By Tracy Hed, Ph.D., SCSD#2, WSPA Ethics/Professional Standards Chair Perhaps many of you have had the same experience I have – you suggest to someone that Social Stories would be a good intervention for a child on the autism spectrum, and they say, “Yes, I know how to write Social Stories.”  You then ask (something like) if they write them according to Carol Gray’s recommendations, and they say, “Who?”

This response is usually a dead give-away that they are not, in fact, writing a Social Story.

I’ve found Social Stories to be a very effective and powerful strategy, when done with fidelity, which means writing them according to CarolGray’s criteria (currently, version 10.2).  Way too often, however, people think that if they just write something down, what they write constitutes a Social Story. And, usually, these non-Social Stories are too negative and directive, try and correct behavior rather than explain a social situation, and leave out important descriptive information, and therefore, have little to no chance of being an effective intervention.  And worse, these poorly constructed stories can have a negative impact on the child.

Social Stories are a trademarked intervention, which Carol Gray has been perfecting over the course of many decades.  She was an autism specialist for many years for Jennison Public Schools (Michigan), and wrote the first version of a Social Story in about 1990.  She has been refining Social Stories ever since. She now is retired from the public school system, and consults internationally on ASD interventions, including developing and implementing Social Stories.

In the foreword to her latest book, The New Social Story Book: Revised & Expanded (copyright 2015, Future Horizons, Inc.), she makes the following point: “Social Stories are, hands down, the most widely used ‘focused intervention strategy’ I have observed over my many years in autism research and consulting, and in programs with differing philosophies and approaches (e.g., behavioral as well as developmental).  Social Stories are used by parents, siblings, professionals, and para-educators of all shapes and sizes in school, home and community settings. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the cup runneth over for Social Stories. They have been copied, modified, and sometimes reconfigured to such an extent that one must carefully scrutinize whether what one claims to be a Social Story actually meets Carol’s specifically delineated specifications for structure and implementation.  One of the most flagrant violations is when Social Stories are used primarily to correct behavior rather than enhance social understanding. Carol is so clear about this issue because she cares so much about the developing self-esteem of a person with developmental challenges. Of course, individualized support with a focus on building social understanding is a hallmark of Social Stories.”

In the book’s introduction, Carol Gray gives the following definition, “A Social Story accurately describes a context, skill, achievement, or concept according to 10 defining criteria.  These criteria guide Story research, development, and implementation to ensure an overall patient and supportive quality, and a format, “voice”, content, and learning experience that is descriptive, meaningful, and physically, socially, and emotionally safe for the child, adolescent, or adult with autism.  The criteria define what a Social Story is, and the process that researches, writes, and illustrates it.”

So, if you don’t know if you are writing a Social Story of not, what can you do?  The best approach would be to go to a Social Stories training conducted by Carol Gray herself.  She is an amazing speaker, and it would be well worth the time and expense to attend one of her trainings.  That’s not always possible, of course. The next approach would be to buy her latest book, which first describes the criteria for developing Social Stories, and then has many, many examples organized according to a plethora of useful, practical content areas.  The first part of the book has “tutorials” for writing each of the 10 criterion, which one could use to train themselves on the approach.

In the past, I created a PowerPoint for training purposes, based on the workshop I attended in Minneapolis, presented by Carol Gray herself.  This was a number of years ago, when her “version” of the SS criteria was 10.0. I am now in the process of creating a new PowerPoint for future trainings, based on the updated 10.2 version.

However, the best approach to train others in developing effective Social Stories is to have them actually write them (after first being trained) and then, most importantly, critique them together by using the 10 criteria.  During the first part of this school year at one of my elementary schools, we spent five one hour sessions with special education teachers and para-professionals, in first reviewing Carol Gray’s criteria, then writing some Social Stories together as a group, and lastly, having people write SS outside of the group and then coming together to critique and revise them together.  This approach seemed to give staff a solid understanding of what a Social Story is, what it is not, and how to write a Social Story that has the best chance of being an effective strategy for teaching social understanding.