The mother of an autistic teenager was very worried because her son had started to ask very loudly, if sleeping babies were ‘dead’. He wanted to check the baby was still alive by poking at it to make sure it would move and hopefully wake up. He knew you slept at night, not in the daytime, therefore the babies must be dead.
This boy was missing some information about why babies sleep in the day. We wrote the boy a story explaining the sleep cycle of humans to him. We offered him suggestions about what he could say when he saw a baby and some questions he could ask to show interest in the baby that were more appropriate. We explained that mums preferred it if other people didn’t touch their babies without asking them first. And that we had to respect it if they said ‘no’. The young man laughed with joy when he read it and said, “Now I get it!”.
That’s what a Social Story™ does…it explains a situation, event or misunderstanding. It gives an autistic person the social information about what others think and prefer. It explains the ‘why’ other people do the things they do. Then it gives the autistic person suggestions about how they might react or deal with the situation if it arises again. Social Stories™ are kind, gentle and positive. They affirm the autistic person and where possible, involves them in outlining the problem and finding a solution. They can also be written to prepare, teach, praise and affirm them as a person, explaining things they have done that have made appositive impact on themselves or others.
I love Social Stories™. They are suitable for all ages, and particularly for those in mainstream school. Training others how to write them gives me the chance to constantly check my own stories for the accurate structure and language they were intended to have. They were invented by Carol Gray in the early 90s and have a very specific structure and formula to follow.
Many professionals advise using Social Stories™ with autistic children and young people. In my years of supporting autistic young people in mainstream primary and secondary schools I have written hundreds of these stories. Mainstream teachers, support staff and parents are often told to use them as a support strategy without being trained in how to write them. A misguided attempt to write a Social Story™ can at best just not mean anything to the autistic child, and at worse make the situation worse. The most common mistakes I have seen is that the stories become ‘do’s and ‘don’ts’ of behaviour, telling the child off, and insisting they must behave in a certain way. Social stories are not about compliance, even when the child is engaged in challenging behaviour.
Before you write a social story, you need to spend time working with and observing the child to find out what social or perspective information they might be missing or thinking about differently. If you want to prepare them for a new experience, a social story would work out first what would be familiar to them. If you were praising them for an achievement, you may be explaining why others think it is such a great thing and what it means they could also achieve from that point. If they were trying to do something sociable, you may write a social story that explains the autistic perspective to the other children in the group. (Yes social stories can help any child!)
One of the easiest mistakes to make is to assume we know what the autistic young person is thinking. Taking time to really figure out their perspective and why that situation is difficult, is where we need to begin. Ask them. If they find the words hard to find, then we may need to use other ways of listening to what they have to say. From sensory issues to differences in the way they see or experience something we need to see it from their point of view. And then we use what we know about their strengths, to affirm them throughout.
After seeing many teachers and parents struggle to write social stories, I suggested to Helen, my editor at LDA that we could share some of my stories as templates for people to use. Choosing only around 60 to put in a book suitable for the primary age range was difficult as I had so many, but I choose stories which were about common issues that a number of autistic children had had difficulty with. These are all stories that I have used as templates myself, in different schools, adapting each one to the particular needs of the autistic child I was supporting. There are stories about classroom routines, sensory and emotional regulation, new situations, work challenges and issues that impact on home and school. I hope that you might find them useful as editable word documents. Who doesn’t love a CD with a book?! The book is written to help you learn to structure and adapt the stories for the child you want to use them with. Thinking about how it is set out, how it is illustrated and what affirmation the child needs. We don’t use ‘must’ or ‘should’ in social stories, we use ‘sometimes’, ‘usually’ and ‘I can’. The power to choose what to do with the information is given to the child, and the support that we will give is there for reassurance.
That’s why my book is called “Stories that Explain” because these stories do exactly what it says in the title.