What’s Your Story: “Social Stories” and Autism–Lifesaver or Water to a Drowning Kid?

Hello, readers,

As part of my graduate M.A.T., I am currently taking a course on special education, SPED 639: Teaching Children with Disabilities in the Inclusive Classroom. I have been quite pleased to see that my professor, other students, and our text advocate inclusion, if not fully, then to a point (which is something we all need to work on). However, part of being in such a class means at times, we have to be exposed to methods of teaching or interacting with children who have disabilities in ways that are controversial. One of these is known as the “social story.”

If anyone isn’t familiar with these–as I wasn’t until recently–a social story is a short, simply worded scenario meant to explain how to act in, or cope with, various social situations and their ins and outs, to kids who have autism. And though I do not know if they’ve been used for children with intellectual disabilities, they look to me as if they could be. Social stories cover a variety of topics, such as:

  • Traveling to and from classrooms or other places in school
  • Cafeteria behavior
  • Playground/recess behavior
  • “Not biting or kicking our friends,” as one digital social story on Youtube puts it
  • Self-grooming and going to the bathroom (more on that in a minute)
  • Meeting new people

These are meant to be “simple and straightforward,” as the writers of polyxo.com, a website filled with these social stories, put it. And yes, I understand that because social situations may be difficult for children with autism, complicating matters with five or six ways that one could play out could make an already new concept even more confusing. But upon looking at these social stories, I found the following:

 

A Social Story Entitled “Time to Eat,” as taken from polyxo.com:

The story includes these phrases, double-spaced and one line at a time on the webpage (though that may not be how they appear in a classroom format):

I sit with my family at the table to eat…Daddy feeds himself…Mommy feeds herself. I will try to feed myself…If I feed myself, Mommy will be so happy!

The social stories I have seen also often make use of the word “try,” as in,

-I will try to dress myself

-I will try to learn to play basketball

-I will try to walk to the line in school

One social story, entitled “Going to the Bathroom,” even contains the phrase, “I will try to wipe my bottom until it is clean.”

You do get what this is really saying, don’t you? Right–“Poor little autistic child, we know you can’t really do things right, but just try, okay?” (Insert pat on the head). Sickening.

One social story from the same website, about brushing teeth, also includes the phrase “When I am ALL DONE, I can have something special.” Not only is the all-caps arguably unnecessary, but the promise of “something special” makes me think that the child being exposed to this story may be being bribed to perform self-care, which perpetuates the idea that children with disabilities are “reward machines” who must be given tangible reinforcers constantly to do what people without disabilities learn to do naturally. (Sure, you might reward a very young child for performing self-care correctly while they’re learning, but not an older child).

I’m also disturbed at the social stories’ constant use of the terms “Mommy and Daddy” and the concept of making them happy. Now, understand I have known some children with severe disabilities, and making parents or teachers proud can be a motivator for them. In fact, whether we admit it or not, the praise of others and pride of others is or has been a motivator for everyone at some time. I mean, what do we do to get promotions at work? Try to please the supervisor. I’m not questioning the motivator in and of itself. I’m questioning the childish terms in which the motivator is phrased, and the fact that it seems to be a primary motivator. Only one social story I have seen, on the mentioned website and in other places, mentions the child’s pride in his or her own accomplishments as a motivator for performing the task being done. And quite frankly, I find that disturbing.

As with many methods used to help children with disabilities, I do not condemn social stories 100%. They are in fact research-based, and apparently have helped children with autism on all levels. What I’m asking here is, what’s the story behind all the over-simplification, childishness, and bribery? It’s not appropriate for children with high-level autism, children with mild to moderate intellectual disabilities, and many other children. As for the ones social stories could be appropriate for, their formats still seem demeaning to me as they stand. So if you’re going to use that method, why not write a new story? Nothing complex–we’re not talking about the next Great American Novel, here. But would you want someone explaining to you that you must do natural things to make others happy? How important it is for you to clean your own butt (past the age of 2 or 3, I mean)?

Right. As Kathie Snow once said, if you wouldn’t trade places with a person who has a disability for one day, think about that, then do what you can to change that outlook.

I’m a writer, and I love stories, but not the ones I just wrote about. I have a challenge for those writing social stories: let’s write new ones. Ones that include those with disabilities, and make their lives seem less stilted, less behavior-based, and more natural.

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3 thoughts on “What’s Your Story: “Social Stories” and Autism–Lifesaver or Water to a Drowning Kid?

  1. Dear Independencechick,

    I’ve recently read your post on “social Stories” and feel compelled to comment. Social Stories are not one-size-fits-all. They are supposed to be individualized to the child’s specific need and developmental level. They are generally short, to the point and outline the ‘unwritten rules’ in certain social situations. Social stories generally explain a situation, the expected behaviour in such a situation and the outcome. Since adults are generally happy when children comply…… then why not explain to the autistic child that mom will be happy/proud/excited when they do desired task ?

    I have used social scripts for over 15 years now and I have had great success with them. Perhaps when you are working in the field full time, know a child, experience a situation and have to remedy it with the use of a social script. you will realize their value and importance in the lives of people with autism.

    1. Thank you for your insights. My goal in writing posts like these is to caution against things in the disability services realm that are disrespectful to people with disabilities. I realize that many children with autism need to learn the “basic basics,” and if you recall from the post, I do not condemn social stories 100%. Nor do I have a problem with the happiness of parents being used as a motivator. What I have a problem with, is what I perceive as overdone childishness, bribery, etc. within the scripts. Of course, that is just my thought; I realize a lot of people do not see them that way. I apologize if I insulted you or anyone you know. But I have in fact met children with autism and other severe disabilities, and all I want for them is for their disabilities to be treated as natural, which from my observation does not happen as much as it should. Social stories can help with this, yes. But I see potential for them to hurt, also, and that’s all I was trying to say.

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