“I have been told that social stories can help with my son’s behaviour. What is a social story and how do you make one?”
Social stories are short stories specifically written to help the child with autism develop social understanding, and learn how to interact appropriately with others. They also help the child to consider the perspective of another person.
Socials stories help because social situations are constantly changing and this can be extremely frustrating for the child with autism, especially if the child does not have the skills to interpret the change of social rules.
Social stories can be used to apply to any situation. Social stories outline the situation and the expected behaviour the child needs to display and why.
Social stories can outline the perspectives of others to the child in a factual way. Social stories can have photos, pictures, drawings or just words depending on the needs of the child.
The concept was developed by US author and educator, Carol Gray. For more information on Carol Gray’s social stories visit her website at www.carolgraysocialstories.com/
It is important that a social story is introduced in a relaxed, positive environment where the student is attentive and can ‘learn’ the social situation and develop an understanding of the social context.
Writing Social Stories
Social Stories contain sentences that are:
- Descriptive: What is going to happen?
- Directive: What should I do?
- Perspective: How do I or others feel?
Descriptive Sentences describe the setting, activity, who does what and why. They are objective and do not assume reactions of the person.
Directive sentences tell the person what is expected as a response to the cues or situation described. Directive sentences often begin with the words:
Perspective Sentences describe the reactions and feelings of the person and of others in the given situation.
How to write a Social Story
Step 1: What is the situation with which the person needs support?
Step 2: What characteristics of the person do we need to consider?
- Attention Span
- Learning Support Needs
- Reading ability
- Visual ability
Step 3: Give information about the situation from the person’s perspective
- who is involved
- what happens
- duration of the situation
- how it begins and ends
- consequences (both positive and negative)
Step 4: Writing the Social Story-Guidelines
Use ‘appropriate’ language
Appropriate to the person’s comprehension skills, vocabulary and in language familiar to the person
Short sentences are best.
- Write from the learner’s perspective
Put yourself in the person’s shoes during observations
Observe the person’s reactions to situations.
What confuses, frightens, motivates them?
Write in the first person: “I can …”, “I am …”,
“My teacher …”
- Build in flexibility
Use sentences starting with “Sometimes……..”, “Usually…….”
- Define clear ways to signal the beginning and end of an activity
“My computer time finishes when the timer rings”
“I can read my book until Mrs Ray writes our assignment on the board”
Step 5: Implementing Social Stories
Read story with the person prior to use in the target situation
Check comprehension of the story.
Initially read the story approximately once daily (or every time the target event occurs)
As behaviour improves, gradually ‘fade’ the story.
If needed, increase the frequency of use again
The learner can share the story with others
If the story is not working, check that it is:
- read at the relevant time
Adapted from Mr Neil Nicoll, Psychologist (Psychologist Number PS0003047), CHERI Westmead Children’s Hospital
How to present social stories
- Read them to the child.
- Read the story onto an audio tape so the child can listen and read along to the story.
- Act them out with dolls or puppets.
- Have the child read them aloud.
- Afterwards, you can ask the child questions about the story, such as “How would you feel if ….?”
Tips for using social stories
- Use the child’s name or nickname.
- Use ‘kid speak’.
- Personalise the story with the names of friends and favourite things.
- Write realistic dialogue that is age appropriate and matches the child’s reading level.
- Don’t write about what needs to be learned, have the character actually do what needs to be learned.
- Use the present tense.
- Repeat the important points of the story.
- Involve the child in writing and illustrating the story.
- Insert clipart or photos of the child to add interest to the story.
- Try to end each story with a ‘confidence statement’ such as “I can do it.”
To avoid literal interpretations and to accommodate changes in routine and expectation, use the following words in the story:
- I can
- I will
- I will try
Some children will memorise the stories and may criticise you or become upset if you change the text even slightly. To avoid this it may be a good idea to create several versions of the same story; rewriting it from different viewpoints and altering the wording of the key statements.
Example of a social story
I should not hit my brother
When I hit my brother he cries and mum gets upset.
Mum gets upset and Luke cries because hitting hurts and is not a good thing to do.
I should not hit my brother.
Instead of hitting I can use words to tell my brother to go away if he is bothering me.
I should say “Luke please go away”. Then my brother will know he is bothering me and needs to move.
Usually Luke will move away and I won’t need to hit him.
Mum will be happy and will not tell me off. Mum will be proud of me for using my words.
When I use my words mum is happy because no one gets hurt and I can tell Luke what I want.
“When Jack tries to join in with the other kids he gets into a fight. Why does this happen?”
Points to note
- Children with autism often want to join in the play of others and make friends – they just don’t know how to go about it.
- The child may have a controlling, dictatorial style of play and may be very resistant to the suggestions of others. Aggressive behaviour towards others may result if having to change the style of play and incorporate the ideas of others. Other children may see the child as bossy and authoritative, acting more like an adult than a friend.
- The child may have difficulty with concepts such as sharing, waiting and taking turns. Children with autism often become over-emotional when they lose a game, and may always want to win or be first. This is probably because children with autism dislikes surprise and have a great fear of uncertainty. Children with autism tend to be perfectionists.
- Children with autism have poor ability to make character judgments. While others can judge a troublesome child that is best avoided the child with autism may be attracted to peers that are poor role models.
Similarly, the child with autism may be unable to judge whether a comment or action has malicious intent or is a friendly overture.
- Sometimes a child with autism will tolerate being teased and tormented at school just to have company. The child may steadfastly believe that another child is a friend when it is obvious the peer is exploiting them.
- A child with autism may ‘burn out’ his friends by being too demanding, possessive, talking too much about his obsessions or being unintentionally rude or unkind. The intensity of an exclusive friendship may become intolerable to some children. The child with autism may not understand that friends sometimes want to play with others and might react quite rudely or end the friendship if this occurs.
- For some children, the only social interaction they have with their peers is at school because they don’t seek out friends out of school hours unless this is prompted or arranged by their parents.
- The child may appear withdrawn and to prefer his own company but usually wants to have friends – but just doesn’t know how to go about it. Sometimes the child may need to withdraw because the social environment can be so stressful and demanding, socialising with peers can be exhausting.
- The child can be particularly vulnerable to bullying and teasing because of unusual behaviour. A child with autism who is passive by nature will lack assertiveness, be naïve and trusting. Easily led by others, the child can get into trouble or break rules without meaning to. The ‘active but odd’ child will seek social contact but usually fails to get it right.
- A child with autism may lack empathy, an important factor in any relationship. The child may be unintentionally rude or unkind due to difficulty understanding the thoughts and feelings of others.
For example, if a friend falls over and is hurt, the child with autism may act the clown to make their friend laugh, rather than offer sympathy and a helping hand. The friend may view this behaviour as uncaring.
- The play of normally-developing children frequently involves imaginative, pretend play – children with autism often have impaired creativity or lack imagination. They may not see the point of these games or know what they are required to do.
- When a child with autism fails to form friendships, the child then has no way to practice social and communication skills – a very unfortunate ‘catch 22’ situation.
What you can do
- Recognise that the child is socially immature. Interpret and explain social situations. Encourage and model opening lines of conversation.
- Promote tolerance and understanding amongst the child’s peers by helping them to understand his difficulties. Encourage others to interact with the child in group work.
- The child may require some help interpreting pretend play and understanding how to join in. Encourage imaginative and flexible thinking in classroom activities with “Let’s pretend …” scenarios.
• Teach the child how to respond to unwanted approaches from other children.
• Select a socially mature child in the class to act as buddy.
• Make yourself (or another adult) available to counsel the child to compensate for a lack of friends.
Parents can support friendships by encouraging one or two children to visit at home in a relaxed setting where they can play together at a shared interest. (often video or computer games ,lego, dinosaurs, etc are popular)
Prompt and model appropriate social skills such as offering their friend a drink or something to eat, and asking them what they would like to play.
A short visit of a couple of hours may be better than a long whole day activity or sleep over until the child can manage having a friend visit without needing downtime.
The quality of interactions is what is important, not the quantity. A short visit where everyone is happy is better than a long visit that ends up in a meltdown.
Lack of Social Understanding
“Jackson told his teacher that he is old and wrinkly.”
Why does this happen?
- Children with autism have no concept of how their words and actions affect the feelings of others.
- Children with autism have no “filter” and don’t understand the concept of not talking about things that may be socially awkward for others.
Effectively whatever is on the child’s mind will often come out of their mouth. This level of honesty is often awkward and embarrassing for parents.
- Children with autism do not naturally acquire social skills like other children, they need to be taught what is and isn’t appropriate to say to people.
- Social skill deficits are a core characteristic of autism and should not be overlooked when assessing reasons for inappropriate behaviour.
- Social skill deficits impact on the child’s social acceptance.
- Children with autism will have difficulty understanding the thoughts and feelings of other people. They may have difficulty understanding and monitoring their own emotions. They may also have difficulty adapting to the needs and personalities of other children.
- Impairments in social behaviour include limited ability to use gesture, limited or inappropriate facial expression, awkward body language and a peculiar gaze. The child may misinterpret what is implied by an affectionate touch, such as a touch on the arm or a pat on the back.
• The child may find it hard to understand the intentions and motivation of other people – that is, why people behave the way they do.
- Impairments in social interaction lead to difficulty with conversational turn-taking, maintaining a topic of conversation and maintaining eye contact.
- As a teacher, you may need to teach a child with autism social awareness skills that you didn’t have to learn yourself – i.e. social skills that you acquired naturally, like listening without interrupting, and pausing to allow others a turn in conversation.
- Many children with autism lack an ability to understand the consequences of their behaviour.
What you can do
- Remember a child with autism needs to be specifically taught social skills; and will not acquire these naturally just by being in a social environment.
- Draw the child’s attention to the use of facial expressions, gesture, voice inflection and proximity in social interaction and explain the attitudes and meanings these convey. This could be done through drama and role play.
• Develop social interaction skills such as turn taking, sitting quietly and waiting, through playing games like Snakes and Ladders and card games.
• Help the child become aware that other people have feelings, thoughts, attitudes and beliefs that may be different to his own.
- The child needs to be made aware that he is being addressed when the teacher speaks to ‘everyone’ to enable him to understand group instructions.
- Be aware of times when the child is more likely to say something inappropriate about other people and cue/ remind the child about positive behaviour. The supermarket, the doctor’s office and other public areas are prime areas where children with autism will blurt out something inappropriate, and often at loud volume.
- Social stories are crucial to help teach the child about the feelings of others and appropriate things to say to people. You can create social stories for any situation tailored to the child’s needs.
Lack of Awareness of Others
“Billy seems to be always tripping over or bumping into other kids and furniture; he is much clumsier than other children, why?’
Why does this happen?
- It is common for children with autism to display motor clumsiness. If a child with autism steps on, or bumps into others he may have poor spatial awareness or other motor difficulties. This makes it hard to accurately judge distances and the position of one’s body in space. Many children with autism have difficulty reading body language, so they have limited intuitive ability to anticipate when someone might move into their personal space.
- Children with autism orient themselves to a room by the placement of furniture and other objects. When furniture and objects are moved they may bump into them despite having perfect vision as the physical dimensions of the space have changed.
What you can do
- At group time, sit the child at the edge of the group to avoid having to step over others. Allow the child to move off first (or last.)
- A regular motor skills program can bring about improvements in spatial awareness. If the child is not interested in team sport other activities such as bike riding, karate, swimming, tennis, gym and 1:1 ball handling sessions can help.
Make sure the room is set up in a way that allows clear spaces for walking, storing belongings and has equipment that is well organised and stored out of the way.
Coping in the Playground
“A child with autism was allowed to choose one friend to join him and play his Nintendo at recess. He quickly went from being ostracised to the most popular boy in school! ”
Points to note
- The playground can be a really threatening environment to a child with autism. There is no structure or routine to recess and lunchtime. Children with autism love routine, so they often feel stressed or anxious during this time.
Most children use playtime to release stresses and just ‘have a break’; the child with autism may return to the classroom too stressed to concentrate and participate in any way.
- In the playground there is a lot of free movement, noise and vast open spaces. There are unwritten rules that must be adhered to. There are many sights, sounds and smells to deal with. These often cause of stress and anxiety.
- The child with autism may prefer to withdraw during recess and lunch breaks because the child may be tired from social demands and sensory overload in the classroom.
- In the school ground, there is a lot of free movement, noise and vast open spaces. There are unwritten rules that must be adhered to. There are many sights, sounds and smells to deal with. These often cause stress and anxiety.
- The child may lack imaginative and creative play skills; and may prefer solitary or repetitive pursuits, such as computer games.
- The child will be vulnerable to teasing and bullying, both physical and verbal, during recess and lunch. Unusual behaviour and poor social skills make the child stand out as an easy target. The child may lack assertiveness and coping mechanisms to deal with being teased which may result in angry outbursts in class sometime after the event. The child may not be able to express feelings of distress to an adult.
- The child may be naïve and trusting and may be easily led into trouble by others who seek to manipulate an easy target. Other children may try and get the child to do silly things, hurt others, damage property or steal.
• In the playground, the poor motor skills of the child with autism will be painfully obvious to all. While other children play ball games, the child with autism may avoid doing so because of his poor co-ordination and/or motor skills. Attempts to join in ball games may lead to ridicule or fights.
- Some children with autism are ‘wanderers’ who have little sense of personal danger and no understanding of school boundaries.
What you can do
- Accept that the child may need to be on his own at times, but provide support should the child wish to join social activities.
- Encourage the child to learn by watching others play. If the child has an integration aide it would be helpful to assign some aide time to supervising and supporting the child in the playground. Talk through the activities to explain the role of each person.
- Teach useful opening lines to help the child join in conversations.
- Teach and encourage the child to practise playground games and ball handling skills.
- Mark a school map with boundaries and ‘no-go’ areas to ensure the child clearly understands where he can and cannot go. No go areas may need painted boundary lines on the ground as a visual cue to assist the child understand where they can and cannot go.
- Support the child in how to respond to teasing and unwanted social approaches by other children.
- Autism is an invisible handicap – a child with autism doesn’t really look any different to other children, making it difficult for staff on yard duty to understand the child’s needs. All teaching staff should be aware of the child’s social difficulties to make allowances (but not excuses) for behaviour. Place a photo of the child in the staffroom along with notes about behaviour and difficulties. (Check that this is OK with the parents first.)
- Have a pre-arranged place for the child to go to if it all gets too much. The child should also be aware of who to turn to for support when distressed, such as a school counsellor.
- If possible allow the child access to the computer room or library at break times. Perhaps the second half of lunch could be spent inside in the library, playing board games, Lego or computer time with one or two friends. This means the child will be calmer and ready to return to class at the end of recess and will have had more meaningful interaction with peers without the stress of the playground.
- If the child cannot access the library or have inside time at lunch time, allow the child 10 minutes of time out after returning from recess or lunch. Some children might prefer a solo run around the oval; others might like to hide in a box or cupboard, or be ‘sandwiched’ in between a couple of bean bags.
- Choose a mature child from the class to act as a buddy during recess and lunchtime.
- All children in the school should be aware that bullying is unacceptable through a school policy of positive behaviour management.
- Make a picture schedule of lunchtime activities. One hour can seem like a long period of unstructured activity to a child with autism. Split the hour into segments: 20 minutes – eat lunch, 20 minutes – ball games, 20 minutes – other activities.
- Social stories can help children with autism cope in the playground and understand school boundaries. A social story about “who is a friend” or “what a friend does” may help the child to recognise when others may be encouraging the child to engage on unacceptable behaviour.
Points to note
- Many children with autism will have difficulty forming friendships due to their poor language and social skills. If they do develop friendships, they may quickly burn out their friends by being too demanding, or being unintentionally rude and inconsiderate.
- Children with autism are likely to become frustrated and upset by their inability to make friends and their difficulty interpreting social situations.
- If children with autism are not given support and encouragement to make friends they are denied the very context in which they can practice and develop their communication and social interaction skills.
What you can do
- Choose a socially mature child in the class to be a buddy to the child with autism. Girls are often more mature than boys and may be more accepting and nurturing toward a child who appears different and socially awkward. Buddies need to be taught when to ask for adult help and what their role will be.
- A buddy can help explain the rules of games, encourage social interaction, come to the child’s aid if he is teased and seek adult help if the child becomes distressed.
- Buddies need to be taught when to ask for adult help and what their role will be.
- Establish a safe place for the child with autism to retreat to if upset. This should be a place that the child knows and can easily get to, and where there is an adult who can quickly offer assistance.
Be careful not to place too much stress on the buddy; children with autism can be very demanding. Ideally, have two or three helpers, rotating them on a regular basis.
“Richard works very well by himself when away from the classroom in the library, but when he is with other students his behaviour escalates.”
Points to note
- A child with autism may have sensory issues that make the child feel threatened by the close proximity of other students. Group work may cause anxiety and the child may insist on working alone. When sitting on the floor, sensory difficulties may cause problems, ie. disliking the feeling of the carpet or floor covering.
- The child may find the social dimension of shared learning to be confusing.
- The child may seem to ‘switch-off’ at times and seem incapable of tuning into classroom activity.
- The child will need to be taught what to pay attention to in a busy distracting classroom.
- Be aware that a child who seems quiet and well-behaved may be most at risk in the classroom. Problem issues that are unseen may well go unaddressed until intense frustration results in verbal and/or physical outbursts
- In the classroom, a child with autism will have difficulty reading the intentions of the teacher and understanding why things happen the way they do.
- The child with autism may not understand that they are part of a group and may ignore instructions given to the class as a whole.
- The child may have difficulty with turn taking and may ask a lot of irrelevant questions, constantly interrupt the teacher or other students.
- Other children may be annoying or irritating the child with autism when the teacher isn’t looking, which can cause the child to have outbursts and want to work alone
What you can do
- The child will respond best in a classroom environment that is ordered and quiet, with an atmosphere that is encouraging, not critical.
- It is important the classroom teacher has a positive and supportive approach toward the child with autism; the other children will pick up on this and also adopt a welcoming attitude.
- Written instructions, or a combination of text and pictures should be used to support verbal instructions wherever possible.
- Be explicit when giving verbal instructions – don’t assume that the context in which it is given will make the meaning clear.
- Make sure the child understands the daily routine with a written timetable reinforced with images. See Visual Schedules for more information.
- Watch out for peers who may obviously or subtly annoy the child and ensure they do not sit together. Some peers may feed off or feedback inappropriate behaviours to the child – perhaps the child with autism likes these peers but the relationship is not necessarily desirable.
- Consider taking the child out of the classroom to a quiet area for short periods to teach new concepts in a setting free from distraction.
- Avoid doing things for the child that the child can do or could easily learn to do. Remember the aim is to develop independence.
- Take advantage of the number of quality educational computer programs available – if the child has a particular interest in computers he could be rewarded for good behaviour with extra time on the computer. A child who has difficulty with written tasks should be encouraged to type and print his work. Computer programs present information in a predictable, logical and sequential format, perfectly suited to the unique learning style of the child with autism.
- Don’t automatically assume the child is not listening or behaving if not responding to an instruction. The child needs to understand that they are part of the group. Say the child’s name to cue the child’s attention before giving instructions.
- Don’t assume that the child will read your intentions from your behaviour.
- Don’t assume that the child will understand the meaning of any task or activity unless very explicit instructions have been given.
- The child may not focus on what you consider to be the obvious focus of attention. Again, be explicit. You might need to say, “Look at what I’m holding.” Not simply, “Look over here.”
- Sit the child in the most appropriate place in the classroom, where the child is unlikely to be disturbed by the movement and close proximity of others. See also Physical Setup of the Classroom.
- If the child has difficulty sitting on the floor at group time, mark a special spot for on them the mat. If the child is having sensory processing difficulties (ie. cannot tolerate the feel of the carpet) it may be necessary to provide a cushion or piece of fabric (fluffy fabric, something soft) for the child to sit on. If the child is still too distracted by those around them, the child may need to sit on a chair adjoining the mat, so the child is still part of the group but not distracted by sensory issues and other children.
- If the child resists working in small groups, let the child work with an integration aide or classroom assistant, if one is available. Then progress to working with one other child, before attempting group work.
- Allow for periods of solitude. The social demands of the classroom can be demanding and frustrating for a child with autism.
Visual supports can be downloaded from boardmakershare.com