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More Than Just A Story

By: Lisa Sheinhouse

Published in Building Blocks, June 2010

Many people feel anxious when faced with a new experience, whether it is starting a new job, going on a date or taking the train for the first time. Most of us will prepare ourselves for new situations in order to alleviate our stress and anxiety. We may conduct research on the internet, speak to friends or read a book. An individual with autism spectrum disorder has difficulty preparing himself for new situations. He may not have the ability or capacity to conduct this research by himself. He may not have the social confidence to speak to other people to find out from them how their experience was. He may also have difficulty processing abstract verbal information. People with autism spectrum disorders lack an intuitive understanding of their social environment and may often misunderstand social cues and practices. Therefore, preparing them for new situations is even more critical. Social stories are a helpful tool to help an individual with autism learn social skills as well as what to expect in new situations. Social stories can be created to help individuals manage a variety of situations including going to the doctor, traveling on an airplane, visiting relatives and greeting strangers.

WHAT MAKES A SOCIAL STORY?

Carol Gray, a consultant for individuals with autism spectrum disorders and the Director of The Gray Center for Social Learning and Understanding, developed the concept of social stories in 1991. According to Ms. Gray, “social stories describe a situation, skill or concept in terms of relevant social cues, perspectives and common responses in a specifically defined style and format.” A social story always contains certain basic tents: • A social story uses positive wording, telling an individual what to expect and not what they are doing wrong. • A social story congratulates and applauds current skills and abilities. • A social story uses four basic sentence types: descriptive, perspective, directive and affirmative sentences. For example, “A blood test helps a doctor know that I am healthy” or “When the needle goes into my vein, I will probably feel a tiny poke” are both descriptive sentences. An example of an affirmative sentence would be: “I will be happy if I try to do everything the doctor asks.” • A social story uses the “WH” questions about the topic. WH questions are “who”, “what”, “when”, “ where”, “why” and “how” questions. • A social story is usually written in the first person. It may also be written in the 3rd person, but it is never written in the 2nd person. • Since individuals on the autism spectrum are very literal, they must be able to interpret the story literally without altering its intended meaning. Therefore, we use the words “usually” or “sometimes”, so that an individual does not assume something will always happen that way. It is also important to try to use vocabulary that will not upset or provoke anxiety in an individual with ASD. We do not use colloquial “figures of speech” such as “chilling out,” which can all be easily be misinterpreted if taken literally. The primary goal of a social story is to share relevant social information in a meaningful way. It is not meant to change an individual’s behavior, but rather to provide them with information about their social environment that they do not know. Learning this information prepares them for what to expect and will often reduce their anxiety and minimize any problem behavior.

HOW DOES A SOCIAL STORY WORK?

A social story takes a new situation and breaks it down step by step, explaining each step for the individual in order to enable the individual understand what is expected of him. If an individual is scared of a blood test, a social story would tell him what to expect, including each step of the process from the tourniquet being applied in order to find the vein, to the band aid at the end. The social story would also explain to the individual that a blood test is needed to make sure that we are healthy. If an individual has a hard time entertaining himself during free time, a social story might be written to specify games and activities he might use during that time. One way to create a social story is to allow the individual to be the star of the book, with pictures of the person featured prominently throughout the book. These can be created through professional websites, such as Snapfish or Shutterfly where an individual’s picture can be added to the text. It can also be created more simply by using a picture album or scrapbook. This can allow the insertion of, not only pictures of the person, but also any visual icons or symbols that they are learning to use. Social stories can also feature a person’s favorite cartoon character such as Dora the Explorer or Thomas the Train, which can serve to motivate the individual to mirror the behav- ior of the featured character. Abraham, a seventeen-year old boy who resides in a group residence, is diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder. Abraham is a very cooperative young man, who has never had any issues being examined by a doctor or dentist. However, Abraham presented with a great fear of the podiatrist and became very agitated when the podiatrist would examine his feet. Abraham had never had a complete examination by a podiatrist when he lived at home. When Abraham developed a problem with his feet and needed to be seen by a podiatrist, staff at his residence created a social story that featured Abraham and the podiatrist. A few weeks before the podiatrist was due to arrive, staff at the residence started to regularly read the book with him to prepare him for the visit. The story explained the purpose of a podiatrist and what Abraham could expect throughout the examination. On the day of the appointment, Abraham went to his room and pulled out the social story. He presented it to the podiatrist and requested that the doctor read the story with him. After reading the story together, Abraham allowed the doctor to conduct the examination without incident. The story also helped the podiatrist, who then understood the importance of verbalizing what he was doing throughout the examination in order to keep Abraham calm.

SOCIAL STORIES CAN HELP ALL CHILDREN

Social stories are a wonderful way for any child to learn a new social skill or help them manage a new experience. Children are often full of questions about new situations and explaining the event through a social story is a way to minimize the questions. The child will understand the new situation and will be able to review the story on his own. If you are planning a family vacation, a sibling or aunt’s wedding or even a play date, a social story can teach your child what to expect and how to behave in that situation. Children who do not have strong social skills may not intuitively know how to solve problems and to handle social situations the way other children do. A social story explains the social norms and teaches a child step by step how to solve the social situation they are facing. Other children have difficulty with transitions. If you are moving to a new house, if your child is attending her first day of kindergarten or if she is going to a new camp, these experiences may evoke shy or anxious behaviors. Social stories can explain the upcoming situation and teach a child what to expect, thus calming her and preparing her for the new experience. This will help her begin to anticipate the changes in her life. Faigy is a seven-year-old girl who constantly interrupted her parents in a loud and overbearing manner when they were talking on the phone or to each other. Faigy’s mother created a social story to explain to Faigy the importance of the conversations her parents were having as well as appropriate ways in which to obtain her parents’ attention when they were busy. The social story is read with Faigy every night, and over the last several months, Faigy has improved tremendously in this area. She has grown to show more respect to her parents when they are talking to other people, and she now has learned to wait or say “excuse me” when she needs assistance from her mother and father when they are busy.

THERE ARE MANY WAYS SOCIAL STORIES CAN HELP

Social stories can also be created to assist with more abstract, social situations. For example, if a person has temper tantrums every time she has to share a toy, a social story can be created to teach her the appropriate way to behave in that situation, such as using words instead of hitting her friend. It would also explain the reason why a person has to share her toys, and explain the give and take of friendship and sharing.

Lisa Sheinhouse holds a master’s degree in school psychology from Touro College, and serves as an area coordinator at OHEL Bais Ezra. With over four decades of experience in caring for individuals with developmental disabilities, OHEL Bais Ezra has elevated and enriched the lives of thousands of individuals and families. OHEL Bais Ezra offers parents guidance and clear direction and tailors its programs to meet the specific needs and optimize the potential of each individual. Call 1800-603-OHEL

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