is often the key to working with and communicating with these students.  If you can help teachers create a ritual story that welcomes them each day and walks them through the major, repeated, events, you have created a template that new learning can be eased into.

Andrea Kamens had a brilliant insight.  While telling to a group of special needs adults, she was describing the Pharoah’s daughter as she went to fetch the baby Moses from the river.

“When I talked about how she got just the hem of her long dress wet but then the water started to go up the dress and how it felt clinging to her legs, two different people interrupted to talk about how pants did that too and together we described the discomfort and her bravery in powering through it. People who aren’t neurotypical spend huge portions of their day being brave and rising to challenges that no one else even notices.”

What a gift we have in story.  It can penetrate the deepest forests.


New perspectives of our national history, tickling familial dysfunction, aging, and human quirks, are all fodder for Judith’s tales. Featured on stages from the Montreal Comedy Festival to The Smithsonian Institution, to the Art Museum of Cape Town, she has appeared 10 times at the National Storytelling Festival, and is the winner of the Oracle Award, storytelling’s most coveted laurel. Judith teaches two classes annually:

Summer:  Telling Stories to children

Winter:  Making Stories from Your Life 


This blog series is a part of the LANES Connections Project: Storytelling for All Audiences. This task seeks to celebrate connections to other organizations, professions, and audiences to which we are joined through story. If you are joined through story with another organization, profession, setting or special audience, we would love for you to share your experiences with us in a blog.


Sharing Stories with a Neurodiverse Population — 6 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I know this will be very helpful. I once wore a skirt that had an elastic band and beautiful braid along the edge of the skirt. A student loved touching the braid and nearly pulled my skirt off. It was a bit of a tug-of-war, however, I managed to keep the skirt on. After the story session, I let her feel the braid for as long as she wanted. A cautionary tale on clothes.

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