Social Stories Help Reduce Anxiety in Children with Autism

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By Sarah Kassam-Hirji - Speech and Language Therapist

Social stories are exactly what their name suggests; very short and simple stories that illustrate a particular social scenario, often in picture format. They aim to help increase a child’s understanding of how to behave and what is expected of them in a given social situation. 

Visual strategies are highly effective tools to support language skills, and social stories can provide support to help children who struggle in social situations.  Examples may be using a social story to help a child line up, lose a game or stay in bed through the night.

It is important for a social story to be short and focused to keep the child’s attention. They are frequently used with children on the autistic spectrum to help them understand social cues and reduce anxiety, especially in unfamiliar settings.

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A social story should provide the basics of what will happen in that setting/situation, and how the child should ideally behave.  The idea is to write out exactly what happens and why, how it makes the child feel and the expected response.  Symbols are used to show these language concepts, but for some children it can be useful to have photos of themselves in the situation as well.  

As with all things in life, there will be unexpected variables that a parent/caregiver won’t be able to control for, but the story should provide a basic foundation of support and understanding.  

Key points to remember when writing social stories:

  • target one specific situation at a time

  • keep language simple

  • keep it positive

  • remain consistent

  • Children thrive on repetition and learning takes time

My experience has been that all children with language difficulties benefit and respond really well to the visual cues and prompts that are provided within each story.  We all struggle at times with how to behave in social situations and social stories can help give a child the ability to maintain emotional wellbeing as stress and anxiety are reduced when understanding increases.

A story that I have used time and time again with my children is ‘When I’m Frustrated’. Please note that the word ‘frustrated’ can also be substituted for ‘cross’, ‘upset’ or ‘mad’ – whichever the child will relate to best.   The story helps support understanding of the emotion of anger and has been useful across many social situations.  In general, emotions are difficult to understand and explain, and stories that help target emotions in relation to stressful scenarios can be very beneficial.

This story in particular illustrates the idea that sometimes situations will make us feel upset or angry, but there are different strategies that we can use, such as counting or breathing, that can help regulate our feelings once again. This then helps us return to the social situation and ask for what we need.  It also shows that these feelings pass and that we will feel better soon enough.

As  a wellbeing expert and speech and language therapist, this is a vital story for me to use with children that struggle with maintaining and regulating emotions when social situations become highly stressful for them. I believe stories that help children understand emotions can really impact how much a child continues to be motivated for peer engagement. This can then help develop other key skills such as turn taking and problem solving.