by Barry K. Morris B.ScWk
Children with autism
experience difficulties with social interaction. The theory
of mind describes the problems they face in seeing the perspective
of another person. A common strategy for dealing with this is using
social stories to help individuals on the autism spectrum to 'read' and understand social situations.
Appropriate social behaviors are explained in
the form of a story. It was developed by Carol Gray and seeks to
include answers to questions that autistic persons may need to know
to interact appropriately with others (for example, answers to who,
what, when, where, and why in social situations).
A social story is designed for the specific child
and may include things the child values and is interested in. For
example, if a child likes dinosaurs, you could include dinosaurs
as characters in a story about going to school, etc. Children with
autism are often visual learners, so the story can include drawings,
pictures, and even real objects.
how a social story is put together
Carol Gray recommends a specific pattern to a
social story. The pattern includes several descriptive and perspective
Descriptive sentences describe what people do
in particular social situations, and clearly define where a situation
occurs, who is involved, what they are doing, and why. An example
of a descriptive sentence is "Sometimes at school, the fire
alarm goes off. The fire alarm is a loud bell that rings when there
is a real fire or when we are practicing getting out of the building.
The teachers, janitors, and principal all help us to line up and
go outside quickly. The fire alarm is loud so that everyone can
hear it. Sometimes I think it is too loud."
This type of sentence presents others' reactions
to a situation so that the individual can learn how others' perceive
various events. These describe the internal states of people, their
thoughts, feelings, and mood. Perspective sentences present others'
reactions to a situation so that the individual can learn how others
perceive various events. Example of a perspective sentence: "The
fire alarm does not bother all people. The teachers, janitors, and
principal may not understand how much the fire alarm bothers me.
Sometimes they get mad if I do not move quickly or get confused.
Their job is to get me outside quickly so I am safe in case there
is a real fire."
Directive sentences direct a person to an appropriate
desired response. They state, in positive terms, what the desired
behavior is. Given the nature of the directive sentence, care needs
to be taken to use them correctly and not to limit the individual's
choice. The greater the number of descriptive statements, the more
opportunity for the individual to supply his/her own responses to
the social situation. The greater the number of directive statements,
the more specific the cues for how the individual should respond.
These are always stated in positive terms and
are individualized statements of desired responses. Directive sentences
often follow descriptive sentences, sharing information about what
is expected as a response to a given cue or situation. Directive
sentences often begin with "I can try..." "I will
try..." or "I will work on...." Example of a directive
sentence: "I will work on staying calm when the fire alarm
Care should be taken not to have too many directive
and/or control sentences turn a social story into an "anti-social
story" of demands and commands.
These sentences identify strategies the person
can use to facilitate memory and comprehension of the social story.
They are usually added by the individual after reviewing the social
story. A control sentence should be written or inspired by the child.
Example of a control sentence: "When the fire alarm rings,
will think about a the dinosaurs following each other out of the
forest to escape the burning meteors."
When the story is put together, you may include
pictures that mean something to the child and will help them remember
the story. The story can be used as a bed-time story, a story for
story time, etc. It may be read daily by the child or read to the
child at various times during the week. Carol Gray reports fantastic
results with her stories.
Don't have too many directive and control sentences
Two other types of sentences are sometime used:
directive and control sentences. These sentences may not be used
at all and if they are, Carol Gray recommends using them in the
ration of 0 - 1 directive or control sentence(s) for every 2 - 5
descriptive and/or perspective sentences.
Carol Gray developed the social story ratio which
defines the proportion of directive or control sentences to descriptive
and/or perspective sentences. She suggests that for every one directive
or control sentence, there should be two to five descriptive and/or
perspective sentences. Directive or control sentences may be omitted
entirely depending on the person and his/her needs.
How to use social stories
If the individual with autism can read, the parent
can introduce the story be reading it twice. The person then reads
it once a day independently. When the individual with autism cannot
read, the parent can read the story on a videotape or audio tape
with cues for the person to turn the page while reading. These cues
could be a bell or verbal statement when it is time to turn the
The person listens and 'reads' along with the
story once a day. When individual with autism develops the skills
displayed in the social story, the story can be faded. This can
be done by reducing the number of times the story is read a week
and only reviewing the story once a month or as necessary. Another
way of fading is to rewrite the story, gradually removing directive
sentences from the story.
social stories can be used for many purposes
Social stories can be used for more than learning
how to interact in social situations. They can be used to learn
new routines, activities, and how to respond appropriately to feelings
like anger and frustration. While studies are currently assessing
the effectiveness of social stories, they appear to be a promising
method for improving the social behaviors of autistic individuals.
What does research say about social stories?
Research to date indicates that social stories
may be effective in improving adaptive behavior or reducing problem
behavior, especially if used with applied behavior analysis methods.
However, children on the autism spectrum will only benefit from
this approach if they are able to communicate in sentences that
connect different ideas to each other.
Several studies with small groups of school age
children on the autism spectrum have reported benefits from using
social stories (Mirenda 2001). Social stories are seen as effective
as long as they are suited to the child's communication skills (Richards
2000). As with many interventions for Autism Spectrum Disorders,
more empirical research with larger numbers of children involved
is needed to fully qualify social stories as an
Examples of social sentences
It's important to look at people and stop what
I'm doing when they have something to tell me.
Sometimes grown-ups tell me very important things that I need to
If I don't look & listen I might miss something important and
make the grown-ups angry.
I know it's wrong to keep doing what I'm doing when grown-ups want
me to listen.
I will listen to grown-ups when they talk to me.
Tuning into people
I only think about what people are saying or doing.
When I remember to do this, I make friends and I know what's going
If I think about other things I can get distracted, I might even
People will think I'm weird and they won't want to play with me.
I will always think about what people are saying and doing.
I can't interrupt when others are having a conversation
or are busy with something.
It's not polite
If it's extremely important, I can tap the person on the shoulder
and say excuse me, otherwise I must be patient and wait until they're
Interrupting makes people angry because you stop them from talking
and they might forget what they were talking about.
Everyone deserves to talk without being interrupted.
Grown-ups like polite children
They're especially proud of children who do not interrupt.
Sometimes I might think it's important and the grown-up will tell
me it's not. If that happens, I need to wait patiently.
When I talk to people I need to give them their
space and stay away from their faces.
When people come too close it makes other people uncomfortable.
Everybody needs space.
When I make people uncomfortable, they want to get away from me.
They might not want to ever talk to me again.
When I give people enough space, I get to play with and talk to
people, I make friends and have fun.
Sometimes grown-ups send me to a timeout when
I don't listen.
What are you supposed to do in a timeout?
What do grown-ups think if you don't listen? A:
They think I don't know how to listen.
I can control myself so I don't get timeouts
I can listen to grown-ups.
No answer from others
Sometimes people don't answer when you talk to
Maybe they didn't hear you.
Maybe they weren't paying attention.
Maybe they were busy.
Maybe they just didn't want to talk to you.
It's not my job to make people answer me.
I can just forget about it, maybe they'll talk to me later.
Asking questions you know the answer to
It's not good to ask questions that I know the
It's boring to others.
People might think I can't remember the answers.
People might think I'm dumb.
People might think I'm testing them & that
will make them feel angry.
If I want to talk to someone I can ask a question
that I don't know the answer to.
In circle time I listen to the teacher.
If I talk to the other kids, the teacher will be upset because I'm
not paying attention to her.
The other kids might think I'm a bad boy who doesn't listen to rules.
When I listen to the teacher, I learn.
Learning is fun; I can remember to listen to the teacher.
I talk to the kids that I'm playing with.
It's important not to talk to kids playing with other kids
If I talk to kids playing other games, my friends will be sad, they'll
think I'm ignoring them.
They might not want to play with me next time.
If I only talk to my friends we have fun together
Next time they'll play with me again.
Whenever I want to talk to someone, I need to
walk over and speak to them.
That's the polite thing to do.
When people call out, they disrupt the whole room; everyone gets
If I call out, people might think I don't understand the way to
I'll be able to walk over to people when I want to talk to them.
Leaving objects when an adult calls me
When a grown-up calls me I need to immediately
stop what I'm doing and go to them.
They might have something to tell me that I need to know right away.
If I don't go right away I won't hear what I need to know.
Grown-ups don't like children who don't listen.
I will listen to grown-ups.
When I feel I must talk
Sometimes I want to say things very badly, it
feels like I have to say it right that second.
It's important to wait until the other person is finished talking.
Even though it feels important, it can wait.
They will listen to me better if I wait patiently.
When I interrupt, it just angers people.
People wonder, "what's wrong with him?", "why can't
If I can wait, I can tell them later.
These are excerpts from another fact sheet where
parents explain how they adapted social stories for their son with
autism, with excellent results. Click here
to read about their experiences.
Click here for the full
range of Asperger's and autism fact sheets and personal stories
See the Communication
skills page for more information on communication issues. This autism fact sheet is under the copyright provisions of the GNU