Social Stories are a fantastic tool for you to exchange information and communicate with a child. They can provide a mechanism to introduce or discuss social interaction. They were developed to support children on the autistic spectrum but can be useful for all children if pitched at the correct level.
In this post I will look at what social stories are, why we use them, how we use them and who they are for. Alongside my own experiences and tips on writing your own social stories.
What are Social Stories?
A social story is a description, (often with visual aids) about everyday activities or events. They detail specific information relating to a situation and what to expect.
Social Stories were devised by Carol Gray to assist people with autism to understand and improve social skills. They should be tailored specifically for the audience and accurately describe a context, skill or achievement. The purpose is to model appropriate social interaction.
There are many social skills that most of us take for granted that are particularly difficult for people with autism to understand, social stories are one tool that can be helpful. Social Stories as developed by Carol Gray should follow a specific criteria and more information can be found on her website.
What are social stories used for?
Your audience should determine the topics you use for a social story. What might they benefit from / need to know.
Social stories might relate to personal care such as getting dressed, putting your shoes or washing your hands. They can also be about social skills like building friendships, how to play with others and how to understand other people’s reactions.
Social stories can also be information relating to a situation such as going to the hairdressers or supermarket or about behavioural strategies for example ‘it is ok to feel angry but it is not ok to hit, next time ….’.
Using Social Stories
It is important that social stories are used for positive feedback at least 50% of the time and not always about behaviour you need to change, use them to celebrate achievements.
My six year old is non-verbal, using social stories has really helped me to communicate things to him in a visual format I know he understands.
My experience of Social Stories
The first time I used a social story was when my son was two, it was about not hitting other children. This had been passed onto me so had not been written directly for him. It used symbols rather than pictures and at the time probably meant very little to him, furthermore it had more text than pictures which was too advanced for him at that stage. This was not a successful introduction to social stories for us. It felt like I was reinforcing hitting as I knew he didn’t understand the story.
Fast forward a year and after a class on social stories I wrote one directly for my son. It was very simple only four lines of text:
J was reading his book
J said a word
and mummy was very happy
well done J
Alongside the text it has nine photos or symbols (I used a mixture). It included photos of me and my son and symbols such as book and speaking. The difference was instant, as we sat and read it for the first time he clearly understood. Straight after he ran to get his book that we had been reading when he had said a word and looked through it with me, Yay!
We often use social stories to help with new experiences like flying with the kids or starting school. They are also useful to explain unexpected things like no school on a snow day or mufti days.
Our Social Stories
I now have a few different social stories that we use, some are very targeted at my son, others are more general. He used to refuses to read one about going to the hairdressers. This is because at the time he getting his haircut.
For my youngest it is easier to get him to engage with social stories when I use his favourite characters.
Who are Social Stories for?
Social Stories have been designed to support people with autism, however tailored social stories are beneficial to most young children.
Some children don’t take kindly to being told how to behave so a targeted bedtime story about a child doing good behaviour may be more appropriate. If you feel the child will struggle if they think the message is targeted to them, read the social story to a group of children.
Very small children may benefit from supporting visuals alongside text relating to situations. The best approach will depend on the individual’s needs.
So far I have only worked on very basic social stories as that is the right level for my son. As a child’s ability to read develops the focus can move towards the text and away from the visuals. The stories will increase in length and complexity as the child develops. For older kids it may be worth looking at comic strip conversations.
How do I write a social story?
Social stories initially need to be short and with clear information, they should have the picture then words alongside. If your child is very young I would use more photos. If they are familiar with certain symbol systems (like PECS) use them, the idea is to use a format they will understand and be able to engage with.
Think carefully about what the message is you want to convey, what is the situation? What aspects don’t they understand? What information do they need to cope better with the situation? How could you use a social script?
The aim is to keep it clear, simple and focused so the message does not get lost. If you have lots of ideas do several different social stories and introduce them one at a time.
How to use a social story
Read the stories at an appropriate time, don’t pull them out as a punishment. You need to be calm, patient and positive when sharing the social stories. Ensure the environment is comfortable and quiet. I tend to read them just before bed or at the table after a meal as these are good times I know my child is more likely to pay attention.
If you have a story about going to the dentist, read it for a few weeks or months before you actually go. This will give the child time to process the information and feel familiar enough with the story to help it make a difference.
If you are sharing social stories with children who ask what it is for be honest with them. Explain why you are sharing the story with them (you are teaching them something).
Keep it relevant
Review the story as often as needed, the more frequently you look at it together the more comfortable they will become with the content. Also leave the stories somewhere accessible so the child can access them when they want to without you.
If you have social stories that are specifically for your child share them with others such as grandparents, teachers, support workers- the more people that read the same story the better.
Try to only introduce one story at a time, focus on one thing at a time and go at your child’s pace. The social story needs to be read consistently each time so make sure you read the script exactly as it is written, this consistency is very important.
I write mine on a computer using Word or PowerPoint and I use laminated card as it will last longer.
Top tips for writing social stories:
- Try to always end the social stories on a positive like a happy face.
- Limit the early ones to five steps.
- Write in the 1st or 3rd person not ‘you’ – it shouldn’t feel targeted. Older children generally prefer the 3rd
- Avoid the word ‘change’ and any other words that can be misinterpreted. Instead of different or new then try other words like better or more – keep it positive.
- Make sure you use words they understand.
- Be careful not to teach something in any context e.g. do not say ‘yes’ to adults all the time.
- Reassure, all emotions and feelings are ok – ‘IT IS OK!!’
- Keep it visual
Ideas for early years social stories:
‘In nursery we use gentle hands, we need to remember no hitting, everyone will be pleased if I use gentle hands with my friends.’
‘I don’t like X I sometimes feel sad and upset. This is OK. It is normal to feel sad and upset when I do something I don’t want to’
‘It is important that I X because…’
Try to use positive symbols at the end of the stories:
Click on the link below for one of my social stories about saying hello when we see our friends.
There are many books that are similar to social stories, Suzie Books are great. Here are a few I use and get on with.
Avril Webster has a range of great books about going to places. We have the one about the dentist and the one about hairdressers.
I also find it helpful to use books with characters your child knows well. For example Peppa Pig going to the dentist / swimming etc.
You may be interested in the Social Stories Guide from Autism Parenting Magazine.
Other posts you may find useful:
Have you used social stories? How did you get on with them?