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Social Stories

What are Social Stories?

A technique developed by Carol Gray (1991) to help individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other learning disabilities 'read' and understand social situations. Social Stories can be used to help people know how to behave within a certain social situation by providing an individual with accurate information about those situations that he or she may find difficult or confusing. The situation is described in detail and focus is given to a few key points: the important social cues, the events and reactions the individual might expect to occur in the situation, the actions and reactions that might be expected of him/her, and why. The goal of the story is to increase the individuals’ understanding of, make him/her more comfortable in, and possibly suggest some appropriate responses for the situation in question.

The purpose of a Social Story

Social skills are relatively straightforward to teach and many people with ASD acquire such skills systematically. HOWEVER, social competence requires the ability to use and apply social skills in a range of contexts – it must be remembered that just because a person acquires a skill in one area does not mean that they will automatically generalise it to others. Social Stories have been found to be effective in providing information about situations/events and about the perspective of others in relation to those situations. They aim to develop social skills, social prediction, social judgement and social understanding by presenting information in a non-threatening manner and providing a guide for a person who is experiencing difficulties with a social situation to follow. Social stories can be developed for people with a wide range of abilities, from a straightforward written story with no visuals to a story with mainly visuals or even an audio recording. Whatever the content and format of the story, it must always be individualised to suit the person for which it is intended.

How is a Social Story developed?

You need to have a very clear idea about what it is that you want the story to address, thinking about the following:

  • What information is missing from the persons' understanding?
  • Which relevant and important social cues need to be incorporated?
  • What appropriate social behaviour needs to be included?
  • What are the perspectives of others?
  • Information needs to be gathered from everyone involved with the person
  • Tailor the text - when writing a story you need to take in to account the developmental age, cognitive ability, reading comprehension, language, attention span, learning style and interests/motivators of the individual the story is intended for.

The words to use

Social Stories typically include three types of sentence:

Descriptive - Describes the situation; where the situation takes place, who is involved, what they are doing, and why they may be doing it, for example 'Sometimes I get sick'.

Perspective - Gives an insight into the thoughts and feelings of others involved in the situation, for example, 'Usually, people don't like it when someone coughs over them'. "Usually" and "sometimes" should be used instead of "always" in perspective and descriptive sentences.

Directive - Directs towards the desired behaviour and suggests desired responses tailored to the individual, for example, 'I will try to cover my mouth when I cough'. Avoid statements like 'I must', 'I have to' or 'I can' as it is important that these sentences have a positive focus and be constructed in ways which allow flexibility.

Other sentence types:

Affirmative - Enhances the meaning of surrounding statements, immediately following a descriptive, perspective or directive sentence and having the role of stressing an important point, referring to a rule or reassuring, for example, 'Coughing over people can spread germs and make other people sick'. 

Cooperative - Identifies what others may do to assist the individual and helps to ensure a consistent response by a variety of people to a behaviour or situation, for example, 'The people who support me will help me remember to cover my mouth when I cough'.

Control - Helps to identify strategies that the person will use to recall the relevant information and aids memory and comprehension, for example, 'When I feel that I am about to cough, I will try to remember to raise my hand and place it over my mouth'.

Partial - Incorporates a 'fill-in-the-blank' format and is often used to check comprehension, or to encourage an individual to make guesses regarding the next step in a situation, the response of another individual, or his/her own response, for example, 'The people who support me will feel…………… when I remember to put my hand over my mouth when I cough'.

Social Story Ratio

Social Stories are not about behaviour modification – telling the person what they will or will not do. To teach social understanding over rote compliance, you need to describe a situation more than to direct an individual as to what to do. It is therefore necessary to ensure that your story carefully describes what people say and do and what people think and feel and why. The social story ratio defines the relationship between the different types of sentence that may be used in a social story, ensuring that every story focuses on describing interactions or events, or explaining the rationale that underlies what people may think, say or do in a given situation. At the same time the ratio limits sentences that suggest what an individual 'should do' in a given situation.

Sentences in a social story are sorted into two categories; those that describe and those that direct. Sentences that describe include:

  • Descriptive
  • Perspective
  • Cooperative
  • Affirmative.

Collectively, these sentences work together to share information: answering 'wh' questions (descriptive), explaining what other people may know, feel or believe (perspective), describing how others will support the individual (cooperative) and reinforcing important concepts (affirmative).

Sentences that direct also share information, their role being to guide or suggest what an individual may say or do in a given situation. Sentences that direct include:

  • Directive
  • Control.

These sentences are in the minority in a social story, outnumbered by their descriptive counterparts by a ratio of at lease 2:1. In fact, in many cases the use of directive or control sentences may not be necessary or advisable.

Introducing a story

Ideally, the person should have the chance to hear or read the story on a daily basis. They may take some time to get used to the story and may initially feel worried about it. Once reading the story has become part of their routine, additional stories can be created and incorporated. However, care must be taken not to overload a person with stories!

  • You need to work with the people who support the person
  • The story needs to be read when there are limited distractions
  • Sit at the person's side and slightly back – or follow individual client guidelines
  • Briefly explain how it will be used
  • Read through once or twice
  • Share it with others.

A Social Story is not static but a dynamic strategy that needs to be reviewed and should follow an individual's changing needs.

The 10 Criteria that define each Social Story

A Social Story:

  1. Meaningfully shares social information with a client

  2. Has an introduction that clearly identifies the topic, a body that adds detail and a conclusion that reinforces and summarises the information

  3. Answers 'wh' questions

  4. Is written from a first or third person perspective

  5. Uses positive language, omitting descriptions or references to negative behaviour in favour of identifying positive responses

  6. Always contains descriptive sentences, with an option to include any one of the six remaining sentence types

  7. Describes more than directs – only one directive or control sentence plus at least

  8. Has a format that is tailored to the abilities and interests of it’s intended audience and is usually literally accurate

  9. Includes individually tailored illustrations that enhance the meaning of the text

  10. Has a title that positively identifies the main topic of the story

Example Social Stories

How to wash my hands

People usually wash their hands using soap and water. There are five steps I will try to follow when washing my  hands. Someone can help me learn and remember these steps:

What are unexpected noises?

1.        There are many different noises (descriptive)

2.        Sometimes noises surprise me (descriptive)

3.        They are unexpected (descriptive)

4.        Some unexpected noises are; telephones, doorbells, barking dogs, breaking glass, vacuum cleaners, slamming doors, honking horns, and thunder (descriptive)

5.        These sounds are okay (affirmative)

6.        I will try to stay calm when I hear unexpected noises (directive)

7.        The people who support me can tell me when the noise will stop (co-operative).

Personal Space

  1. I like being sociable with other people (descriptive)
  2. There are some people who I especially like to be with and to talk to (descriptive)
  3. It is nice to be with people and to talk to people (descriptive)
  4. BUT, people don’t like it when someone gets too close to them. People like to have their personal space (perspective)
  5. Giving people personal space means that we do not lean on them, sit on them, try to kiss them or try to hold their hands (descriptive)
  6. It is not polite or friendly to invade someone’s personal space (perspective)
  7. When I am talking to people I will always try to remember to give them their personal space (directive)
  8. When I remember to give people personal space they will think I am polite and friendly (perspective)

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