Social Stories for Kids with Autism

Social stories are simple tools that can help your child with daily life

People with autism don't learn through imitation, and they are easily overwhelmed in brand new situations. In addition, they often have difficulty generalizing: a single experience won't help most autistic people to understand how other, similar experiences will play out. Put these realities together, and it's easy to see why so many autistic children "melt down" when asked to manage the social expectations of a birthday party, a Halloween parade at school, or even a trip to the dentist.

Fortunately, most kids on the spectrum can learn to manage complex new situations. It's not always simple and easy, but the steps are almost self-evident:

  1. Figure out what the expectations and options will be.
  2. Write them down (ideally with illustrative pictures).
  3. Present them in clear, simple terms.
  4. Rehearse often enough that the child feels comfortable and confident.

Social stories are the tool of choice for preparing children (and some adults) on the spectrum for virtually any new or complex situation. While anyone can create a social story, it takes some planning, thought, and insight to do it well.

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The Origin of the Social Story

Social stories were created by Carol Gray, a teacher and consultant. In 1990, she began experimenting with the idea of creating "social stories" to help her autistic students prepare for a range of school-based situations. Over the course of several decades, she perfected a system and approach which she has patented. While many people create their own social stories, Gray holds the trademark for the term.

Since 1990, quite a few researchers have explored the efficacy of social stories. Most have found the approach to be useful, though there are some mixed results. Clearly, social stories can only be useful when the audience is engaged, interested, and able to understand and act on the content.

The Definition of a Social Story

In its most basic sense, a social story is a short story with realistic pictures which is intended to help an autistic child, teen, or adult to better understand and/or navigate his or her world. According to Carol Gray's website:

A Social Story accurately describes a context, skill, achievement, or concept according to 10 defining criteria. These criteria guide Story research, development, and implementation to ensure an overall patient and supportive quality, and a format, “voice”, content, and learning experience that is descriptive, meaningful, and physically, socially, and emotionally safe for the child, adolescent, or adult with autism.

According to Carol Gray, the criteria for a good social story, in summary, are as follows:

  1. Share accurate information in a supportive, meaningful, descriptive manner.
  2. Understand your audience (the individual with autism) and his/her attitude toward the skill, concept or situation being described.
  3. Include a title, introduction, body, and summarizing conclusion in each social story.
  4. When writing, use a first or third-person voice, have a positive tone, be absolutely literal and accurate.
  5. Answer the key questions who, what, where, why, when, and how.
  6. Include descriptive sentences as well as coaching sentences.
  7. Describe more than you direct.
  8. Review and refine your social stories before presenting them.
  9. Plan before you write, monitor outcomes, mix and match as needed, provide both instruction and applause.
  10. Include at least 50 percent "applause" (affirmation) for the audience.

What Social Stories Look Like

Most Social Stories (though by no means all) are written for young children to help them manage daily events, emotions, frustrations, and challenges. Some are written to prepare young children for unusual events. Relatively few are written for teens and adults, and even fewer are written to help adults with autism to better understand abstract concepts, laws, or subtle social cues.

Over the years, Carol Gray and others have experimented with other formats for Social Stories. Today, it's possible to find high-quality pre-made Social Stories in the form of comic strips, videos, and even virtual reality experiences.

The key, however, is to identify Social Stories that actually follow Gray's rules, and are not simply lists of rules accompanied by clip art or emojis. A simple way to do this is to purchase one or more of Gray's collections of Social Stories or to work with someone who has actually been trained in the development of Social Stories.

Elements of a Typical Social Story

Social Stories written for young children typically:

  • Include several pages of text and images
  • Each page contains few words (the number and complexity of the language is geared to the age and cognitive abilities of the individual or group for whom the story is intended)
  • Have a title
  • Have an introductory page which sets the scene or describes the situation
  • Have several pages which include descriptions, coaching language, and "applause" for the reader
  • Conclude in a positive and supportive manner
  • Include large photographs or realistic drawings which specifically reflect the content of the story; in some cases, the images are literally photographs of the setting being described in the story
  • May be in color or black and white; color is preferred because autistic people tend to think literally

Example of a Social Story

An example of the text used in a Social Story might be as follows:

[Title: Recess]

Every day I go to recess. [picture of the school playground or a generic stock photo of a playground]

I go to recess after lunch. 

First I put on my jacket. Then I line up. [picture of child putting on jacket, picture of lining up]

If the weather is nice, I go to the playground. [picture of sunny day at a playground]

I can choose to go on the swing, the slide, or the jungle gym. [pictures of children at each piece of equipment]

Sometimes I can go straight to my favorite equipment. [picture of child going on swing with no line]

Sometimes I wait my turn. [picture of waiting on line at playground]

I can choose to play with friends or play alone. [picture of a child playing with others; picture of a child happily playing alone]

When the bell rings, I line up to go inside. [picture of children lining up]

Recess is a great time for exercise and fun. [happy children at a school playground.]

How Social Stories Are Used

Social Stories are used to teach concepts, ideas, skills, and behaviors. In an ideal world, unique Social Stories are written and illustrated for individual people. In practice, however, pre-made social stories are often used with groups, usually in school or therapeutic settings but sometimes at home or in the community. They can be read aloud like a storybook, discussed, acted out, or shared with teachers/parents to be read aloud and shared at appropriate moments.

Common Uses of Social Stories

  • Teach children (or adults) to complete a simple task such as removing a jacket and putting away a lunchbox.
  • Help individuals to prepare a complex or challenging situation such as a social event or an outing that is likely to include social expectations and/or sensory assaults.
  • Help individuals to understand and respond to body language, facial expressions, or vocal tones.
  • Provide options in a social skills group or similar setting.
  • Prepare individuals for unique events such as a wedding, job interview, or date.

Misuse of Social Stories

Because Social Stories are simple, it's easy to misuse them or create them incorrectly. Social Stories are not narratives about children behaving properly, and they are not a set of directives for completing tasks or behaving appropriately. When creating social stories, writers should avoid:

  • Stories that are made up almost entirely of directives rather than including description 
  • A story that uses the second person ("you feel x," for example) 
  • Metaphors, complex language, and other writing that may not be understood
  • Stories that are not completely accurate ("Grandma is always kind," for example, if not completely true)
  • Stories that suggest judgment or threats ("If you behave badly, you will have to go to your room," for example)

Another common error in the creation of Social Studies is the misuse of visuals. Images are intended to be as realistic, accurate, and meaningful as possible. Nevertheless, many creators of Social Stories litter their work with clip art, emojis, and other items which "decorate" the story but convey no meaning to the person reading it.

Related Research

Researchers have found positive results from the use of Social Stories, but research studies have not been particularly rigorous. It's extremely difficult to separate the use of Social Stories from, for example, behavioral interventions, developmental therapies, or medications which are commonly used with the same cohort of children. 

Research Autism, a website which grades the research findings for many different therapies, gives Social Stories a "question mark," because they believe the jury is still out on their efficacy. This position is echoed by a number of other studies which find, for example, that photo schedules can be equally effective with the right children under the right circumstances.

A Word From Verywell

While Social Stories are not a universally successful technique for helping autistic people successfully manage their emotions, behavior, and communication, they have the potential to be helpful when used correctly. They are also one of the few absolutely risk-free, low-cost, parent-friendly techniques available. Families have nothing to use, and a good deal to gain, by giving Social Stories a try.

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