social stories by Dayna Clarke – Senior Speech and Language Therapist, Inspire Foundation.

This article aims at raising awareness and educating the public about the use of social stories with children on the autism spectrum.  It was first published on The Sunday Times in September 2016.

A social story is just what it sounds like – a very short story, usually only a few pages long, that teaches a child what to expect in a social situation and how to behave appropriately. Social stories were first introduced in 1991 by Carol Gray to help teach social skills to children on the autism spectrum. Since then, these stories have been used successfully with children, teenagers, and adults with autism spectrum disorders and other social or communication difficulties. Every social story is unique and designed for different people; however, a successful one helps an individual learn to manage social situations with more ease than before.

We know that children with ASD (Autistic spectrum disorders) struggle greatly with picking up on social cues and often experience anxiety because they do not know how to behave in certain situations.

A social story should provide the basics of what will happen in that particular setting or situation and how one should behave. Of course, there will always be unexpected factors that a parent or caregiver cannot control, but a social story provides a basic foundation. The story breaks down a social situation into a series of events or steps that should happen in order for an individual to achieve the given activity. These stories are written in simple, direct, everyday language and describe any situation or activity in which an individual has trouble understanding what to do or say. For example, preparing for places such as ‘Going to the airport’ or ‘Washing my hands’. They also may be used to manage socially undesirable behaviors, such as hitting or nose picking, with a positive replacement behavior. The story should be short and very focused in order to keep a child’s attention. Too much information may be overwhelming and defeat the purpose.  Many of these stories are available for free online or compiled in a book that can be used again and again.

If you have the time and want to create a personalised story you can write the text in Microsoft Word and then include the picture or even actual photos. For example, let’s say you were planning on taking your child to a family member’s house for a party. Who will the child meet? Are these familiar adults? If not, include their pictures and names in the social story. Children understand their immediate family, they know who their primary caregiver is and if they have siblings. Explaining the definition of “extended family” is probably too complicated and unnecessary so you can simply state that these people are part of the child’s larger family while providing their names and pictures in the story.

Continuing with this example…what is the party for? What are the expectations? If it’s an Easter party for example, it’s probably best not to worry about explaining the actual meaning of the Easter holiday (typical children and even some adults often struggle to remember all the details) but focus on the basics personal to your traditions. Your child should know that the family might sit together and eat dinner. Of course, a social story is not meant to replace the other strategies you may have in place to keep your child calm and happy (i.e. allowing them to spend time away from the family in a quiet room if things get too loud and they are overwhelmed or allowing them to eat something other than what is being served and bringing along favorite toys and comfort items, etc.)
Here are some examples of popular social stories I have found to be very effective in my experience with children and young adults with ASD.

  • Birthday Parties
  • Going to the Doctor
  • Going to the Dentist
  • Going on Holiday
  • Moving house
  • A new school
  • Asking for help
  • A new baby in the family
  • Feelings
  • Personal Hygiene which would possibly include – ‘Getting ready for school’ and ‘Getting ready for bed time’

For an early learner, the story should consist mostly of pictures with a small amount of text. A good rule of thumb is one sentence per picture. More advanced learners should be presented with more text but at least one or two pictures is still helpful as we know children with ASDs learn best through visual means.

We know that children with ASD thrive on repetition and social stories should be presented on a regular basis. A very simple but effective way to organize these stories is in a 3 ring binder, perhaps separated by general subject matter (i.e. Daily Living Skills, Community Outings, Friendship. My experience has been children simply can’t get enough of these stories and they are highly effective, after a few attempts. I also recommend using social stories with typical siblings.

We all struggle at times with how to behave in social situations, and social stories should alleviate some of that anxiety. Family members, professionals, and people with autism or other developmental disabilities can use social stories in many different ways and for numerous occasions.

How to use a Social story:

  1. Social stories can be read to the individual, acted out through role playing, memorized, or repeatedly used as needed until the social situation has been mastered.
  2. Social stories can be used at any time or any place before, during, or after a social situation has arisen.
  3. Using a social story before an event can help explain what will happen and answer questions that a person with autism or other developmental disability may have.
  4. During an event, social stories can be used to assist a person in remembering what is expected or what should be done at a certain time or place.
  5. After the event, a social story could be used to explain what went wrong and what may need to change so that the situation is more successful the next time it occurs.

The Inspire foundation believes that everyone has a right to equality and inclusion. We work hundreds of children and adults with various disabilities, including Autism, in order to help them achieve this. For more information please visit