A few Social StoryTM terms used in this article:

  • authors – people who write social stories (usually a parent or professional)
  • audience – an individual or group of people on the autism spectrum of any age
  • Story – a Social Story.

What is a Social Story?

As the founder and keeper of Social Stories for over twenty five years, I’ve had a front row seat to their increasing popularity, as well as their growing pains. The term Social Story is readily recognised in the autism field. This article rewinds to an important question: "what is a Social Story"? 

A Social Story accurately describes a context, skill, achievement or concept according to ten criteria. These criteria guide Story research, development, and implementation to ensure a patient, supportive quality. They also ensure that the format, ‘voice’, content, and learning experience are descriptive, meaningful, and physically, socially, and emotionally safe for the child, adolescent, or adult on the autism spectrum.

How are Social Stories and Haiku similar?

Haiku is a defined form of Japanese poetry. Authors follow rules to create a poem with seventeen syllables and at least one seasonal reference. It’s only a Haiku if the final poem has the defining characteristics all Haiku share.

Just as Haiku are a defined form of poetry, Social Stories are a defined form of story.

Each Story shares information in a format that is most likely to be understood by someone on the autism spectrum. Authors follow rules. It’s only a Social Story if the final story has all of the essential characteristics.

Is a Social Story more like an essay or a story?

I discovered something in the course of my research for this article. If you look up story and essay in a hardcover or online dictionary, Social Stories are closer to being essays than stories.

I found a definition and discussion of essays from the University of Canberra, "An essay is a piece of writing that methodically analyses and evaluates a topic or issue. Fundamentally, an essay is designed to get your academic opinion on a topic". For years, we’ve been cautious with opinions in Social Stories. In reality, Social Stories often share carefully researched and fact-based academic opinions. What is important to an essay is also critical to a Social Story.

Social Stories methodically analyse life using carefully gathered information.

It is research that lays the foundation for a Social Story. This process can lead to unique insights about the individual on the autism spectrum, which ultimately tailor a Story for its audience with sensitive and respectful detail.

A new book by Dr Siobhan Timmins demonstrates the importance of gathering information. The book contains Stories that Siobhan developed over several years for her son Mark. Background information accompanies every Story. For example, Mark was disappointed by a birthday gift.

He could not understand why his mother wanted him to write a thank you note. To help him understand, Siobhan and Mark went through the process of selecting and sending a gift.

They shopped, chose a gift, wrapped and sent it to a friend. That way, Mark would see the effort behind a gift. Siobhan’s descriptions of how she gathered information and followed each of the Social Story criteria to guide her efforts may prove pivotal in improving understanding of the Social Story format.

A Social Story is…

In my experience, a Social Story provides both authors and their audiences with information about one another. Authors learn to abandon many of the typical social assumptions that work so well most of the time, in favour of considering a topic or situation from the audience point of view. Information is gathered with an ear for bias and pre-judgement, with eyes and mind focused on consideration of the audience experience as valid and worthy of respect.

Authors also identify relevant information that the audience may be missing. The Story is developed according to rules that help increase the likelihood that the author’s message will be interpreted as intended.

The Story is the vehicle that helps to ensure clear communication between parent and child, teacher and student, or grandparent and grandchild.

Social Stories work hard to help us prevent the most common mistakes that can derail our interactions with people on the autism spectrum, while safely and patiently supporting them as they build self-esteem and learn to respond more effectively to the people and events that surround them each day.

Where can I find more information?

The best way to learn how to develop a Social Story is in a workshop, working with others, making mistakes, solving problems, and practicing skills. Look for the Social Story logo on conference or workshop materials to identify genuine Social Story training opportunities.

You are welcome to visit the official home of Social Stories, www.carolgraysocialstories.com. There, you will find a document-based history of Social Stories, sample Stories and a wealth of free resources, including a PowerPoint presentation and new ideas and information.

Carol Gray will be running a Social Stories workshop in 15 September (London) and 19 September (Leeds). Find out more and book your place.