Social stories are short descriptions of a particular situation, event or activity, which include specific information about what to expect in that situation and why.

Social stories have a huge range of applications, including:

  • 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
  • to help a person with autism to understand how others might behave or respond in a particular situation, and therefore how they might be expected to behave
  • to help others understand the perspective of a person with autism and why they may respond or behave in a particular way
  • to help a person to cope with changes to routine and unexpected or distressing events (eg absence of teacher, moving house, thunderstorms)
  • to 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).


The following is an example of a social story to help a child's understanding of nightmares from Carol Gray's The new social stories book (1994).


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.


How do social stories help people with autism?

  • If you're writing a social story for a person with autism, you'll need to think about how they perceive different situations. This in turn can increase your understanding and empathy (Gray, 1994).
  • Many people with autism are good at visual learning, and like social stories because they're written down. Social stories can also be illustrated. 
  • 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.
  • Social stories can help with sequencing (what comes next in a series of activities) and 'executive functioning' (planning and organising) - difficulties experienced by many people with autism.
  • 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.


Who can benefit from social stories?

Originally designed for children at the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum, social stories can also be helpful for young people and adults (Gray, 1994). In addition there is research to suggest that people with autism who experience greater difficulties and associated learning disabilities may benefit from the use of social stories (Swaggart et al, 1995).

The presentation and content of social stories can be adapted to meet different people's needs, as discussed in the chapters below.