5 Mistakes to Avoid When Writing a Social Story

Confused reader. Courtesy Getty Images

Social Stories are a trademarked concept, invented by Carol Gray. They are illustrated stories written to prepare kids (and sometimes adults) with autism for new and/or challenging situations by providing direction, scripts, and insights ahead of time.

Social Stories can be very flexible, and they are used for any number of situations. there are Social Stories for daily hygiene (how to brush teeth, for example), for school routines, for social encounters, and for community events and venues.

  There are Social Stories for behavior (what to do when you're angry, for example) and for social interactions (such as asking someone to come over to play).  There are now Social Story videos and comic books to make it easier for more visual learners to access these useful tools.

Social Stories aren't terribly complex, and they've proved to be very useful. It's surprising, therefore, how easy it can be to do an absolutely rotten job of writing one!  Here are some of the top mistakes people make when putting together a Social Story.

1. They Turn Social Stories into Word Puzzles

Benjamin Franklin created a word puzzle called a Rebus. The concept was simple: he'd replace words with pictures, and players would try to figure out which words were represented by the pictures.  You've seen Rebuses -- they're the puzzles that use a picture of an eye to replace the word "I" -- or a picture of two cans for the word "toucan."

While Rebuses are great fun as puzzles, it is puzzling that anyone would use a Rebus format to write a Social Story.  The whole idea of a Social Story is to enhance understanding and simplify interaction -- yet time after time I've come across so-called Social Stories that are literally impossible for ANYONE to understand, let alone someone with cognitive or social challenges!

2. They Fill the Page with "Stuff"

Social Stories are intended to enhance understanding. Which is why they are simply written, with as little visual clutter as possible. Which begs the question -- why would anyone write Social Stories that include long paragraphs of complex exposition? 

Yet over and over again, I've seen so-called Social Stories that feature writing that looks like part of an encyclopedia or college essay.  These are decorated by a variety of bits and pieces of photography and clip art, apparently in an attempt to fill the page as completely as possible.

Yes, it's possible to produce volumes about any type of human interaction, but that's not exactly useful for a 4th grader with social communication challenges!

3. They Use Pictures That Have Nothing to Do with the Content of the Story

There's a reason for including images in Social Stories. Pictures provide a great deal of useful information, particularly for people who learn best visually (which is the case for many people with autism). If you're explaining how to shake hands while meeting someone's eyes, for example, it's helpful to have a picture of two people shaking hands while looking directly at one another.

What would NOT be helpful, in this example, is a picture of a single individual waving at no one in particular -- which seems to be a very common choice.

Even less helpful is a cartoon image of a gender-neutral "being" holding up something that looks only vaguely like a hand. People with autism tend to be literal thinkers, and this kind of vaguely symbolic imagery does little to increase understanding.

4. They Use Baffling Clip Art Instead of Photos or Illustrations

A good Social Story uses a small number of clear, simple images to support words; together, the images and words provide information and direction to make a potentially difficult situation easier. But when the images make no sense to anyone, they're less than useless.

Take for instance the Social Story that uses little, tiny, clip art hearts to illustrate the sentence "Jane and Joe are friends." What the heck are these little hearts intended to convey?

  Are Jane and Joe in love? Do little hearts pop out of their mouths when they speak?  Do hearts appear out of nowhere whenever friends speak?  For a literal thinker (or anyone else, really) the meaning is completely obscure.

5. They Use Photos That Misrepresent Reality

A well-meaning therapist is planning to take a child on the spectrum to the movies for the first time.  So she creates a Social Story to help the child to prepare.  Great idea!  Unfortunately, she uses images of a generic movie theater that's nothing like the theater they plan to visit.  The photos show an empty lobby, and an empty theater.  The floors are pristine, and the seats are all available.

This is going to make life pretty tricky for the child, who's all set for an experience he'll never encounter. Instead of a quiet, clean, empty theater, he'll be quickly overwhelmed by the lines, the noise, the smells, the popcorn-covered floors, and the reality that he may not get the seat he wants -- or may have to sit next to a stranger.

Bottom line, Social Stories are a great tool when used correctly.  Britain's National Autistic Society offers a terrific primer on how to do it right -- and of course you know what NOT to do!

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