What is a Social Story? How can they help children with Autism and how to write your own!

A picture of two different social stories about washing hands. One is more detailed than the other.

Where did the idea of Social Stories come from?

Social stories were first researched and created by Carol Gray back in 1991.”social story” and “social stories” are terms which are trademarked by Carol Gray.


What is a Social Story?

A social story is a description of a situation, activity or event, written in such a way that it describes what to expect and why. It is usually written in the first person from the reader’s perspective.


What are social stories used for?

Social stories can be used to reduce anxiety or increase understanding in almost any situation. They can be used to help a child know what is expected of them and what to expect in any situation.

You may want, for instance to describe to a child about an upcoming trip or event. You may want to explain how to wash their hands or get dressed. Or you may want to explain how to respond in certain social situations.


How do social stories work?

The idea behind the stories is to reduce a child’s anxiety by helping them to make more sense of what is happening. You are giving them more structure and helping them to know what to expect.The story is a very literal way to help the child understand and remember what to do in a certain situation.

Although you can find pre-written social stories online it can be better to tailor the story towards the child who will be reading it and their level of understanding. The amount of information or pictures you include will vary child to child.

For instance I look after one child who needs very short and to the point social stories such as “when mummy comes to pick me up I must put on my shoes. When I have put on my shoes mummy will give me a chocolate.”  

I have another child who needs very detailed and much longer stories. For instance if they were going on a day trip instead of “I will go in the car” they would need it to say “I will get in the car and put my seatbelt on. I will be in the car for twenty minutes. If there is traffic I might be in the car for a bit longer. I don’t need to worry about feeling sick because mummy will give me a travel sickness pill.”

When I take my son on holiday, I pre plan to the extent that I know where we are going each day and I write a whole book for him to look at, which explains the holiday and each daily activity.

You can write social stories about daily activities to show a child what order to expect things to happen in, and show what is coming up next. For example. “First I will eat my breakfast, next I will clean my teeth, then I will put on my shoes”. For some children this can be simplified even more by three pictures in order with the words “now”, “next” and “then”.

For an older child you could adapt this to a checklist of things they need to do or a timetable of the daily activities.


Writing your own social story

We will use washing their hands after they use the toilet as an example.

First you need to determine what you are trying to achieve. In this case it is your child knowing to wash their hands after using the toilet.

Next you need to think about all the information surrounding the situation. Think about what, where, who, when, why, and how as well as what happens before and after.

You will need to make sure you are explaining on a level your child will understand, remembering all children are different, so think about if you will need pictures, words and pictures or just words and how much detail to include.

Try to explain why within the story so in our example the child would understand the reason they are to wash their hands too.

For a social story about a situation like this you need to use direct language. If you were writing a story about a situation where the outcome is changeable make sure you include that in the story, for example using words like “usually” “might”, “sometimes” and “maybe” are ok. You don’t want to make a child think something will definitely happen if there is a chance of it not happening as this will increase their anxiety rather than decrease it.

Every social story should have a title. For our hand washing example this could be “Washing my hands”.

You will need a beginning to introduce your story. For example “When I have been to the toilet I need to wash my hands”.

You will need a clear body to your story including the answers to all the questions you asked yourself earlier. For our example we could use “When I use the toilet, I get germs on my hands. Germs can make me poorly so I need to wash them away.  After I have used the toilet, I will wash my hands in the sink in the bathroom. First I will turn the tap on and make my hands wet. Next I will  put the soap on my hands and rub my hands together. Then I will put my hands back under the tap until the soap is gone. Lastly I will dry my hands on my blue towel.”

You will then need a conclusion. Our conclusion might be “when I have washed my hands, the germs will be gone and my hands will be nice and clean. I will wash my hands every time I go to the toilet”.

As you build up a collection of social stories it may be an idea to keep them together in a folder or to laminate them so you can go back to them and use them again as you need them. With some stories you may find it useful to put them up on the wall as a reminder. Children may need to read the same story regularly. In some situations it may help for the story to be in two places, for example a story about the school day would be useful to have at home as well as school.



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