Four-year-old Sarah loved school and wanted so badly to ride the bus to kindergarten. That summer, in anticipation of school starting, she would excitedly ask about taking the bus to school. The first day of school arrived, as did the bus, right on time. Sarah froze with fear on her front steps, unprepared for the loud noise of the engine, the flashing lights, and how to engage the kids already on the bus.

Sarah’s mother researched and tried a valuable tool in helping people navigate difficult and new social situations: the Social Story. Here is an example of a social storyboard for Sarah, and her quest to overcome her social roadblock of riding the bus:

Most of us take for granted the ability to anticipate how others will react, think and behave in social interactions. Those who experience social roadblocks often find it difficult to predict the actions of others, which sometimes leads to fear or erratic behavior. Social stories offer a bit of distance between the person and the new or difficult social scheme, and allows for frequent practice at the individual’s own, comfortable pace.

In Sarah’s case, she worked with teachers, speech pathologists, and her parents, with a fun story about riding the bus, until she felt comfortable enough to take the next step. It helped her navigate around her social roadblock in her own time, and on her own terms.

What Are Social Stories?

When individuals face social roadblocks, they often need help in a new or overwhelming situation, like socializing at a birthday party, or riding the school bus for the first time. Social stories provide a boost in confidence through repetition, which makes these difficult experiences less scary, and more predictable.

The concept of Social Stories was created by Carol Gray in 1991 to use with both children and adults with autism. She hoped that it would better assist them with a variety of social situations. Although her targeted audience was people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Gray had specifically created it for those with higher communication skills. Today the use of social stories has expanded to all types of students, including those with significant communication deficits.

The expansion of social story use to include individuals on all points of the autism spectrum has helped it make the shift towards what we know today. A commonly used and interchangeable term for these stories is Comic Strip Conversations. The term comes from the visual similarity to a comic strip. Storyboards have the same visual setup, but the author has the benefit of choosing the tone of the story. The storyboard layout allows for each part or step to have its own cell, implying that each cell is its own piece of the story. It also creates a more manageable product for the students using it.

Type Example Topics
Daily Living Skills
  • Hygiene - Hand Washing
  • Housework - Cleaning
  • Food Preparation - Making a Sandwich
Unexpected Events
  • Home - Broken Appliance
  • School - Substitute Teacher
  • Community - Item Out of Stock
  • Day-to-Day Transitions - Going to Lunch
  • Major Transitions - Moving Away
Adolescent Skills
  • Peer Pressure - Breaking Rules
  • Dating - Expectations
  • Job Interview - Types of Questions
Social Situations
  • Home - Answering the Telephone
  • School - Working with a Partner
  • Community - Ordering Food

Writing a Social Story

Many stories can be used again and again for different people, but likely you will want to have a more personalized social story to help specific individuals with their own personal roadblocks. A social story is meant to be instructive and safe, so it is important not to make a typical comic or too complicated of a story. There are a few tips to consider when writing one:

  • Start with a Goal in Mind
  • Choose a Specific Situation
  • Maintain a Positive Tone
  • Use Simple Language
  • Tailor for the Individual

Start with a Goal in Mind

Writing a social story takes special consideration because the basis of the story comes from the perspective of the individual facing the social roadblock. Determine the goal of the story before beginning: what problem do you want to solve?

Is there a situation that causes her to act out or meltdown? Is there a scenario from which he tries to escape? Are there planned changes to a routine?

The answers to questions such as these make great subjects for social stories. Finding the underlying issue might require a little digging by interviewing teachers, friends, parents, and others with unique insight into the social roadblock. Once you identify the problem, you can look for ways to address it.

Choose a Specific Situation

Social stories tell the story of specific situations. If an individual has severe anxiety over a change in routine, choose one situation, such as a dental appointment, and create a simple, but detailed, story. A detailed story focuses on a few key points:

  • Social Cues
  • Appropriate Social Responses
  • What They Might See/Hear/Feel During the Event
  • What to Expect Other People to Say/Do
  • What Might be Expected of Them and Why

For Sarah, the unexpected noise of the bus was difficult to process, and she wasn’t sure what to say to kids or the driver. A simple story helped her anticipate the normal bus noise, gave her suggestions of greetings for the driver and the students, and applauded her efforts for taking the step of riding the bus.

Maintain a Positive Tone

The goals of using a social story are creating a greater social awareness, offering a level of comfort and familiarity, and sometimes suggesting possible behaviors and connections. Encourage a more positive outlook and lower social anxieties by showing the individual being successful and socially engaged. For stories that deal with Daily Living Skills, the focus is on the individual and empowering them to take action for themselves. Social stories that involve interactions with other people should be approachable and reassuring. In either case, use positive language to ensure the individual feels safe and can be successful.

"The goal of a Social Story is to share accurate information using a process, format, voice, and content that is descriptive, meaningful, and physically, socially, and emotionally safe for the Audience. Every Social Story has an overall patient and reassuring tone."
Carol Gray

Use Simple Language

Keep the language simple and in the present tense, breaking down the scenario into as many smaller steps as necessary. Be very specific with possible actions and phrases. The more information, the better, but still keep the language basic.

There are four types of sentences used to tell the social story itself:

Descriptive Sentences Address the "wh" questions:
  • Who is involved?
  • Where does the scenario take place?
  • What is happening?
  • Why are we here?
Perspective Sentences Give insight into how others feel or what others are thinking.

For example, "The other kids on the bus are excited about school and happy to see Sarah each morning!"
Directive Sentences Provide response suggestions specific to the individual using the story.

Give gentle directions like, "Sarah tries to..."
Control Sentences Use as a reminder to help recall the information in the social story.

Tailor for the Individual

Social stories come in as many lengths, styles, and varieties as there are subjects. Depending on the age of the person using the story, it may include photographs of the individual, or of actual locations or objects, for reference. For older kids or adults, more complex pictures may be used, but keep in mind the need for simplicity. Images with busy backgrounds or intricate details might be distracting, and take away from the overall lesson of the story. When in doubt, keep it simple.

The library of scenes and characters on Storyboard That is always growing, allowing for endless combinations. The characters are editable so they can be made to resemble the specific student(s) that the stories are created for. The creator can also upload their own images, which can be helpful for those students who require explicit visual representation (the car HAS to be a picture of Mom’s actual car).

Please remember for safety and privacy reasons, Storyboard That does not permit the uploading of photos of children under 13 years old.

Share the Social Story

The best time to introduce a social story is when excitement levels are low and focus can remain high. Having the individual read or present the story to family and friends generates a positive connection with the scenario. Developing confidence is the key to social story success in navigating a roadblock, so introducing a social story after a negative experience could be seen as a punishment for bad behavior, not working towards a positive goal. And, since the nature of social roadblocks may change, so may your story. Tweak as needed and often to keep current and relevant.

Whether the individual faces a common social roadblock, similar to Sarah’s fear of riding the bus, or understanding divorce, or something unique like maneuvering a specific doctor’s appointment, social stories offer teachers, parents, therapists, and others a proven effective tool in the quest to provide individuals an insight and understanding of the social world.

Find this Common Core aligned resource and more like it in our Elementary School Category and other Special Education Articles!
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