Autistic children, like my son Arif, often struggle to understand abstract concepts like social dynamics, new situations, and transitions from one activity to the next. A helpful tool that we often use to help him understand things and feel more prepared, is social stories. We use social stories to help him better understand what’s going on, what he can expect, or what is expected of him in a given situation.
What is a social story?
A social story is a simple but meaningful short story that describes a particular activity or scenario to a child. Using encouraging words and pictures, it helps explain to children what will happen, or what they can expect, as well as how they can deal with situations that may be challenging for them. This can help prepare them mentally, limit their anxiety and smoothen transitions. Social Story™ and Social Stories™ are trademarks originated and owned by Carol Gray, who introduced this teaching tool in 1991.
How social stories help autistic children
Social stories can be used in daily life to help autistic children in a variety of ways. They are particularly effective as they can be tailored to meet the child’s specific needs. For example, they can be used to:
- Help your child to understand a different perspective.
- Help address your child’s specific behavioural problem.
- Teach your child a new routine.
- Provide your child with clear instructions on how to behave in a specific situation.
- Help your child to develop empathy and understand emotions.
- Improve your child’s behaviour when there are changes in routines.
- Teach your child abstract concepts, such as time (e.g., next, later), actions, and prepositions (e.g., open, put in).
- Encourage your child to complete less-preferred tasks.
- Break down multi-step tasks into smaller parts that are more manageable for your child.
- Help develop literacy, as you and your child read the story together.
- Improves your child’s memory, as he can see the story and revisit it over and over.
- Helps you bond and relate to your child, as you talk about their challenges
Social stories can be on any topic that relates to and is meaningful for your child. Here are examples of those topics and situations:
- How I should behave at the playground
- What I should do when I feel angry
- What will happen when I move to a new home / school
- What will happen when I visit the dentist
- How my brother might feel if I kick her
- How to get ready for school in the morning
- What I will see at the shopping mall
- Why I shouldn’t scratch/ hit others
- Why I mustn’t shout or scream when talking to others
Tips on creating a social story
Social stories are usually written by teachers and therapists, but parents can write them too, and use them at home. If you’d like to create social stories, here are a few tips:
- Give the story an objective, such as addressing your child’s intended behaviour.
- Let the story be realistic, relevant and meaningful to your child.
- The story should explain where, how and why something happens.
- The words used should be simple, gentle, positive and supportive.
- The sentences should be kept short and factual (no opinions or assumptions).
- The story should be accompanied by images to provide a visual guide.
- Use “directive” sentences that can give your child a suggestion on how to respond to a situation.
- Use “perspective” sentences that can help describe another person’s feelings.
- Use “affirmative” sentences that emphasise a point. For example, “I will not throw my toys when I am feeling upset.”
- Use “incomplete” sentences that will encourage your child to think about what the ideal response should be. For example, “My friend will feel ________ if I snatch the toy from him.”
Creating social stories can be time-consuming. To save time, you can use one of the many useful apps available for creating social stories and ebooks, like Canva, Book Creator and Pictello. They have ready-made templates and eye-catching graphics that you can use to quickly put a social story together. Once you’ve created your social story, you can print it out or use it as an ebook, which can be viewed on your mobile device. The added benefit of an ebook is that it can be easily shared with others in your family or caregivers.
Tips on using social stories
- Sit with your child and tell them you are going to read a story together.
- Share the topic of the story. For example, “Going to the hairdresser’s.”
- Read the story aloud to your child, or if your child can read, take turns reading it aloud. You can also read it together silently after reading it aloud.
- Review the most important information from the story.
- Allow your child to ask questions.
- Depending on the circumstances, you can share the social story with your child a few hours before the event, or as early as a few weeks before the event. If you start early, you can revisit the story again regularly, which is especially helpful for children who need multiple exposures to new information in order to process it.
* This article was reviewed by Joanna Hutt, the Energy Source’s Managing Director, Physiotherapist and Sensory Practitioner.