Social Story 101
For many kids on the spectrum anxiety is a huge problem, add in not understanding how to behave in a certain situations or being overwhelmed by crowds, stimuli etc; and some of the very basic aspects of daily life – that many people often take for granted – like going to the grocery store, can be overwhelming and exhausting.
Social Stories are meant to help our kids understand various social nuances with the goal that they will gain a better understanding of a situation they either experience on a regular basis, like brushing their teeth or going to daycare – or will experience soon – vacation, a change in routine, meeting a new person or going to a party.
When I first heard the term, I didn’t understand the meaning behind it. I think a better term would be situational stories or something along those lines because they are extremely versatile and we now use them for practically everything – as does Sabrina’s family.
The sole purpose of these stories is to lay out the situation they will be encountering and then to walk them through the entire situation step by step so they know what to expect and how we as parents expect them to behave. And more importantly — what should they do when and if they suddenly forget what to do, or get overwhelmed by something they didn’t expect, or that bothers them (i.e. loud noises). It is done with a lot of pictures, which really help since many kids with autism relate much better to visual cues (read Sabrina’s post on Routines for additional information).
Both Sabrina and I have kids who are highly anxious, so the idea of just laying out words and pictures while helpful, doesn’t work as well for our children because they need to understand how it will affect them specifically. We make the stories extremely personal, all about them – not just the situation.
Here’s a sample from a recent story I wrote:
My name is MJ and I am four and a half years old. And the one thing I love almost as much as my Mom and Dad is jumping. I looove jumping. I have a pink kitty ball that I use to bounce around the house, and I even have my own small trampoline in the basement. I use both when I’m excited or nervous because jumping really helps me.
Because I love jumping so much, I’ve been taking gymnastics classes for a few years now. I take classes on Wednesday’s and after every 10 classes, there is a break for several weeks. In three sleeps, it will be time to go to gymnastics again. When I go to gymnastics there are a few things that will likely be the same and a few things that will be different.
Here is what I know will be the same: where my gymnastics class will be held, that it is on Wednesdays (etc…)
Here is what might be different, or what I don’t know: how many kids will be in the class, what their names will be and whether I will know them. I also don’t know if I will have the same coach as I did last time I went.
The story then continues and we go over some of the things she can do if she feels she is not calm, or is unsure of what to do. We list out some of the things that tend to calm her down when “her brain gets all jumbled” as she puts it.
We then tend to read the story (sometimes at nauseum) until everyone in our house knows it by heart – by MJ’s choice. She will request that we read it over and over again – and you can tell she is memorizing everything. When she gets into the situation, we can sometimes hear her repeating phrases from the story as she’s participating in the task or situation.
We have been able to ward off many a meltdown with these stories – but have learned a few things along the way. Probably the most valuable lesson? Be specific – but not too specific; allow room for flexibility. Once the story is committed to memory – if it doesn’t happen exactly as you have laid out – that can bring on an entirely new/different meltdown.
For example, if talking about a party – use phrases like might and maybe e.g., “Some of the people you might see at the party are: Johnny, Suzy” etc. If you say Johnny and Suzy are for sure coming and one of them can’t make it because they came down with a cold – your entire story is for not because everything is different now. They will wonder and obsess about what else might be different and forget about all the things they are supposed to be doing.
I also recommend making sure you acknowledge some of the feelings they may have – and that it’s ok to feel that way. Not everyone has to be excited over Christmas, or the idea of meeting a new friend. Many people do get nervous – and last time I checked, it’s ok to be nervous. We want our daughter to know that it’s ok to feel how she feels, and here’s what to do to help you deal with those feelings. We want to use these stories to show her what she can do to overcome that feeling, otherwise, she’ll just shut or melt down and then no one has any chance at fun.