Before getting to how to write a social story, it is important to discover the “what and why” of social stories. This post will discuss the importance, relevance, and mechanics of using a social story. Whether needed for sensory needs, executive functioning skills, or cognitive considerations, neurodiverse individuals of all ages can benefit from the visual components of a social story.
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What is a social story?
Social stories are a powerful tool.
Carol Gray, the creator of the social story describes a social story in a unique way: A social story is defined as “a social learning tool that supports the safe and meaningful exchange of information between parents, professionals, and people with autism of all ages”.
While Ms. Gray uses the Autism diagnosis as her platform for social stories, they can easily and effectively be used with persons having other diagnoses. These might include, but are not limited to; sensory processing disorder, social skill interventions, attention deficit disorder, intellectual impairment, anxiety disorders, or any variety of neurodiversity.
One example is this going to the dentist social story. A trip to the dentist can bring about many fears, uncertainties, sensory input, and anxiety. Having a social story about this event can be a great way to identify needs and supports that might be needed during the visit, before being in the actual situation of a dentist appointment.
Another social story example is our wearing a mask social story. When children all over the world were required to suddenly start wearing masks, this was an unprecedented event. Having a social story about the situation helped many.
Why does one need a social story?
Learners create a sensory movie to guide their day. This is not scientific, but more a mechanism to understand how people create an inner monologue.
Some people do this naturally as they navigate through life. For these folks, new events, preferred, and non-preferred activities, are experienced without undue stress or discomfort.
For learners on the spectrum, or neurodivergent, processing information may pose more of a threat. These learners rely on creating a “sensory story”, or a “sensory movie” to make sense of what is about to happen. Just like a regular movie, a sensory story is like a movie which has a plot, scene, actors, costumes, props, etc.
A Sensory Story Example: Going to the Park
Just like a movie or a story of a family going to the playground or park, you can identify characters, a scene, plot, and various aspects of the scene. These variables can change, but others do not no matter what happens that day at the park.
- Plot – going to the park with friends. Swinging, climbing on playground equipment, running laps around the park, sitting for a packed lunch, going home
- Scene – a warm sunny day with a little wind. Some grass and sand, with a little mulch mixed in. Playground equipment in a large colorful structure. Children laughing and screaming.
- Actors – mom and learner, three friends, and 14 strangers
- Costumes – shoes to keep the sand out, a sun hat, shorts, t-shirt
- Props – sunscreen, water bottle, cooler, lunch food, toy trucks
These are a lot of variables for a short outing to the park.
The important thing to note is that this is a ton of information to process all at once to make sense of, and enjoy this day trip. All of these variables can cause dysregulation, emotional distress, anxiety, and behavioral challenges while learners try to untangle this web.
To better understand this concept, I have published a good resource, including chapters that break down all of these life events. Check it out on Amazon (affiliate link).
As a side note, imagine what happens if Mom suddenly decides it is rainy, and they are headed to the mall instead. All of a sudden the movie changes drastically. The plot, scene, characters, props, and costume have to be adjusted. Some learners are able to rapidly make this shift in plans, while others have to rewrite their whole movie.
The social story was born!
For learners who have difficulty making this mental shift, or creating their sensory movie, social stories help bridge the gap.
How to Write a Social Story
Writing a social story is a process, but it’s important to incorporate all of the components to create a tool that supports the individual in a meaningful way.
A social story has ten critical elements to help the learner make sense of, prepare, and anticipate an upcoming event. It is essentially a written script to assist learners in making their sensory movie.
According to Carol Gray, each social story has ten critical elements to make it effective and purposeful. These include:
1. The Social Story Goal- The information should follow a process to
share accurate information that is meaningful to the user and includes individualized content, voice, etc. A social story shares social information with a learner. It applauds achievements.
When writing a social story, identify the goal, environment, and situations that impact the overall goal.
2. Two-Step Discovery- The social story uses the goal of the verbiage and understands the reader or the user and has a topic that is relatable to the reader.
3. Title, Introduction, Body, Conclusion- A Social Story has a relatable title, introduction to the story, text that makes up the body of the social story and adds detail, and a conclusion that summarizes the story.
4. Format- The Social Story format is tailored to the individual reader and is written to their individual abilities, attention span, interests, and learning style.
5. Voice and Vocabulary- A Social story is written in a voice that is patient and understanding to the reader.
- It’s written in first-person or third-person perspective
- The tense may be written in past, present, and/or future tense
- It has a positive tone. Uses positive language.
- It is accurate in format and meaning to the individual
6. The story is written with Wh-Questions- The text of the social story answers relevant ’wh‘ questions that describe context. This includes:
- place (WHERE)
- time-related information (WHEN),
- people (WHO)
- facts or cues (WHAT)
- basic activities or events, behavior, statements (HOW)
- reasons or rationale behind them (WHY)
7. A social story uses sentences- Descriptive sentences are used to describe aspects of the context of the story. It may contain individually tailored illustrations to enhance the story such as actual photos of the event.
8. A social story describes more than directs. Is tailored to the abilities and interests of the audience and is accurate. It offers options to situations that might arise.
9. Refined- A social story is always able to be edited, and revised.
10. Thorough process- The process to create a social story follows a series of development
A social story meets all of the social story criteria and is always individualized.
When learning how to create a social story, incorporate what you have learned about a sensory movie. Add details related to the plot, characters, setting, scene, and costumes.
Tips for Writing a Social Story
Here are some key details on how to write a good social story
- Think of all of the sensory systems and how they will be affected during the upcoming event. What will be seen, heard, felt, tasted, or smelled.
- Incorporate these sensations into the story. Examples: it may be loud at the park, there may be wind and hot temperatures, we are going to have yummy lunch.
- Talk about the positive and negative aspects of the event. What will your learner like about the dentist? What will they find annoying or upsetting? By incorporating positive and negative, your learner will have a more realistic picture of the upcoming experience.
- Add real life pictures if you learner has difficulty generalizing their experience from a generic picture. Visuals are important, and visual social stories that contain pictures of the individual in the setting described are especially helpful.
- Add key details in relation to all of the variables; plot, characters, setting, scene, costumes, and props. Having to wear sunscreen may be the one trigger that ruins the entire day.
- Tailor your story specifically for the ability of your learner. Some learners may need a series of pictures without much narrative, where other learners are able to understand a story in paragraph form.
- Use a format that meets the interests and needs of the individual. Some ideas include:
- using slides on a tablet, laptop, or phone
- a single laminated sheet of paper
- A paper booklet stapled together
How to use a social story
Once you have written, downloaded, borrowed, bought, or otherwise obtained the social story, implementation is the key to success.
Some learners will only need to hear/see the story once before an experience to understand the upcoming event.
Other learners will need this story repeated several times in the days/hours leading up to the event, in order to fully prepare for it. Larger events such as a trip to Disney may need more than one social story, or multiple reviews before the trip.
Social stories can be used for anything. A visit to the dentist, outing at the zoo, first day of school, a bus ride, vacation, birthday party, a playdate, or any upcoming event that may be out of the norm.
Where to find social stories
- Amazon (affiliate link)
- The OT Toolbox
- YOU! You are the best resource for writing a relevant, meaningful, effective social story
When you are about to head out to a new event, think about your sensory movie, given all that you already know. Now imagine the experience as if you had never done it before, or had no knowledge of what might be about to unfold. This is the daily struggle for learners with challenges. A little planning and forethought will go a long way.
Victoria Wood, OTR/L is a contributor to The OT Toolbox and has been providing Occupational Therapy treatment in pediatrics for more than 25 years. She has practiced in hospital settings (inpatient, outpatient, NICU, PICU), school systems, and outpatient clinics in several states. She has treated hundreds of children with various sensory processing dysfunction in the areas of behavior, gross/fine motor skills, social skills and self-care. Ms. Wood has also been a featured speaker at seminars, webinars, and school staff development training. She is the author of Seeing your Home and Community with Sensory Eyes.