Social Stories were first developed by Carol Gray, and are an extremely effective, and evidence based strategy for teaching autistic learners, and those with other social communication disorders, about what to expect, and what is expected, in a wide range of situations. ‘Social narrative’ is an umbrella term that includes Social Stories as well as other simple stories that visually represent social situations and behaviours for autistic learners.
Social Stories and narratives have become an extremely widely used tool in autism education. However, they are frequently written by those who are well meaning, but who do not have an understanding of the philosophy and criteria for effective Social Story/ narrative writing. This has led to the widespread use of stories that are ineffective and, in some cases, unsafe. In order to ensure stories are safe and effective, they should only be written by those who have undertaken training in this area. I will give information about where to access training later in this post, but first I will outline some key features of social stories/ narratives.
Features of social stories
Social Stories and narratives have certain features which ensure they are effective and that they do not harm the self-esteem or emotional development of the individual they are being used with. These include the following:
- The story should be descriptive and should give meaningful information that helps the autistic person understand the social situation and what to expect
- Socially humble and respectful – The story doesn’t tell the autistic person what to think or feel. It simply explains the situation to them and doesn’t make the person feel “less than” or not as good as their neurotypical peers or the story author. It is written from the perspective that the autistic person has an unique and equally-valid perspective on the world and the situation, and the author’s perspective isn’t just assumed to be correct because they are not autistic.
- Supportive, patient and reassuring – The story should help the autistic person feel like they know what to do/ can cope with the situation. It should lay out the necessary information in a clear way and should contain coaching sentences which help the individual to know what to do. The story should be positive and upbeat in tone and can include sentences to remind the person of their past achievements and the likelihood that they will succeed in their current learning, for instance “Last year I learned how to stay with my class when walking in the line. It was hard at first, but I got the hang of it with practice. This year I am learning to put my hand up when I want to tell my teacher something. I can practice and get good at this too!”.
- Non-judgemental – A social story should not tell autistic people what they are doing wrong and what they should do instead in a very directive way. The story should not use the 1st person in reference to a child’s undesirable behaviour e.g. “I often hit other children”. It is best to avoid using the word “should” in your story writing. Instead of saying “I should put my hand up when I want to tell my teacher something”, say “The class rule is that students put their hand up when they want to tell the teacher something”.
- Personalised – The story should be written from the 1st person perspective e.g., “My name is Mark and I am in First Class”. It should include photos or graphics that are relevant to the story and meaningful to the child. If the child has a special interest, this can be incorporated into the story if this is appropriate.
- Physically, socially and emotionally safe for the audience – The story should not be damaging to the self-esteem of the autistic individual e.g., it should never say something like this “Other children won’t like me or want to play with me if I hit on yard”. Instead, you could say something like “We all like to feel safe on yard. We feel safe when other people are gentle around us and do not put their hands in our personal space. I am learning to have safe hands and to respect other peoples’ personal space”. Furthermore, the story should not replace supervision or sound judgement. For instance, doing a social story on crossing the road safely with a child doesn’t negate the need for supervising them near roads in the future!
Example of a social story:
Social Story Tips
- Involve parents – Ask them for feedback on a draft of the story. When the story is complete, send home a copy so they can read it with their child too.
- The SET, class teacher and SNAs should all be involved – It is best practice that all adults who work with the child should be involved in the social story process. It will be most effective is the class teacher/ SET/ SNA are all working towards achieving the aim of the story with the child. It is worth having a discussion before any stories are created for input from all the team members, and for each to have access to a copy of the story to use with the child as needed afterwards.
- Revisit the story as needed – Once the child has mastered the skill in the story, you can gradually fade it out (read less often, until gradually it isn’t read anymore). But if needed, you can always revisit the story at a later date or edit it as needed.
- Tailor the story to the attention, age and interests of the learner. More pictures and less text for younger children and those with language difficulties.
Social Story Writing Training
Training is offered in Ireland through the NCSE and the local education centres. The NCSE offer a Teacher Professional Learning course on Social Narrative writing. You can search if there is one on via their website. Sub cover is paid for by the NCSE for class and autism class teachers.
To search for training opportunities via the education centres, visit the ESCI website and search for “Social Stories” under courses. Carol Gray usually offers training once a year through the education centre network. I alsp offer a free one hour introductory webinar on social story writing through the education centre network a couple of times each year. I post on my social media pages (Instagram and Facebook) about upcoming my webinars on social story writing.
Tools for Writing Social Stories and Narratives
While I often use Microsoft Word of PowerPoint, there are lots of other useful tools available to assist with social story/ narrative writing. Two of the best are Canva and Chat GPT.
Canva is an online graphic design tool which allows teachers to open a free account. It can be used to quickly and easily create extremely attractive narratives. It has an enormous range of fonts and backgrounds as well as thousands of graphics, photos & symbols which can be inserted into your story.
Chat GPT is a free-to-use Artificial Intelligence system that allows you to type a question or request and it will generate text for you. You can type a prompt such as “Write a social story for an 8 year old autistic student on the topic of following the rules for using the sensory room” and it will generate a sample social story for you which you can edit. This is a useful tool for getting ideas as to what to include in your story, but a big caveat is needed here in that the stories produced are extremely generic and they must be personalised to the needs of the individual child. Chat GPT also doesn’t include photos or graphics so you will need to add them.
Below is an example of a Chat GPT generated story:
Sample Social Stories and Narratives
I have a number editable sample social stories on teachingplans.ie and I frequently add new ones to my collection. I try to keep as many free to download ones as paid ones, so that there is a balance between making them accessible and acknowledging the time and work that it takes to create them.
You can also find a huge range of sample social stories and narratives on The Watson Institute’s website. Carol Gray also has an area on her website called Carol’s Club where you can set up a free account and access some of her social stories.
There is a lot more to social story writing than I can cover here, but I hope that the above has given you some information to point you in the right direction. If you would like to learn more, I highly recommend that you sign up for one of my free upcoming webinars on social story writing. I publicise these via my social media pages, or send me an email to email@example.com and I will be happy to let you know about upcoming training.
Gray, C.(2023) What is a Social Story? Available at: https://carolgraysocialstories.com/social-stories/what-is-it/(accessed 14 September 2023).
Timmins, S.(2023) What is a Social Story™? Available at: https://siobhantimmins.uk/social-stories/ (accessed 15 September 2023).