Social stories are simple descriptions of a social situations such as changes in routine and social interactions. They are used to teach social skills and are written from the perspective of the child. The child rehearses the social story with the adult in the hope that practice will make the social situation more pleasant for the child. Despite social stories being one of the most widely used social skills interventions in the United States, there is still very little empirical research that supports its efficacy.
Social stories are commonly used for children with developmental disabilities such as Autism when there are difficulties with social interaction. Theory of mind describes the problems autistic children face in seeing the perspective of another person. Social stories are proposed as a strategy for assisting individuals on the autistic spectrum to 'read' and understand social situations and other people's view points and feelings.
A social story is designed for the specific child and may include things the child values and is interested in. For example, if a child likes dinosaurs, these will be included as characters in a story about dealing with teasing by other children. Autistic people are often visual learners, so the story can include drawings, pictures and real objects. Proponents of using social stories believe they can be used in a wide variety of situations, such as learning new routines, activities, and how to respond appropriately to feelings like anger and frustration.
Carol Gray developed the concept of social stories, and recommended a specific pattern to a social story. The pattern includes several descriptive and perspective sentences.
Descriptive sentences describe what people do in particular social situations, and clearly define where a situation occurs, who is involved, what they are doing, and why.
An example of a descriptive sentence is "Sometimes at school, the fire alarm goes off. The fire alarm is a loud bell, buzzer or horn that sounds when there is a real fire or when we are practicing getting out of the building. The teachers, janitors, and principal all help us to line up and go outside quickly. The fire alarm is loud so that everyone can hear it. Sometimes I think it is too loud."
This type of sentence presents others' reactions to a situation so that the individual can learn how others' perceive various events. These describe the internal states of people, their thoughts, feelings, and mood. Perspective sentences present others' reactions to a situation so that the individual can learn how others perceive various events.
Example of a perspective sentence: "The fire alarm does not bother all people. The teachers, janitors, and principal may not understand how much the fire alarm bothers me. Sometimes they get frustrated if I do not move quickly or get confused. Their job is to get me outside quickly so I am safe in case there is a real fire."
Directive sentences direct a person to an appropriate desired response. They state, in positive terms, what the desired behavior is. Given the nature of the directive sentence, care needs to be taken to use them correctly and not to limit the individual's choice. The greater the number of descriptive statements, the more opportunity for the individual to supply his/her own responses to the social situation. The greater the number of directive statements, the more specific the cues for how the individual should respond.
These are always stated in positive terms and are individualized statements of desired responses. Directive sentences often follow descriptive sentences, sharing information about what is expected as a response to a given cue or situation. Directive sentences often begin with "I can try..." "I will try..." or "I will work on...." Example of a directive sentence: "I will try to stay calm when the fire alarm rings."
Care is taken not to have too many directive and/or control sentences, as the social story may become an "anti-social story" of demands and commands.
These sentences identify strategies the person can use to facilitate memory and comprehension of the social story. They are usually added by the individual after reviewing the social story. A control sentence should be written or inspired by the child. Example of a control sentence: "When the fire alarm rings, I will think about the dinosaurs following each other out of the forest to escape the burning meteors."
When the story is put together, pictures may be included that mean something to the child and will help them remember the story. It may be read daily by the child or read to the child at various times during the week.
Importance of minimizing directive and control sentences
Two other types of sentences are sometime used: directive and control sentences. These sentences may not be used at all and if they are, Carol Gray recommends using them in the ration of 0 - 1 directive or control sentence(s) for every 2 - 5 descriptive and/or perspective sentences.
Carol Gray developed the social story ratio which defines the proportion of directive or control sentences to descriptive and/or perspective sentences. She suggests that for every one directive or control sentence, there should be two to five descriptive and/or perspective sentences. Directive or control sentences may be omitted entirely depending on the person and his/her needs.
If the autistic person can read, the teacher can introduce the story by reading it twice. The child then reads it once a day independently. If the autistic person cannot read, the teacher can read the story on a videotape or audio tape with cues for the person to turn the page while reading. These cues could be a quiet bell or verbal statement when it is time to turn the page.
The child listens and 'reads' along with the story once a day. When the autistic person develops the skills displayed in the social story, the story can be faded. This can be done by reducing the number of times the story is read a week and only reviewing the story once a month or as necessary.
Several studies with small groups of school age children on the autistic spectrum have reported benefits from using social stories (Mirenda 2001). Social stories are seen as effective as long as they are suited to the child's communication skills (Richards 2000). As with many interventions for Autistic Spectrum Disorders, more empirical research with larger numbers of children involved is needed to fully qualify social stories as an evidence-based practice.
- Green, V.A.; Pituch, K.A.; Itchon, J.; Choi, A.; O'Reilly, M.; Sigafoos, J. "Internet survey of treatments used by parents of children with autism," Res Developmental Disabil, 2006, 27(1):70-84.
- Fact sheets on Autism and Aspergers syndrome Information on early intervention strategies for children with Autistic Spectrum Disorders