Have you ever wondered how to help your child understand or process a certain life event, like when a pet dies, or when a friend moves away?
Or maybe you’ve wondered what’s the best way to prepare your child for something that’s going to happen like moving houses, welcoming a new sibling to the family or even going to the dentist?
Perhaps you’ve needed to find a way to talk about a certain behavior or challenge that keeps coming up, like learning how to share toys with a sibling or how to ask someone to play.
My answer to these are…social stories! And that’s what we’re here to talk about today.
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- What social stories are and why they can be helpful
- Situations in which social stories can be useful
- The components of an effective social story
- How to put a social story together
What are social stories?
Social stories were created by a person named Carol Gray, originally intended to teach social skills to Autistic children but have since been successfully utilized to help other children through various scenarios.
In general, a social story can be characterized this way:
- It’s usually a short story in the form of a book or booklet
- It typically has short sentences
- The child is the main character
- It’s written from a first-person perspective.
Keep scrolling for more about social stories, including an example social story I wrote.
Common topics for social stories
Here are some examples of topics you might create a social story about:
- To teach a new behavior/response to a certain scenario
- Holding hands when crossing the street
- Asking for help in the classroom
- Giving gifts at a birthday party
- To explain a routine change or challenging upcoming scenario; or to process something that happened
What are components of an effective social story?
- Your child is the main character and should be written from the first-person perspective. (“My name is…” “I have…”)
- Use descriptive language to accurately describe what the child will observe/has observed in the scenario. (“The waiting room will have some chairs, and maybe a table with some books and magazines to look at.”)
- Use directive sentences, often beginning with “I will” or “I can.” It’s important to focus on what the child should do in a particular scenario. **IMPORTANT: TRY TO USE POSITIVE VS NEGATIVE PHRASES (e.g. “I will walk” vs “I won’t run”)
- I can hold my mom’s hand when we cross the street.”
- I can hold my mom’s hand when we cross the street.”
- Call out emotions that might come up, and proactively OKAY them.
- It can feel scary sometimes at the doctor’s office, but I know I’m safe.
- I might feel nervous on my first day of school, that makes sense. Feelings come and go.
- It can feel scary sometimes at the doctor’s office, but I know I’m safe.
- Realistic pictures are best. Pull photos/videos from websites or take them yourself. Some children may also do well with drawings. Do the best you can with what you have.
How to put a social story together
Here are a few guidelines:
- I try to do one or two sentences maximum per page and then have a photo on each page.
- You can go as simple and low-tech as handwriting a social story on pieces of paper and drawing pictures. Or you can type it out on a Word doc and then cut out and glue photos.
- You could use a website called Canva which allows you to create an account for free. Canva makes it really easy to find and use photos and text and customize your social story.
- There is also an app called Social Story Creator Library that I like to use. (I believe it’s only on iOS.) Within the app, you can type in your social story narrative and then upload photos directly into it. Then you can also record your voice reading the words. (Or even better, have your child read the story outloud in their own voice!)
Example social story
Here’s a social story I wrote about loud sounds at Disneyland:
Sounds at Disneyland
That’s it! Pretty simple, and so so useful. You’ll want to read these as often as you need to. When we were reading the one getting her ready for moving, we read it daily. It’s not just a one-time, check-off-the-list thing.
I have some pre-made social story templates on my website that I’ll link below: one for preparing for Halloween and one for preparing for receiving gifts (use this around holidays or birthdays!)
Speaker 1 (00:00): These are one of the things that you can do to prepare them and their nervous system for what’s going to happen. Remember when we can fill in the blank for the nervous system and tell it what to expect. It helps it process that event, that activity, that change a little better because they know what to expect rather than filling in the blanks with a lot of scariness and things that are unfamiliar or unexpected can be dysregulating for some nervous systems, especially a neurodivergent nervous system. Welcome to the Sensory Wise Solutions podcast for parents where parents can get real actionable strategies to support kids with sensory processing disorder. I’m Laura, OT and mom To Liliana, a sensory sensitive kid who inherited my anxiety and my love for all things Disney. Consider me your new OT mom, bestie. I know my stuff, but I also know what it’s really like in the trenches of parenting a child with sensory processing disorder. Speaker 2 (01:04): Okay, mom, enough about me. Let’s start the podcast. Speaker 1 (01:10): Welcome, welcome, welcome back to the podcast today, another short and sweet but very actionable episode for you. You might want to take notes because I’m going to give you a tutorial on how to write a social story. I’m also going to tell you what a social story is, what kinds of kids would benefit from a social story, how you should read it to them, how to make one, all of it. So it’s going to be short and sweet, but it’s going to be a lot of actionable steps. Alright, so you would use a social story to help your child understand something that has happened in the past or something that is going to happen. So have you ever wondered maybe how to help your child understand or process a specific life event that happened? So maybe a pet dies or maybe a loved one dies or a friend that had to move away, or maybe you’ve had to find some ways to prepare your child for something that’s going to happen, like preparing for a move or welcoming a new sibling to the family. (02:18)Or even something like going to the dentist or going to a new school. Maybe you’ve had to find a way to talk about a specific behavior or a challenge that keeps coming up. Maybe learning how to share toys with a sibling, how to ask someone to play, maybe getting ready to say bye to a pacifier or something like that. These are all of the scenarios when a social story could really help you. So we’re going to talk about that today. But first, what are social stories? Social stories were created by someone named Carol Gray and they originally intended to use social stories to help autistic children learn social skills, but it has since then been successfully utilized to help other children through the scenarios that I just listed. I’m going to read an example of a social story at the end of the episode, but basically the format of these stories are they’re really short phrases or sentences with one picture on the page and the child is the main character and is written in the first person perspective. (03:38)Again, at the end of the episode, I’m going to give you an example for you, but some common topics for social stories. I already laid some out in the beginning, but I’m going to call out more examples of topics that you might create a social story around. Basically you want to think of anytime you need to talk to your child about something but you don’t know how to bring up the topic and you can’t really just sit there across from them at a table and say, Hey, let’s talk about this. So this appeals, this is best for a lot of neurodivergent kids, younger kids, but I’ve had clients who were 10, 11, 12 that I still use social stories for. It really depends on the developmental ability and stage of the child, your child best. If you think that they would feel completely belittled or to they’d be treated like a little kid. (04:33)If you read this to them, then don’t make this, but you can also make it your own. Okay, so some examples of how you would use a social story to teaching new behavior or response to a certain scenario. So I mentioned some earlier, but also creating a social story to help your child understand that they need to hold hands when crossing the street or how to ask for help in the classroom or what to do if they get lost or giving gifts at a birthday party. So some things that might be hard for your child based on previous events or that they’ve been talking about it, they’re worried about it and you want to help them understand what that process will be like and how they can succeed. You can also use it to explain any sort of life or routine change or a challenging scenario that keeps coming up or something that has happened. (05:25)So like I said earlier, losing a pet or a loved one when you have to move. Going to a new school, welcoming a new family member, going trick or treating, going to Disneyland, going on an airplane, sleeping in a hotel, all of those kinds of things that are coming up and you’re like, this is going to be new for them. It might cause anxiety. We might have a lot of meltdowns around it. These are one of the things that you can do to prepare them and their nervous system for what’s going to happen. Remember when we can fill in the blank for the nervous system and tell it what to expect. It helps it process that event, that activity, that change a little better because they know what to expect rather than filling in the blanks with a lot of scariness and things that are unfamiliar or unexpected can be dysregulating for some nervous systems, especially a neurodivergent nervous system. So the more you can make something familiar, the better. (06:25)Let’s talk about some components of what makes up a good social story. So like I said earlier, your child is the main character and should be written in first person. So it sounds like my name is Laura and I am in first grade next year I’m going to second grade. That’s what it would sound like. You also want to try to use sentences that describe things and accurately describes things that happen in a scenario. So talking about sequences of events, what they’re going to expect. So for example, the waiting room will have some chairs and maybe a table with some books and magazines to look at if you are using a social story to help your child understand what’s going to happen at the doctor’s office. Another tip, when you are writing the social story, especially if it’s about around a behavior or you want to help them regulate through a certain scenario, you want to use directive sentences that begin with, I will or I can and focus on what the child should do in a particular scenario. So for example, when it’s time to cross the street, I will walk and hold my mom’s hand versus I won’t run when it’s time to cross the street. You always want to give them something positive that they can do with their body. (07:50)Another important thing of a good social story is calling out emotions or things that might come up and proactively okay them. So some phrases you might hear that I include in some social stories, it can feel scary sometimes at the doctor’s office, but I know I’m safe. I might feel nervous on my first day of school. That makes sense. Feelings come and go, so it’s okay to include the feelings that your child might have. I think it’s also helpful to do that because it’s calling it out rather than just acting like they’re not going to have any of these emotions, but clearly they will. Otherwise you wouldn’t have to be writing this social story. So these social stories are not to distract from feelings or to make sure they have none. It’s to help them process what’s going to happen and to help prepare them for it. I think Dr. Becky refers to it as emotional vaccination and I love that concept of it. (08:48)And then the last tip is to use realistic pictures if possible. So I like to just go around the and take pictures of whatever items I’m talking about. If I’m talking about her room, if I’m talking about a certain sensory tool or swing, I use a realistic picture rather than a clip art or cartoon. It helps specifically for autistic individuals to have a more concrete photo rather than clip art and cartoons. But you know your child best and you might not be able to get a photo of everything, but I suggest looking up pictures on websites, going to the place and snapping a photo. You can even email the doctor’s office and say, can I have a photo of the nurse that will be working with my child if they know that information? As many realistic pictures of faces and places and things as possible, specific pictures of caregivers, all of that will really help make the social story more connected to your child and help your child resonate more with a social story. (09:56)So let’s talk about how you actually put a social story together and then I will read you the example of social story. So I mentioned this earlier, I try to do one or two sentences maximum per page and then have a photo on each page. So I use pretty large font. Again, depends on the age of your child. If you feel like it would look too childish for your kid, then you can adapt. But ever since I’ve been making these for Liliana when she was I think two and a half up until recently, I limit it to one to two sentences, maximum per page, and then I have a photo on each page. Sometimes I have a collage of photos to illustrate what I talked about on that page. You can go as simple and low tech as literally handwriting on a piece of paper and drawing pictures or handwriting and then maybe cutting and pasting some pictures that you print out or you type it on a word doc and then cut it out in glue photos. (10:59)You can just create it on a word doc and not even print it out and just swipe through on your iPad or phone. You can make it however you want. Just make sure there is text that is visible and an illustration of some sort. I like using a website called Canva, c a n va. It is free to create an account and it’s really easy to find and use stock photos and clip art to add to your social story and you can edit and add different kinds of fonts. It’s really fun to play around on. It’s free. I prefer that over PowerPoint because not everybody has PowerPoint and it’s accessible from any website, any browser. There is also an app that I love, it’s only for iPhone users, I’m sorry to Android users, but it’s called Social Story Creator Library. And the icon is a pink book. (11:59)Again, it’s social story creator library. You can type that straight into the app store. I love using this. Within the app you can type out your social story, so what you would like the words to say and then it allows you to upload your own photos directly into the app. And here’s the cool part, then you can actually record your voice or your child’s voice, which is even better. You can record your child or yourself reading the words and then you could let your child read or watch the social story on your phone or an iPad and click play and they can physically swipe between the pages on the iPad, but all of it is digital and you don’t have to print anything out. I haven’t checked if there’s something similar on Android or if they offer it on Android yet, but it is on iPhone and it is free. (12:53)I think they also have some templates scripts for other social stories for common scenarios that you might find yourself needing one for. Alright, so let’s listen to an example of a social story. This is a social story I wrote about loud sounds at Disneyland. So the scenario is you are going somewhere, this happens to be Disneyland and you’re preparing your child for the loud sounds that they’re going to hear. So maybe your child is sensory sensitive and you want to prepare them for what Disneyland is going to be like without just saying it’s going to be super loud. So you read them this story. Okay, so I would open with my name is blank and I am blank years old. This is a picture of me and my family. And then I would put a picture of you and your family. I like to open it with an intro of who the main character is. (13:44)So that’s usually my same intro for every social story. Then the next page would say, I’m so excited I get to go to Disneyland slash Disney California adventure very soon. Then I would put a picture of Disneyland next page. When I go to Disneyland, there might be a lot of sounds from all the rides. I might hear people talking, singing, babies, crying, people clapping music, playing instruments and other loud sounds when I go on rides or walk past rides. And then I would put a picture of those things next page at night. Sometimes there are fun light shows and have loud music or fireworks. I would put pictures on that page. Next page, my ears are sensitive to sound and sometimes I feel very upset or scared when I hear too many sounds. I will bring my headphones and use them when I feel nervous or scared of sounds. (14:49)And then I would put a picture of child wearing their headphones if you could, or just a picture of the headphones. Next page, headphones help sounds feel less loud and I feel safe when I have my headphones. You can use the same picture of your child on this page, maybe a different picture of them using their headphones. Next page when I have my headphones on, I can use my hands to hold onto handles on rides or clap along to music or hold my mom’s hand. Again, find another picture to put maybe a picture of them holding your hand. Don’t be afraid to repeat photos or you can bunch these on the same page. I just try to make it not look so text heavy, especially for really little kids. (15:35)And that’s it. That was the last of the social story. So super short, right? It showed it was like an intro. This is what’s happening, this is what I can do when I feel that way. And then at the end it shows when you have the headphones on, it allows you to use your hands, which is really the issue of why we don’t. We try to avoid just letting kids cover their ears because then that doesn’t allow them to interact or engage with the environment. That’s it. So pretty simple, very, very useful. You could do this for any scenario. Like I said, you’ll want to read these social stories anywhere from up to a week to maybe two weeks leading up to the event, depending on what it is, depending on your child, right? Every kid is different. So what works for my child might not work for yours. (16:20)For some kids, I understand there’s a certain window if you prepare them too far in advance, it almost gives them more anxiety. I know some kids need more preparation than others, so you know your child best. But my main point is you want to read this more than one time. You might even let your child hold the book if you print it out or you might integrate it into your bedtime routine. But they should be able to hear it and process that information more than one time. So it’s not just like quick checked it off the list done with the story kind of thing. I do have some pre-made social story templates on my website. There’s two of them that I’ll link below. One is for preparing for Halloween and what to expect for trick-or-treating. And another one is for receiving gifts. So the inspiration for that one is for around Christmas time. (17:17)You know how kids have no filter when receiving gifts and if they’re disappointed, it really shows and how to handle all of that kind of stuff. So I would use that for any holiday coming up or birthday, and those are linked below. But what happens with those when you click on them, you put in your information, you’ll get a Canva link to create a template on Canva. So you’ll get to use the website that I talked about earlier. Again, it’s free to create an account. But yeah, definitely give those a look. And that is it for today. I hope that this was helpful. If you liked it, let me know. Leave me a comment, send me a DMM on Instagram. Share this episode. Any word that you can put out there about this podcast and sharing this resource with others helps me a lot. So thank you so much for being here. I will see you next week. If you enjoyed this podcast, please consider rating it and leaving a review, which helps other parents find me as well. Want to learn more from me? I share tons more over on Instagram at the OT Butterfly. See you next time.