Social Stories: Help prepare your kid for life

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Does your child have difficulty accepting change? Does she get upset every time there is something different for supper? Does he become silent when around other children or try so hard to make friends that he scares the other children away?

By Karen Beardsley 


Many children with autism spectrum disorders often experience difficulty adjusting to new situations or expectations. Their reactions to these situations can result in loud, screaming tantrums, a flurry of self stimulating behavior, or even a total shut down.  Adults who work with these children can help to prepare them for new situations to help decrease their discomfort and reduce their problematic reactions. One useful tool that is being used to help children prepare for new situations is the social story.

Social stories use a simple story format to walk a child through the steps of a target activity. Each step or key point is presented in sequence, usually with a picture so the child can see what to expect. Often the child is the main character of the story and the “plot” involves the child completing the steps involved in the new activity. Here is an example of a simple social story to prepare a child for a long car ride.

My name is John. I have a very nice grandma. Her name is Nana. She lives very far away. I will go with Mom, Dad, and Carrie to see her. We will drive in the car. It is a very long trip. I will take things to do. I will take books and my iPad.  I will only ask how much further 3 times.  After that, I will not ask again or Dad will not be happy. I will tell Mom and Dad when I have to go to the bathroom. When we get there, I will see Nana. I will give her a big hug! She will be so happy to see me.

Typically, this story would be formatted into a little booklet with pictures added. Photos, PECS, or drawings can all be used in social stories. Often photos of the child are placed in the story to help the child identify with the situation being addressed.

The term “social stories” was first used by Carol Gray, a teacher of children with autism, in Michigan, USA. Gray developed Social Stories and Comic Strip Conversations in 1991 as ways to help her students prepare for different social situations. She is now the director of The Gray Center for Social Learning and Understanding in Grandville, Michigan. Gray has published numerous books, articles, and DVDs about social stories and presents her expertise through workshops and speaking engagements. pic 2

Social stories can be used to prepare a child for many different activities. Stories have been written for daily hygiene and grooming, meals, bedtime, going to the bathroom, going to school, making friends at school, parties, and numerous other activities. A social story can be written for just about any situation a child will encounter, but are usually used for activities that may cause a child to express fear or discomfort.

Social stories do not have to be great literature. A simple story addressing the key points of a situation will do. They usually contain common or expected actions and reactions to help the child understand what will happen and to alleviate the child’s anxiety regarding the unknown. The addition of pictures adds greatly to the child’s interest in  and understanding of a social story, especially if the child does not yet know how to read. If your child is able to, you can even have him or her help write the story and draw or select the pictures. Involving your child in the process may help improve his or her attention to the story and the key points it contains.

If you are not comfortable writing a social story for your child, there are resources available. Many different social stories have been published online and are available for download. Type in a search for social stories in your favorite search engine and see what you find. These pre-made stories come with generic pictures that most children understand. You can also purchase books or CDs that contain social stories.

In addition, the professionals who work with your child at school may be able to provide you with social story resources or may be able to write social stories for your child. Special education teachers, speech therapists and occupational therapists often write social stories for their students to help them cope with situations at school or at home as well.

pic 1Once you have a social story to help your child, read it to him or her often, at least once per day. If you are preparing for a specific event, start reading the story ahead of time – anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks, depending on the event. If you are using the story to help with daily tasks or social situations, then read the story every day or as often as your child wants to read it. Once your child has learned the key points in the story, you can move on to other stories that address other situations.

Social stories have become a useful tool in helping children adjust to the changing expectations surrounding them. Hopefully these stories will benefit your child as well. Talk to the professionals who work with your child about social stories.



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