Navigating the world can be challenging for any child, but it can be especially complex for children with autism. Social stories are a powerful tool that can help autistic children better understand their surroundings and communicate more effectively.  

A photo of a mom and child reading a book.

What are social stories? 

Social stories are short, personalized narratives that explain social situations, behaviors, and expectations. They were originally developed by Carol Gray in the 1990s as a way to help autistic children grasp and navigate various social scenarios. These stories provide a simple and structured framework for children to understand the world around them and learn ways to respond. 

What are comic strip conversations? 

Comic strip conversations use a series of illustrations, like a comic strip, to depict a social interaction or conversation. These illustrations, along with short text, represent different aspects of the interaction, such as the sequence of events, emotions, and nonverbal cues. Because this information is presented visually, more children can grasp the flow of the conversation and the thoughts and feelings of those involved. 

 Social Stories vs. Comic Strip Conversations 

 Social Stories: 

  1. Format: Social stories are written narratives that use simple, clear language to describe social situations, behaviors, and expectations. 

  2. Presentation: Social stories primarily rely on text, although their often more effective when accompanied by visual aids like pictures or illustrations to support the narrative. 

  3. Focus: Social stories provide a structured framework to explain social norms, expected behaviors, and potential outcomes in a variety of situations. They help children understand the context and how to respond. 

Comic Strip Conversations: 

  1. Format: Comic strip conversations use a combination of simple drawings and text to represent social interactions, emotions, and behaviors in a comic strip format. 

  2. Presentation: Comic strip conversations are primarily visual, using illustrations to depict a social interaction or conversation. The text is often minimal and directly integrated into the visual representation. 

  3. Focus: Comic strip conversations concentrate on breaking down complex social scenarios and conversations into smaller, manageable parts. They help children with autism visually process the sequence of events, emotions, and nonverbal cues in social interactions. 

An example of a comic strip conversation.

Benefits of Social Stories for Autistic Children 

  • Enhancing communication skills: Social stories may help children develop their communication skills by breaking down complex social cues and expectations into simple, easy-to-understand language 

  • Developing a social understanding: By providing a clear explanation of social norms and expected behaviors, social stories may help autistic children build their social understanding 

  • Boosting self-esteem and confidence: Social stories may empower children by giving them the knowledge and tools they need to navigate social situations successfully 

  • Reducing anxiety and stress: Social stories may help children anticipate and prepare for new or challenging situations, which can significantly reduce anxiety and stress 

When Social Stories Can Be Helpful 

Social stories can be useful in a wide variety of situations. They can be used for helping children adapt to new routines and environments, start school or daycare, visit a doctor or dentist, or travel to see family and friends. Social stories can also support children in social interactions, making friends, sharing and taking turns, emotional regulation, dealing with anger or stress, and managing sensory activities. 

 How to Build a Social Story 

  • Identify the target behavior or situation: Determine the specific situation or behavior you want to address with the social story 

  • Research and understand the child’s perspective: Gain insight into how your child perceives the situation and what aspects may be challenging for them 

  • Write the social story: Craft a narrative that uses clear, simple language and focuses on the desired behaviors and outcomes 

  • Incorporate visuals: Use pictures, illustrations, or photographs to support the story and make it more engaging 

  • Emphasize behaviors, steps, and outcomes: Clearly outline the expected behaviors, steps involved, and the positive outcomes of following the social story 

  • Tailor the story to the child’s needs and interests: Personalize the story to ensure it resonates with your child and captures their attention 

The Components of a Social Story and Examples   

Social stories consist of several key components that work together to create an effective and engaging narrative. To illustrate each component, let's consider a situation where a child is learning how to share toys during playtime with friends.  

1. Descriptive sentences: These sentences provide objective information about the situation or environment, including the setting, people involved, and any relevant rules or expectations. Descriptive sentences help paint a clear picture of the context for the child.  

  • Example: "During playtime at school, you and your friends will have many toys to play with together." 

2. Perspective sentences: These sentences convey the thoughts, feelings, or perspectives of other people involved in the situation. Perspective sentences help the child develop empathy and understand how their actions may impact others.  

  • Example: "When you share toys with your friends, they feel happy and included in the fun." 

3. Directive sentences: Directive sentences offer specific guidance on the expected behavior or actions the child should take in the given situation. These sentences provide clear instructions and help the child understand what is expected of them.  

  • Example: "When you want to play with a toy that your friend is using, ask them if you can play with it when they are finished." 

  4. Affirmative sentences: Affirmative sentences provide reassurance and validation, emphasizing the positive aspects of the situation or the child's actions. These sentences help boost the child's confidence and self-esteem. 

  • Example: "Sharing toys is a kind and caring action that makes everyone feel good." 

  5. Control sentences: Control sentences allow the child to internalize the social story by connecting it to their own experiences, thoughts, or feelings. These sentences can be personalized to the child and can help them relate the story to their own life.  

  • Example: "Remember the time you shared your toy car with your friend, and you both had a great time playing together?" 

  6. Cooperative sentences: These sentences highlight the roles of other people in the situation and how they may be supportive or helpful to the child. Cooperative sentences encourage teamwork and collaboration, helping the child understand they are not alone in navigating social situations.  

  • Example: "Your teacher will be there to help and guide you and your friends in sharing toys during playtime." 

By focusing on the different aspects of the situation and addressing the child's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, you can provide them with the tools they need to succeed in a variety of social situations. 

An example of a social story.

How to Present a Social Story to Your Child 

When introducing a social story to your child, choose a time when they are relaxed and receptive to learning. Use visuals, props, or other elements that will capture your child's interest. Sit down with your child and read the social story together, ensuring they understand each part. Reinforce the story with activities and conversations, such as role-play, discussions, or additional visual aids, to help your child practice and internalize the concepts presented in the social story. Reinforce the social story by revisiting it regularly or before encountering the situation it addresses.  

Creating and presenting social stories are a valuable way to support autistic children's growth and development, and to help children navigate social situations with confidence and ease.