Social Stories

[By Stephanie Duke ]

In our lives, there are many instances where we have to engage in a situation that we never encountered before. Whether it be a social event with unfamiliar people or learning to use the ATM for the first time. Or not knowing what you are supposed to do and behave in a new situation will bring about a certain level of anxiety.

Now imagine that you were not the savant of new situations that you are today. That you were not able to pick up on how everyone else is acting and that imitating others sparked anxiety that led to a tick or stimming behavior.

This is the reality of a person with Autism.

Autistic individuals tend to lack the skills needed to go with the flow when it comes to situations that are unfamiliar to them. And as anyone who has met someone with Autism would know, the lack of knowledge on what to do and what the acceptable responses are in a new situation could potentially send the individual into a downward spiral of ticks and potentially a full-blown meltdown.

But this doesn’t have to be the case.

In 1991, a special needs teacher by the name of Carol Gray developed a method of teaching and explaining social situations to autistic individuals to help them learn socially acceptable behavior and responses. Grey had found that social stories could detail the nuances that Autistic individuals may misunderstand or not pick up, such as what typically happens in that setting, and what actions or behaviors are expected from the autistic individual in the setting.

Do Social Stories Work?

Research done in the last decade has shown that the use of social stories can have a positive effect on the behavior of autistic children. Research also suggests that the use of social stories may be as effective in managing difficult behavior in autistic individuals rather than teaching them particular social skills. And with that in mind, it is no wonder that the use of the social story has become so popular since its inception.

How Do You Create A Social Story?

Social stories are meant to be tailored to each individual child and their mental capacities, however, there are two main categories we can look at to first determine what kind of social story would be most applicable.

Social stories for children with high support needs work in a preventative manner to mentally prepare the child for the event that will transpire. At this point, it is essential to use pictures and keywords, and phrases to ensure the child with high support needs are able to comprehend what is being said.

In a scenario whereby the family is having a birthday party in a restaurant, it would be best to aid the child beforehand with such interrogative questions and answers such as, who would be attending the party, what does the location look like, why are we there, what is going to happen, what will we eat, and so forth. And as mentioned, it would be best for each question to be followed with a picture answering and the answer itself in key points.

It is also important to make the child aware of potential triggers that may occur during the party and detail what would and wouldn’t be acceptable behavior at the time. In the same example; being a birthday party, letting the child know that everyone will sing happy birthday and that it could get loud then. Tell the child what they could do if things feel uncomfortable for them such as covering their ears or asking to take a break from the noise for a while. In this way, you and the child have the same expectations and also have an escape plan should things become too overwhelming.

Now for the children with low support needs, a similar story can be told but it need not be as detailed and is more for the purpose of giving instructions rather than to give them a heads up on the situation.

In the example of the birthday party, a social story to a child with low support needs would use less visual pictures and instead would rely on verbal instructions in order to detail appropriate behavior. One could simply tell their child that they are going to a birthday party and remind them that certain things are not permitted such as, shouting, eating before you are served, and any such stimming behaviors that the child is able to control themselves from performing.

Are There Instances Where A Social Story Won’t Work?

In my experience, this can be the case when the environment has too many triggers that would cause the child to begin stimming behaviors as a coping mechanism. Thus making the previous social story void. But a good workaround would be in only having the child in the overwhelming environment for a limited time, helping to build their tolerance level and even having them use a timer so they are aware of how long they will be in the difficult setting.

And it goes without saying that just taking any social story off the internet and using it to teach a child is not going to be effective. The best results are found when a child is given adequate time before the event to go through a social story that fits the child’s comprehension ability.

#Autism | Stephanie Duke


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