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How they can counter meltdowns and anxiety

Most children don’t particularly enjoy sharing toys and or having to wait their turn. Eventually, though, they learn that this is the way the world works. It’s hard not always being the star of the show but it’s fairer to everyone.

And as life skills go, it’s one of the most important. Living successfully with other people relies on a rarely articulated but ever present shared understanding of a complex set of rules.

Whenever we tell a joke, take turns in a game, or work as a team to complete a task, we are negotiating a series of cues and responses, basing decisions on our very own algorithms that dictate how we respond.

It’s a similar story with many of the routine events that shape our lives. It’s all about context and recurring shapes in a pattern. We know that when our hair is too long, we have a haircut. When it grows, it happens all over again.

But what if you have no sense of the ebb and flow of life, where events, instead of being connected, are just a succession of terrifying one-offs and the rules the rest of us so blithely take for granted in our interactions with others just don’t make any sense?

Preventing meltdowns and anxiety

Social stories were pioneered by autism specialist Carol Grey in the 1990s and 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. They can be a means to prevent meltdowns or overwhelming anxiety.

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:

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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