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Social stories can be a means to prevent meltdowns or overwhelming anxiety in children who have not developed a sense of the ebb and flow of life, to enable them to prepare for routine events which might otherwise seem to them a succession of terrifying one-offs.

Pioneered by autism specialist Carol Grey, social stories use narrative to help children understand and respond to a range of situations, from joining in playground games to visiting the dentist or going shopping.

Each story is unique. It’s written for and about the child concerned, taking an aspect of their lives they find challenging, terrifying or incomprehensible and presenting it in a fictionalised form that addresses the issue and gives the child a way of dealing with it.

Social stories can be used to prepare a child for something new, introducing it well in advance so that, when encountered, they can be familiar with its more worrying aspects.

You don’t have to be a professional storyteller or writer to create a good social story but you do have to know how to construct them so that they are helpful.

Key dos and don’ts:

  • Look at other social stories before you start to create your own.
  • Keep it simple. Use language that the child will be familiar with, don’t make the events too complicated and keep the story short.
  • Know why you’re writing it and what you want it to achieve.     
  • Ensure that it is emotionally ‘safe’, using a range of feelings that the child is comfortable with. Avoid being too prescriptive. Children need to be helped towards an appropriate response, not forced into it.
  • Think carefully about the structure.

Creating a social story

Stories often combine:

  • description  (who, when and where);
  • perception (how people feel – the child and those around them);
  • directive sentences (gently encourage the desired response – words like ‘must’ won’t give enough wiggle room);
  • affirmative (gives more explanation about why a response is important);
  • co-operative (shows how other people can help);
  • control (involves the child by including their own sentences);
  • partial (sentences with gaps to allow the child to think about, for example, how parents might react to the desired response).

Examples of social stories

Here’s a sample social story about visiting the dentist from a US charity: www.livingwellwithautism.com

Many autism organisations have more details about what goes into their structure and content. You can also buy collections of social stories on-line.

Social stories aren’t a quick fix. They are so personal to each child that they need to be planned with much thought and sensitivity if they are to work. But when well-constructed, they can be extremely effective.

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