Social Skills and Autism
If you were to read the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder, the first deficits identified are those in social communication and social interactions. If you're reading this article and your child did not meet the other criteria for an autism diagnosis, you may be researching social skills related to a diagnosis of Social Communication Disorder. Both diagnoses, according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), highlight persistent social communication and interaction deficits.
Difficulties with social-emotional reciprocity, shared interests, responses to social interactions, non-verbal communicative behavior deficits, and developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships all fall under this category (Autism Speaks). To over-simplify, these are what we refer to as social skills.
Social skills are the rules, customs, and abilities that guide our interactions with other people and the world around us" (Autism Speaks). Your social skills allow you to smile and make eye contact to show your approval or pleasure, respond to a friend's question and then ask one in return, or give someone a little extra space because you notice they look angry. Whereas most people learn these skills naturally and develop them over time based on experiences in certain situations, people with autism have a more difficult time doing so. "Social skills in childhood have consistently been linked to positive developmental outcome, including peer acceptance, academic achievement, and mental health (Hartup, 1989).
Teaching Social Skills
If your child with autism is in need of social skills development, this article from The Autism Blog of Seattle Children's Hospital shares some helpful guidelines to social skills therapy in a skill-based approach:
Generate concrete RULES that specify what happens when the skill is used.
TEACH skills through scripts, cartoons, role play, videos, peer observations, etc.
Set-up SITUATIONS that encourage the skill
REINFORCE effort (not just 100% success), highlight natural contingencies, and work on generalization
(Karen E. Toth, PhD, The Autism Blog)
When we talk about teaching approaches for social skill therapy, there are numerous ways to target skill development:
Social Scripts or Narratives
Social Skills Groups
Use of Video Modeling
Social Skills Games
Your child's skills and needs will drive the selection of which of these approaches (or something else) will best suit his/her social skill development. If you're new to the concept of teaching social skills, or you want to learn more about it all, check out this resource on Teaching Social Skills to Students with Autism that was part of the American Speech and Hearing Association 2013 convention for clinicians. It will provide an excellent overview that might help you start the social skills conversation with your child's team!
For the sake of this blog article, we will focus on Social Stories as a teaching strategy for social skills development.
Social Stories™ versus social stories
In layman's terms, "social stories" are stories that break down a social situation to teach social skills and behaviors through words, pictures, and sometimes even video clips. Think of it as a story that really focuses the reader on the main idea or message (and often excludes other details).
Now for the therapist's view of "social stories"...
Carol Gray is widely thought to be the originator of Social Stories™, dating back to her work in 1990, although she documents the historical context of Social Stories™ long prior to that. Social Stories™ are a "social learning tool that . . . accurately describes a context, skills, 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" (Gray). Phew! Can you see why I wrote the layman's term first?
You'll notice that Carol Gray's Social Stories™ are defined differently than other social stories (note the capitalization and trademark differences). Dr. Gray has completed research on her Social Stories™ for a higher degree of evidence-based practice than what you may find on a Pinterest search!
Both versions of these social stories intend to enhance social skills and behaviors of people with autism. This infographic from Autism Parenting Magazine provides an easy-to-read overview of social stories and how they can be incorporated into teaching daily situations.
Where to Find Free, Printable, or Inexpensive Social Stories
Fortunately, with the limitless resources online as well as the development of social skill-specific apps, there are an unbelievable number of places to access visual supports and social stories on a range of topics. You will need to vet each of these possibilities against your child's learning style and customize them based on your child's needs and the social situation you are looking to reinforce.
Check out these websites for more information on where to find visual supports and social stories:
If you're more of an app-based planner, consider investing in Book Creator, Pictello, or Stories2Learn. These allow for you to really customize the design and message of your social story and you can easily download and print your stories if you prefer. Some of these apps allow for embedded videos, so your social story can become even more interactive and multi-sensory!
Of course, Pinterest is a teacher and parent-friendly place to find printable social story resources on a range of topics such as:
When I'm Frustrated
Meltdowns or Tantrums
Winning & Losing
Video-based Social Stories
Believe it or not, YouTube is a great resource for video-based social stories. A little bit of digging will turn up some awesome channels that offer 2-5 minute social skills videos. Here are a few of our favorite YouTube Channels that you should check out and consider subscribing to!
Be Like Buddy™
Model Me Kids
How to Create Your Own Social Story
Regardless of what you use to produce your social story, there are some important elements that every social story should have. A good social story should teach your child the behaviors that are expected, as well as the expected responses of others. In order to do this, social stories explain, in detail, what a skill, situation, or experience requires.
Choose your topic, skill, situation, or event that you would like to introduce to your child. These are likely things that are unfamiliar or problematic and need the support of a social story. Stick to one topic per social story so as not to overwhelm or confuse your learner.
Explain your topic in simplistic yet specific detail, using language, pictures, video, or symbols that support your child's level of understanding. It is important that the detail you provide is directly relevant to the skill/topic you are trying to teach. Leave out the extraneous detail and pare the language down to the most relevant parts of the experience. Be sure to use present tense, first-person ("I") language when writing your social story.
Break your task or experience down into steps. This is especially important for kids who struggle with sequencing, motor planning, problem solving, or have anxiety about new situations. When you are visually organizing your social story, you might want to consider limiting the amount of information you put on a page. Don't be afraid to create multiple pages in order to separate out the steps with picture supports.
Teach specific language or behaviors. Include phrases, questions, and key words that your child can recall in the moment and help them negotiate tricky experiences with more specificity.
Describe how your child and others may react in the situation. Just as you are teaching your child scripted phrases or behaviors for themselves, it is helpful to explain how the people around them may behave or react in the situation so they know how to respond.
Tips & Takeaways
Social stories are effective teaching tools for people with autism to learn necessary social skills and improve their relationships with peers because they break down social skills into concrete observations, sequences, or behaviors. Of course, there are a number of other ways to teach and reinforce these social behaviors beyond just the social story ideas we've shared today. The use of video modeling, peer modeling, social skill groups, and application of social skills within games are all evidence-based ways to promote social skill development.