In a special needs group on Facebook recently, several parents were discussing how social situations that are new, loud, crowded, or unfamiliar can be especially overwhelming for loved ones with Down syndrome. This has been the case in our family, too. In my experience, reacting to these situations is rarely successful. When Grace gets overwhelmed or nervous in a new environment, she enters monkey baby mode, making it virtually impossible to peel any one of her four limbs from my body. As she grows older and bigger, this becomes increasingly awkward, not to mention hard on my back. Instead, we have found great success our go-to preparation for new situations, a proactive approach called social stories, or visual stories.
What is a social story?
Carol Gray created Social StoriesTM with a focus on helping people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) understand the context and appropriate behavior for specific situations. Based on the Down syndrome behavioral phenotype, we know that people with DS and ASD share strengths in visual learning.
Differences in brain anatomy make it difficult for individuals with Down syndrome to make short-term memories effectively and store new memories in long-term memory, making routine and repetition valuable for learning. They further struggle with processing information presented verbally, which if you think about it, is much of life. Dr. David Stein in his book on behavior thoughtfully points out that children with DS spend much of their time trying to process information presented verbally and are frequently – more often than typical peers – corrected when they don’t produce the desired response. It’s easy to see how this could easily become overwhelming, frustrating, and sometimes frightening.
Social stories are developed for a variety of applications, including
- teaching a behavior, skill or routine,
- preparing for new situations, or
- promoting appropriate behaviors.
They visually display a sequence of events and describe how the individual should react and behave in each step of the process. They are extremely valuable for individuals with DS who learn best visually and through repetition. Plus, they often include photos of the learner, and who doesn’t want a personalized story about herself?
In our house, we have created stories for events ranging from dental visits to preparation for a new sibling to toilet training. Even the now irrelevant ones remain among the stories both of our daughters will ask us to read repeatedly.
How do I write a social story?
- Choose a single topic. Write a brief title that clearly states the purpose of the story.
- Break the topic down into a series of sequential steps.
- Choose photos that represent each step. These may be your photos or free photos or clipart found online. When discussing places, like a new house, school, doctor’s office, etc., pictures of the actual place are ideal. Some doctors and dentists may post photos on their website. Including photos featuring the learner can make it especially interesting and relatable.
- On each page, include one step of the topic. Use photos with simple, brief, related text written in the present tense and the first person. Use positive language that emphasizes desired behaviors and appropriate reactions.
- End on a positive note.
This is the story we use to prepare our daughters for dental cleanings:
How do I use a social story?
Read the story repeatedly and often. Remember, people with DS learn best through repetition, and I think you will find that these stories quickly become popular. With big events, reading stories up to a month in advance will allow time for the learner to process and remember. After a few weeks, they may be telling YOU the story!
Keep the story on-hand when the event comes or situation arises. Review the steps in the story as each new step proceeds in real life. When things get tense or scary, refer to the story and remind the learner that he knows what is happening and how it will end.
How do I create a social story?
Printable versions of social stories are easy to develop in PowerPoint, Word, or Google Slides (free with a Google account). Stories can also be made by gluing printed photos (do those still exist?) onto paper and handwriting captions. Below, I have included links for some apps that can also be used in developing social stories.
Pre-made social stories
You can find a variety of fully developed stories online. I’ve provided links below to extensive lists of printable (and mostly free) social stories on many topics. You can also search for social stories on the topic of choice. You’ll find a variety of formats from those like I have described above to a comic-strip-style to a rebus-type format. However, even if a sample story isn’t in the format you prefer or the language isn’t at the appropriate level, you can use the text and images to help you build one of your own.
Social stories are an easy-to-develop, useful way to prepare children with DS or any child with anxiety for new and different situations. I hope they will be as helpful for you as they have been for our family.
Printable Social Stories
Printable Social Stories for Kids on a variety of practical topics from ANDNEXTCOMESL
Templates for Personalized Teaching Stories from Autism Speaks
Social Stories on many useful topics from ABA Educational Resources (some links are broken)
My Hospital Story visual stories about medical visits and procedures from Boston Children’s Hospital
Social Narratives on medical visits from Massachusetts General Hospital
Social Story Apps and Programs
12 Computer Programs, Websites and Apps For Making Social Stories from Friendship Circle
How to Create a Social Story Online from Your Autism Toolbox
Visuals Engine: Create Visual Supports for your Child from ConnectAbility
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