Social storiesTM and comic strip conversations can help autistic people develop greater social understanding and stay safe.

Find out about social stories, how to use them, and how to write your own.

Find out about comic strip conversations, how to use them, and how to make your own.

What are social stories?

Social storiesTM were created by Carol Gray in 1991. They are short descriptions of a particular situation, event or activity, which include specific information about what to expect in that situation and why.

The terms 'social story' and 'social stories' are trademarks originated and owned by Carol Gray.

What are social stories for?

Social stories can be used to:

  • develop self-care skills (eg how to clean teeth, wash hands or get dressed), social skills (eg sharing, asking for help, saying thank you, interrupting) and academic abilities
  • help someone to understand how others might behave or respond in a particular situation
  • help others understand the perspective of an autistic person and why they may respond or behave in a particular way
  • help a person to cope with changes to routine and unexpected or distressing events (eg absence of teacher, moving house, thunderstorms)
  • provide positive feedback to a person about an area of strength or achievement in order to develop self-esteem
  • as a behavioural strategy (eg what to do when angry, how to cope with obsessions).

How do social stories help?

Many autistic people are good at visual learning, and like social stories because they're written down and can be illustrated. The presentation and content can be adapted to meet different people's needs.

Social stories present information in a literal, 'concrete' way, which may improve a person's understanding of a previously difficult or ambiguous situation or activity. They can help with sequencing (what comes next in a series of activities) and 'executive functioning' (planning and organising).    

By providing information about what might happen in a particular situation, and some guidelines for behaviour, you can increase structure in a person's life and thereby reduce anxiety.

Creating or using a social story can help you to understand how the autistic person perceives different situations.


Example

Nightmares

Sometimes I may have a nightmare when I am sleeping. Nightmares are the same as a dream, but more scary.

Events in nightmares do not really happen. They are like pictures in my mind.

It is all right if I am scared. I may try telling myself it is all in my mind. It is only a dream. Adults can help children with nightmares, too. It is okay to ask an adult for help with nightmares.

When I wake up, I will see that I am all right.

Carol Gray's The new social story book


How to use social stories

Carol Gray has developed guidelines on how to use social stories effectively.

  1. Present the social story to the person at a time when everyone is feeling calm and relaxed. Social stories should never be used as a punishment for misbehaviour.
  2. Use an honest and straightforward approach when introducing the story, eg I have written this story for you. It is about thunderstorms. Let's read it together now.
  3. Review the story as often as needed. Some social stories will be reviewed initially once a day, others prior to the situation for which they were written.
  4. Maintain a positive, reassuring and patient attitude when reviewing the story.
  5. When reviewing the story, use a calm and friendly tone of voice and make sure the environment is quiet, comfortable and free of distractions.
  6. Involve others in the review of the story where appropriate. For example, a story that is focused on a situation or activity at school could also be reviewed with the child's teacher or learning support assistant.
  7. Introduce one story at a time to make sure the person does not become overwhelmed with information.
  8. There are two main ways of 'fading' a social story. You can increase the period of time between reviewing it, ie if a story was initially reviewed once per day, increase the review period to every two days, then every three or four days, and so on. Or you can change the content of the story to reflect the person's new skills. For example, remove directive sentences from the story, or rewrite them as partial sentences where the person is required to recall the missing information. However, some autistic people may find such changes distressing, and alternative approaches should be explored.

Carol Gray's The new social story book

How to write a social story

Carol Gray says you will need to picture the goal, gather information, tailor the text and teach with the title.

Picture the goal

Consider the social story's purpose. For example, the goal may be to teach a child to cover their mouth when coughing.

Now think about what the child needs to understand to achieve this goal. For example, they need to understand why covering their mouth when coughing is important, ie it stops germs from being spread which may make other people sick.

Gather information

Collect information about the situation you want to describe in your social story. Where does the situation occur? Who is it with? How does it begin and end? How long does it last? What actually happens in the situation and why? If it is for a situation where a particular outcome is not guaranteed, use words like ‘sometimes’ and ‘usually’ in the story.

Stories should appeal to the interests of the person for whom they are written and avoid using words that may cause the person anxiety or distress. The content and presentation of social stories should be appropriate to the person's age and level of understanding.

So gather information about the person including their age, interests, attention span, level of ability and understanding.

Here are some pointers for tailoring social stories for people of different ages and abilities.

  • If writing for a child, write from the first person perspective (I will try to wait until it is daytime before I get up in the morning).
  • Use age-appropriate photographs, picture symbols or drawings with text to help people who have difficulty reading or for younger children.
  • When writing for young people or adults, use the third person perspective (they, he, she) and adjust language and presentation accordingly. You could use a smaller font size, or present the story in columns as in a newspaper article.

Tailor the text

A social story needs to have an introduction, body and conclusion and should use positive language (ie where possible, describe what should happen, rather than what should not).

It is made up of several different types of sentences that are presented in a particular combination. There should be no more than one directive or control sentence and at least two (but no more than five) of the remaining sentence types.

Sentence type What is it? Examples 
Descriptive Where does the situation occur? Who is it with? What happens and why?

Christmas Day is 25 December.

Sometimes I get sick.

Perspective Refers to the opinions, feelings, ideas, beliefs or wellbeing of others.

My Mum and Dad know when it is time for me to go to bed.

Teachers like it when students raise their hand to ask a question in the classroom.

Directive Offers a response for behaviour in a particular situation. Should have a positive focus and be constructed in ways which allow flexibility (ie avoid statements like I must or I have to).

I will try to cover my mouth when I cough.

When I am angry, I can:

  • take three deep breaths
  • go for a walk
  • jump on the trampoline.
Affirmative Statements that enhance the meaning of the previous sentence (which may be a descriptive, perspective or directive sentence) and can be used to emphasise the importance of the message or to provide reassurance.

(I will try to hold an adult’s hand when crossing the road). This is very important.

(Thunder can be very loud). This is ok.

Cooperative Sentences which identify how others may be of assistance (developed by Dr Demetrious Haracopos).

Mum and Dad can help me wash my hands.

My teacher will help me to try to stay calm in class.

Control Statements written by the person to provide personal meaning to a particular situation and to help them to recall and apply information.  My body needs food several times per day; just like a steam train needs coal to stay running.
Partial Incomplete sentences, which allow the person to guess the next step in a situation, and may be used with descriptive, perspective, directive, affirmative, co-operative and control sentences.  

My name is  ___________  (descriptive sentence)

Mum and Dad will feel ____________ if I finish all my dinner  (perspective sentence)


Example

What are unexpected noises?

There are many noises (descriptive).

Sometimes noises surprise me (descriptive). They are unexpected (descriptive).

Some unexpected noises are: telephones, doorbells, barking dogs, breaking glass, vacuum cleaners, slamming doors, honking horns, and thunder (descriptive).

These sounds are okay (affirmative). I will try to stay calm when I hear unexpected noises (directive).

Adults can tell me when the noise will stop (co-operative).

Carol Gray's The new social story book


Teach with the title

Select a title which accurately reflects the overall meaning of the story. Titles can be a question (What is lightning?) or a statement (Lightning), but need to communicate the most important concept of the story.

 

 

What are comic strip conversations?

Comic strip conversations, created by Carol Gray, are simple visual representations of conversation. They can show:

  • the things that are actually said in a conversation
  • how people might be feeling
  • what people's intentions might be.

Comic strip conversations use stick figures and symbols to represent social interactions and abstract aspects of conversation, and colour to represent the emotional content of a statement or message.

Comic strip conversation example 

Colour use in comic strip conversations 

From Carol Gray's Comic strip conversations

By seeing the different elements of a conversation presented visually, some of the more abstract aspects of social communication (such as recognising the feelings of others) are made more 'concrete' and are therefore easier to understand.

Comic strip conversations can also offer an insight into how an autistic person perceives a situation.

How to use comic strip conversations

Comic strip conversations can help autistic people to understand concepts that they find particularly difficult. People draw as they talk and use these drawings to learn about different social situations.

In a comic strip conversation, the autistic person takes the lead role with parents, carers or teachers offering support and guidance.

  • Start with small talk (for example, talking about the weather) to get people familiar with drawing whilst talking and to mimic ordinary social interactions.
  • Ask a range of questions about a specific situation or type of social interaction. The autistic person answers by speaking and drawing their response.
  • Summarise the event or situation you've discussed using the drawings as a guide.
  • Think about how you can address any problems or concerns that have been identified.
  • Develop an action plan for similar situations in the future. This will be a helpful guide for the autistic person.

For complex situations, or for people who have difficulty reporting events in sequence, comic strip boxes may be used, or drawings can be numbered in the sequence in which they occur.

Comic strip conversations can be used to plan for a situation in the future that may be causing anxiety or concern, for example an exam or a social event. However, remember that plans can sometimes change. It's important to present the information in a way which allows for unexpected changes to a situation.

How to make your own comic strip conversation

You can use just paper, pencils, crayons and markers, use computer word processing applications, or you could use an app.

Ask the person you are supporting to choose what materials they would like to use.

Some people may like to have their comic strip conversations in a notebook, or saved on their smartphone or tablet, so that they can refer to them as needed, and easily recall key concepts.

More information

The new Social Story book: 15th Anniversary Edition, Carol Gray 2015

Comic strip conversations: illustrated interactions with students with autism and related disorders, Carol Gray 1994.

Research Autism’s evaluation of social stories

Carol Gray social story sampler

I can't do that! My social stories to help with communication, self-care and personal skills, John Ling 2010

Visual supports for people with autism: a guide for parents and professionals, Marlene Cohen and Peter Gerhardt 2016

Revealing the hidden social code, Marie Howley and Eileen Arnold 2005

Social story apps

Books Beyond Words story app

Aprendices Visuales – books with pictograms

 

Last reviewed February 2017