What makes a good Social Story? – Autism in Practice – September 2014

In the third feature of four for the September 2014 issue of Autism in Practice, I attempted to find out more about Carol Gray’s Social Stories concept. Carol developed Social Stories as a way of helping people with autism to share their experiences, while also considering how their feelings may affect the feelings of others through body language and facial expressions.

Carol Gray is an American author and presenter with an interest in the autism spectrum. Earlier in her career, she was a teacher and later a consultant to students with autism in Jenison, Michigan.

From creating communication techniques that could help to recognise feelings in life events, she developed Social Stories in 1991 as a concept that educates as well as innovates. From having a conversation with a student in her care, she believed “it was apparent that his perception of a recent incident was different” from her own and that through making notes on individual descriptions of the same incident, “we were able to identify the differences in our understanding and resolve the problem”.Social Stories that can paint a picture, and Social Articles that are put together in an academic fashion with the use of an advanced vocabulary, are designed as a way of giving people with autism a learning experience and a voice.

Carol will be looking to share her experiences of developing Social Stories with likeminded delegates at The National Autistic Society’s Autism and communication conference, to be held at the Hilton Hotel in Reading, on Tuesday 25th November 2014.

Development of the concept

Carol feels the initial development of Social Stories was “more of a discovery than a decision”.

Through first taking an interest in autism as a university student where, in carrying out research, she came across a theory from Dr Bruno Bettleheim that refrigerator mothers were triggers for autism in their children.

Described as “a pathological liar” and as “the champion of emotionally disturbed children”, Bruno thought of autism as “an emotional disorder that developed in some children because of psychological harm brought upon them by their mothers”. He “likened the lives of autistic children to the experience of prisoners in Nazi concentration camps”.

Meeting people with autism helped Carol to realise mothers were not responsible for issues their children faced. These experiences also helped her to realise she wanted to help people with autism. She believes there is a lack of respect for the children, adolescents, and adults who comprise the Social Stories audience.

On her initial discovery, she says: “Building from that success, it seemed likely that the same approach, with modification, could be beneficial to even the youngest students on my caseload.

“It’s worth the investment of time to learn about Social Stories and how to develop and implement them safely and effectively.”

How could a Social Story work?

“As a defined writing format, Social Stories require parents and professionals to research, develop, and implement each Story according to specified rules. The result is a patient and supportive learning experience for the audience”, Carol believes.

She adds: “A Social Story accurately describes a situation, skill, or concept according to ten defining criteria. These criteria guide Story research, development, and implementation to ensure an overall patient and supportive quality.

“Social Stories and Social Articles both adhere to the Social Story definition; and by definition a Social Story must be meaningful to the audience. Accomplishing that requires tailoring the topic, text, and illustration according to personal abilities and interests.

“The goal is to meet the needs of the audience, with care taken to captivate interest and never, ever insult.”

The aim of a Social Story is to share an experience in a safe environment, while also harnessing creativity. By considering the way they may affect people who read or hear them, communication skills in a verbal sense and communication skills through body language and facial expressions can be improved.

Fictional stories do not work as Social Stories. Understanding right and wrong reactions can come as the result of a Social Story and therefore, real experiences prove better subject matter. However, Carol believes there is an exception to this rule:

“Analogies can cover topics as long as the intended audience understands the connection and the concepts covered.

“For example, I recently wrote a story about skunks to describe stereotypes. The story was entirely factual and accurate, while describing stereotypes in a way that was interesting, entertaining, and fun for the audience.

“The requirement for accuracy refers to text and illustration that is free of assumption or bias, and limits authors to the myriad of topics anchored to life on Planet Earth. Therefore, a fictional story like Harry Potter is out.

“Despite the limitation, there’s a lot of room for creative thinking to cover a topic.”