As parents, we use casual expressions with children that are mostly of a different nature: “quiet sound”, “don’t touch” and “play nicely”. But what do these sentences really mean for an autistic child? Social situations and all the expected behaviors that accompany them are difficult for autistic children, and “playing nice” simply does not provide all the information the child needs to respond properly. Fortunately, the concept of social stories was devised by Carol Gray in 1991, and these stories are central to the support of your autistic child (or child with Autism).

For an autistic child, the world can be an overwhelming place. Most of the time, it is up to adults to support them with their difficulty with transitions. This means that the first day of school, the first day of vacation, the first day of school after vacation, the first time at the dentist and other “first” can be extremely difficult and confusing for the child with autism. Social Stories for children with autism can help prepare for the upcoming change and set the stage for what is about to come.

Who needs Social Stories???

Don’t we all love a good story to help us make sense of new and unusual situations? However since children with ASD (Autistic Spectrum Disorder) have significant social anxieties as defined by the nature of the diagnosis as outlined in the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Social impairment may include but is not limited to, limitations in the use and understanding of body language, playing skills, understanding emotions, and social communication skills. Therefore, social stories have shown to be an incredible teaching tool to help teach social conventions, social expectations and it is recognized as one of the best indicators of positive long-term outcomes.

What are Social Stories?

According to Attwood, “Social stories are written for the purpose of providing information and teaching what people in a particular situation do, think or feel, the order of events, the identification of significant social signs and their meanings, and a script for what to do or say; in other words, aspects of the social state of what, when, who and why”. It breaks down the difficult social situation into understandable steps by omitting irrelevant information and is a very descriptive way to help a person with ASD understand the bigger picture. It contains answers to questions such as who, what, when, where, and why in social situations using images (visual symbols) and written texts. Social stories can also be used to teach specific social skills, such as identifying important clues in a given situation; take someone else’s stand; understand rules, routines, situations, upcoming events, or abstract concepts; and understand expectations.

The purpose of a social story is to disclose certain social information, that children in the autism spectrum don’t naturally perceive,  in a clear and compelling way that the child can easily understand. A better understanding of events and expectations can lead to behavioral change, although it is suggested that the purpose of social stories should not be to change an individual’s behavior.

Social stories use a certain style and format. In the initial version, four types of sentences (descriptive, perspective, directive, affirmative) were used, as well as the basic sentence type relationship. Types of control, collaboration, and partial sentences added.

Although the written text is the main way of presenting social stories, other formats have been tested with young children and people with intellectual disabilities. These formats include singing, storytelling and computer presentations.

 Social skills and Social Stories

Children with autism have trouble reading body language and facial expressions, their ability to “mind read” does not exist. It can mean socially that they may not be aware of thoughts, feelings, and gestures that others may display, which can lead to social mistakes.

Children in the autism spectrum, which includes children that are also called “high functioning”, may generally not be aware of the world or the people around them.

Normal daily life skills that your normal developing child will naturally copy and acquire, such as small workouts, eating habits, and apologies … an autistic child will be difficult to understand and will not understand the importance or, in fact, why they need to be overtly taught this skill.

Success in teaching social skills can boost confidence and create positive results in other areas of your child with autism, such as friends, school, and home. A trip to the dentist, a trip to school, shopping or playing – these are all good examples of social situations that a social story can focus on.

Social stories about the life skills of children with autism focus on teaching appropriate social behavior, which is explained in the form of a story. How to build social Stories:

There are seven different types of sentences for social stories:

  • Descriptive sentences: These are true and conspicuous sentences (without thinking or assumption) that identify the most relevant factors in a social situation. They often answer “why” questions.
  • Perspective Sentences: refer to or describe the internal state of others (their knowledge/thoughts, feelings, beliefs, opinions, motivation, or physical state) so that an individual can learn how others experience different events.
  • Directive sentences: Positively present or suggest a response or choice of response to a situation or concept.
  • Affirmative sentences: enhances the meaning of statements and can express value or shared opinion. They can also focus on important points, invoking law or rule to convince learners.
  • Control sentences: Identifies personal strategies that an individual will use to remember and apply information. They were written by an individual after studying social Stories.
  • Cooperative sentences: Describe what others will do to help that person. This ensures constant responses from different people.
  • Partial sentences: encourages a person to guess the next step in a situation, another person’s reaction, or their own response. Any of the preceding sentences can be written as a partial sentence, and part of the sentence is a blank space to be filled.

Targeted use of social stories

  • Preparation for social interaction: Social stories can be used to communicate ways in which a person with autism can prepare for social interaction. Conversations in comics, Carol Gray developed a complementary technique which is “visual representations” of social conversations and interactions that aim to help an individual understand social processes and increase understanding of the thoughts and actions of other people
  • Theatre: Social stories are used in the Theater Development Fund (TDF) by the Autism Initiative to “make theater accessible to children and adults on the autism spectrum.” Prior to the presentation, social stories were available, explaining the loud noises, the need for respite and moving around in the crowd.

How do Social Stories Benefit a Child with Autism?

Social skills are an important part of your child’s development, but children with autism benefit greatly from social stories as discussed earlier. Social stories will help your autistic child:

  • Promote better self-awareness.
  • Better understand and follow rules and routines.
  • Understand how your behavior affects others
  • Discover the perspectives of others
  • Encourage the identification of important signals

Who creates social stories?

Social stories are typically create by speech-language-pathologists but they can and should be created by anyone who spends time with the child enough to foresee a difficult social situation in the life of the child. Parents are the best at that! They know their child’s fears, such as the possible anxiety about their own birthday, that visit to the doctor or the unknown of a new family member.

Useful tools for creating social stories

It is easier to create a social story with the help of programs such as a membership to Smarty Symbols ($4.50/month) that offers simple drag and drop tools to customize social stories to the needs of your own child. Smarty Symbols includes templates to social stories as well as access to 26000 images that will make your life easier when creating custom social stories for your child. From their platform, you may even be able to download social stories created by the Smarty Symbols team or by therapist, educators or other parents who made their resource available on their platform.

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Conclusion

Social stories provide a golden opportunity to give overt instructions of expectations of appropriate behavior, support transitions, and support processing of difficult and new emotions.

It is the hope of each parent that our children will be accepted by their peers and to be able to make friends and succeed in most social situations (few of us neurotypicals or not are).  More often it is also the desire of children in the spectrum as well.   Social stories can be a tool to help children be prepared for those social behaviors that aid in social behaviors that can create a positive opportunity for  just that, encouraging them to participate in group activities without fear and knowing the social rules. Life has no scenarios, but social stories allow children who struggle with social communication to learn how to navigate social situations with minimal stress.

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