Social Stories: Why and How To Use Them

I love social stories and find them extremely useful for kids with autism, behavior problems or ADHD.  They are a great tool for parents as well.  This post will cover the hows and whys of writing and using a social story. 

What is a social story?  A social story is a story about something a child is going to be experiencing in the future, often with pictures.  The story prepares the child for the event by telling the child what is going to happen and in what order.

For instance, a story about going to the dentist will explain to the child that he or she is going to see a person to help them keep their teeth clean. Then the story will walk the child through the steps: checking in at the office, waiting in the waiting room, sitting in the dentist chair, ex-rays, cleaning and getting a balloon at the end.

In the story, you can reference specific things that might be hard for your child.  For instance, of your child is bothered by noise, you can explain what parts of the dentist visit will be noisy.  Or maybe you will explain that it feels funny to have someone clean your teeth for you, but that it will not hurt.  Social stories are a chance to explain what is going to happen so your child is less surprised and better able to handle those things when they happen. 

For younger kids (under the age of 10), I illustrate the story. If I can, I use pictures of the people and places the child will encounter.  So I might find or take a picture of the dentist’s office or the dentist to let the child know what to expect.  If I can’t do that, I use clip art to illustrate different steps. 

Parents can also use social stories to “front-load” expectations.  Front-load is a fancy term for setting out expectations ahead of events.  For instance, “You have to sit still in the dentist’s chair and let the dentist look in your mouth” is a great way to help your child know what he or she must do at the dentist.  You can also tie rewards to good behavior in the story “When you let the dentist look at your teeth, everyone is proud of you!  The dentist will give you a balloon for doing so well” (if you know your dentist hands out balloons). 

Putting together all the elements of the story we just talked about, here is what a social story for going to the dentist might look like (minus pictures).

You are going to the dentist on Tuesday.

The dentist helps your teeth stay clean and healthy.

When you go to the dentist, Mom will tell the dentist that you are ready to have your teeth cleaned.

You might have to wait in the lobby for the dentist to be ready for you.

When they are ready, a dental hygienist, a person who helps the dentist, will take us to a small room in the back.  Mom will stay with you. 

The dental hygienist will have you sit in a big chair. She will use a special machine to take pictures of your teeth.

This does not hurt at all, although she will have you bite down on something that feels funny.

Then the dental hygienist will clean your teeth.  She will use different tools to do this. Some of them will be noisy.  You can wear earplugs if you want. 

You have to sit still and let your teeth get cleaned.  It is important!

The dentist will come in then.  She will look at your teeth and show you the pictures they took earlier. 

If you let the hygienist clean your teeth and let the dentist look at your teeth, everyone will be proud of you!  The dentist will give you a balloon after she sees your clean teeth.

Read the story at least 3-5 times before the event for kids ages 3-7.  For kids 8-10, 1-2 readings usually suffice unless the child is on the spectrum (if the child is on the spectrum, consider increasing to 3-5 times for older kids, to 5-10 times for younger kids.)  Kids will let you know when they understand what will happen by telling you they understand or telling others about what they are going to be doing.  Some might like the comfort of reading the story again and again though, so be prepared to read the story as often as your child needs it.  

When expectations are understood and events explained, kids tend to behave better.  The world becomes more understandable and the hidden rules adults understand are made explicit. Kids thrive on clarity and understanding.

If social stories are too hard for you to write or you feel uncomfortable writing them, children’s books that explain things that will happen to your child can be great for this as well.  The Bernstein Bears have many books that explain things like the dentist and doctor.  They can be great shortcuts to social stories.