Therapy and Supports

How can children with autism benefit from social stories?

Team Kindship
May 19, 2022
3 minutes

A social story is a visual learning tool that can support children with behaviours, interactions, events, anxieties, or feelings that may cause heightened emotions. They are used to help explain situations to children to assist them in learning socially appropriate behaviour and responses. Social stories are often used for children with autism as they provide information in a literal and concrete way that is understandable and meaningful.

Essentially, they are a written narrative accompanied with images to illustrate situations, problems, and challenges, and how to overcome these. They can also assist to prepare children for what to expect and how to do things by sequencing events. The presentation and content of a social story can be written and adapted to meet different needs.

We have used social stories in many ways over the years for an array of different purposes, but the standout would have to be for our trip to St Louis. My daughter had been accepted to have a life changing surgery for a Dr that specialised in Cerebral Palsy. Exciting right? Slightly, but I was also shitting myself. Thinking about all the what if’s and planning every scenario in my head over and over. My biggest concern though…. How do I prepare my daughter for this life changing invasive surgery?

Insert a social story of epic proportions to save the day.

Now this wasn’t your everyday simple social story, this was a little more in depth. I literally took her on a journey from leaving our house in the airport shuttle, to lining up at the airport, pre-warning her about the long trip and stop overs, the surgery and everything else in between.

They say parents wear many hats, well this particular social story seen me wear the hat of a researcher, investigator, (Instagram stalker) and writer. I found out everything about the surgery from other families that have walked the path before me.

I used real-life images from other kiddies that have had the surgery (with permission, of course), had pictures of the airport, the hospital, where we were staying, the Dr…everything. I wanted her to feel familiar, so it wasn’t a shock when we were there.

I showed this to my daughter a few weeks prior to leaving and she bloody loved it. It became her new night-time story. By the time we left she could retell the whole social story, she wasn’t able to read at this stage it was all from memory.

Making this social story was honestly a lifesaver. My daughter was 4 at the time, an ASD diagnosis, struggled with change, was easily overwhelmed, sensory struggles, a fear of all things medical, strong attachment to me, had never been on a plane…with the help of her social story she coped with all aspects of our trip amazingly.

What are the benefits of social stories?

It’s important to note that social stories aren’t some sort of magical tool that will help with every situation or every child. Children have different learning styles, abilities, and personalities this will all come in to play to determine how they respond to social stories.

My daughter thrives off them. We used them in preschool to help her though drop offs and explain what her day would look like, at this age the emphasis was mainly on the pictures. We now continue to use them for Primary school. She has had many over the years, from ‘what to expect at school drop off’ to explaining what will happen at recess and lunch. In her case they just give her the reassurance she needs to calm any anxieties she is feeling about her school environment.  

There are many benefits to social stories.

-       They can aid to reinforce accepted behaviours

-       Help children cope with changes in routine

-       Assist children to learn about self-care

-       Help children to learn about social skills and socially acceptable behaviour

-       Teach children about different settings and environments

-       Be the key to helping children understand emotions

-       Provide children with tools to maintain friendships

-       Teach them about their behaviour and the behaviour of others

Perhaps you are planning a little weekend getaway with friends? You could make a social story about that to assist in preparing your child on what to expect. Example sentences might look like this:

-       On Thursday we are going to pack the car to leave for our holiday

-       We will wake up early to go on our holiday. You might be a little bit tired but that’s ok you can rest in the car.

-       The drive will be long, but we will stop for some lunch. We will arrive in the afternoon.

-       This is where we are staying. It has a pool, a park and a games room.

-       We will pack your headphones, weighted blanket and favourite fidget toys.

-       We are meeting our friends there.

-       We can have lunch and dinner with our friends and will spend time with them.

-       When we feel like some quiet time, we can go back to our holiday room.

-       We will come home on Sunday.

-       Holidays are fun.

Social stories can be used to teach self-help skills by sequencing the skills that are needed. For example, they can be particularly useful in toilet training. Making a toileting social story before you start the process gives a concrete and literal explanation of what to expect and the steps to follow. A different social story on toileting could be made up for home and for when you are out and about. They are quite simple to make and just require direct and simple language with pictures; you can make them yourself or have a therapist help you.

Some examples of sentences you might use in a toileting social story.

-       ‘I am going to start going to the toilet’

-       ‘My mum will help me learn how to use the toilet’

-       ‘Going to the toilet isn’t something to be worried about’

-       ‘A lot of my friends go to the toilet’

-       ‘First I will pull my pants down’

-       ‘Then I will sit on the toilet’

-       ‘When I am finished, I will wipe myself and pull my pants back up”

-       ‘I then flush the toilet’

-       ‘Then I wash my hands’

-       ‘When I go to the toilet, I get a sticker on my chart’

Social stories can be an absolute sanity saver for parents to guide behaviours, teach new skills and assist in preparing their children for certain situations. While they are relatively easy to make, there are a few key things to keep in mind. It’s important to keep language literal and informative… use simple, short, and direct sentences. It’s also important to use images, just ensure they relate to exactly what is being said. There is no need to decorate and add any extra design elements. The theme is simple and straight to the point.