This post was updated in June, 2020 to reflect updated and additional information.
Children who have an autism spectrum disorder vary so much in their individual characteristics that it is sometimes difficult to see what they have in common. I think the one consistent feature is that social situations and relationships are more challenging for them.
Many books for young children focus on social relationships and how children can solve social problems. For example, Mo Willems wrote a series of books about Elephant and Piggie, two friends with very different personalities. When an adult reads these books with a child and helps clarify the story, children learn about a social situation and how it gets resolved.
Children on the autism spectrum, however, may not be able to understand how the story applies to them. To learn more about this issue, refer to the work of Simon Baren-Cohen called Mindblindness: An Essay on Autism and Theory of Mind. Most people are able to make guesses about the people around them, what they are feeling and what they actually mean when using phrases. People on the autism spectrum have much more difficulty understanding those same thoughts and feelings. But they can be taught, systematically, what most seem to absorb effortlessly.
Much of what we say and do requires an interpretation of words and body language/facial expressions in context. For example, ”I’m taking everything but the kitchen sink” means something more complex than what it says. A person with autism may think this is about a sink and not understand what the person is actually saying. Carol Gray, the Director of The Gray Center for Social Learning and Understanding, recognized the need to create new kinds of stories to help children understand social situations. So she developed Social Stories™. These stories are used worldwide with children, adolescents, and adults with autism and are a powerful tool for parents and professionals alike.
A Social Story™ uses specific guidelines to describe common social situations that any person might face. They are written from that person’s perspective. They can be written by an adult or by the child and adult together. The goal of these stories is to teach social understanding rather than to change behavior. Many professional and parents will tell you that a good social story often becomes a child’s favorite book because they love to see themselves and enjoy the repetitious language.
Social Stories should:
- Focus on positive desired behaviors
- Be understandable to the child and written from the child’s perspective
- Focus on the visual aspect of the story and use photos of the child whenever possible
- Have one item/idea per page
- Use simple and repetitive language
- Start with a prior success from a similar situation and end with an assumption of future success (including ways adults will help)
Parents may find writing a Social Story overwhelming at first, so start small. A simple task or situation, such as opening presents at a party, is a great place to start. As you get more adept at creating these and your child gets more familiar with the format, you will easily “grow” into more complex concepts.
Updated – June 2020:
That said, beware the rabbit hole of ideas. It’s probably most important to look carefully at your child, think about the situation, and just get started. One Social Story created and used is better than a hundred searched and considered!