Life stories are written scripts that use words and/or pictures to assist individuals who have cognitive and developmental challenges navigate the abstract facets of the human condition in ways that are visual and validate their feelings.
Many scholarly articles on autism and how individuals with autism process information suggest that individuals with autism spectrum disorders process visual information better than auditory information.
Auditory information is transient- that is, once it is spoken, the message is gone; it often has to be repeated by the sender multiple times to have any kind of permanence. Visual information, such as a written script, instructions, or book is non-transient- it stays there with or without the physical presence of the original sender. It allows a person to go back to the information often whether or not a sender is present.
I began my journey with using stories for individuals with autism many years ago, when I was serving a client in one of Grafton’s group homes. This little boy’s grandfather would visit him at the group home nearly every other weekend, for several years. When his grandfather became ill and the visits were decreasing, the little boy (who I will call Jack) would sit at the window for hours waiting for his grandfather to come. We would tell him that “Grandpa is not coming today”, but still he sat and waited. When it became clear that Grandpa’s condition was not going to improve, Jack’s family asked if we could use pictures to help Jack understand what was happening. And so Jack’s speech therapist created a series of scripts with picture icons that told a story about Jack and Grandpa’s relationship and followed the progression of his illness and eventual death. The scripts also included what happened to Grandpa after he died, based on the family’s religious beliefs about heaven. Jack kept the stories in his top dresser drawer, and would go back to them again and again for many months after Grandpa’s passing. The stories seemed to bring him comfort, and he stopped sitting at the window waiting for his grandfather to come. And Jack’s mother told me that once while looking at a religious-themed picture on a wall of the family home, Jack uttered his grandfather’s name. I was sold! I thought if these stories can help a child with autism with limited vocabulary understand something as abstract as the death of a loved one, then they must be worthwhile.
I started writing stories about everything- from births and deaths to moving to a new home or school, from what happens at a movie theater to what’s going to happen when we go to the beach. Sometimes the stories provide guidance on what to do in certain situations when the client is afraid or doesn’t feel safe. Sometimes they just inform a client what is going happen or provide alternative behaviors a client can engage in during certain situations. They always have some statements about how a client may feel, and validate the client’s feelings/emotions as OK.