In our office, we talk a lot about the use of social stories, as a way to help the people we support manage new or challenging situations.
Social stories use a specific criteria, and use easy to understand sentences with information that is fact rather than opinion. A good social story will include photos that are specific to the situation and to the person who will use the story.
Not long ago, we began working with a behavior specialist from our Supporting Success program. She talked with us about any concerns we had for our son, and asked about any challenges we were currently working on with him. At the moment, the biggest difficulty is managing transitions, especially when he’s unable to do something that he really wishes he could do. Of particular difficulty is being able to shop at Target and leave without visiting the rest of our shopping mall. On a day when we have a lot of free time, we can visit all of his favorite places, however sometimes that’s not a possibility. Managing that disappointment can lead to a tantrum which can lead to a meltdown. On some days, simply the number of other people plus the bright lights, colors, music, and smells can make being in a place like that painful. This can also lead to meltdowns, so some days it’s just not good to even try working on these difficulties.
Many before me have written about the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown, and how a meltdown can look. There is always that fear that a stranger will watch judgmentally as our son loses all ability to cope. It’s a raw, painful time for him and for us, and we feel completely exposed emotionally when it happens. Most excursions involve so much parental reconnaissance so that we can re-route or block his view of something that might set him off. Often, the seemingly easier thing to do is to avoid the triggers. All of the planning and ongoing adjustments take so much energy that we tell ourselves that it’s just easier to skip it.
Avoiding the potential stress of a situation doesn’t help him in the long run, because it doesn’t get to the heart of why these trips out can be so hard. Discovering the reasons behind behaviors afford us the opportunity to support our loved ones in the most effective way possible.
I do not advocate simply seeking to remove certain behaviors. There are absolutely good reasons for things like stimming, hand flapping, spinning. The more you know about why these are beneficial, the more accepting and supportive you can be. But being able to make transitions from one scheduled event to another is an important life skill that is helpful for everyone. So that is what the social story focuses on in our case.
A social story introduces the person who is the “star” of the story. In this case, our son is the star, and his photo is included.
In this story he can read that sometimes we need to take a trip to Target to buy things for our family. He can see a photo of the store, so this makes it a very specific social story about Target. If you are working with someone who needs support simply going to any store, you can talk about grocery stores and other types of stores. The advantage to doing that is that many of our amazing loved ones are very “concrete” thinkers- if you show them specifically a photo of one type of store, then there is a possibility that they will focus only on that store.
He then can read that if we are shopping for specific items, his mama and papa may show him our shopping list. This is how we know what we need to buy.
The story goes on to describe, very simply, the subsequent steps of picking up the items we need to buy and putting them in our cart. Then it describes how we pay and then leave with our items to go to the car.
The important point about this story is that it also explains to him that if there is time to visit the other stores in the mall, his mama and papa will tell him so that he knows which stores he can visit. There are no opinions in the story, only facts. And those facts are detailed out to him in around 10 sentences with photos to match each step of the process.
Social stories are great for anything from going to see the doctor to visiting family members. Anything that you wish to prepare someone for can be used as the basis for the social story. Reading a social story for a subject such as going to the store can be read once a week in preparation for the actual event. And this is precisely what we did- he carried his stories around with him, asking everyone he knows to read them to him. After seeing how well he took to them, I decided to take him to Target today as a test.
The results were really intriguing. We talked the entire time about what to expect, and what we would do after we paid. My intent was that we would buy the thing we came for and then leave. It was clear that this might not have the desired result, and I made a decision to alter the plan slightly. I am sure that I probably should have stuck to the original plan, however I am one of the experts in his signs and signals, and I just knew that we’d head down a very bad path. And one part of his story is that we might decide that there is time, so I decided (and explained to him) that we could walk through the mall to the pet store and then come back. He did well with this, and although he asked several times for the one thing he wanted, I explained to him that we might have time for that on our next visit. After explaining that several times, he seemed to understand.
It was not any less tiring for both of us, in fact he fell asleep on the way home. My anxiety levels remained quite high, but I was very proud of what he’d accomplished. And now he knows what a successful shopping trip feels like!