Why Isn’t My Social Story Working?

Social stories can be a useful way to help autistic kids cope with change or learn new skills. But they’re not the right tool for everybody, and sometimes they just don’t seem to work at all. So what do you do next?

Question mark on wooden floor and marble wall background

There are a billion articles that tell you how to write a social story, but not many that tell you what to do if they don’t turn out to be the magical unicorn that solves all your problems.

So if you’re feeling frustrated because you wrote a great story, found the perfect pictures to go with it, laminated it beautifully and excitedly read it several times, but didn’t get the response or change you were hoping for, what do you do next?

Let’s do some troubleshooting and talk about some of the possible reasons your social story isn’t being effective.

What is your story about?

1.  Are you trying to jam too much into one story?

Social stories are most effective for short, simple explanations. If it’s longer than 5-6 pages, has lots of steps or talks about more than one topic, it’s not going to be helpful for kids who probably already struggle with sequencing, attention or comprehension.

2.  Is the problem too complex for a social story?

Social stories are not a solution to every problem. Many situations are just too complicated to be addressed in this way, particularly as kids get older. If the problem has more than one cause or the solution has multiple options, a social story probably isn’t the best tool for working through it.

3.  Are you targeting the wrong thing?

Often when a social story isn’t working it’s because you’re trying to tackle a behaviour without addressing the underlying cause or the conditions that are sustaining it. Kids often reject social stories because “I already know all that” – this is a really big clue that the problem is not that they need to be taught or reminded what to do, but there’s a vital support missing to help them do it.

4.  Are you targeting something that is not under their control?

This is something I often see with social stories that say things like “tantrums won’t help me get what I want”. Many times the behaviour is not a tantrum at all but a meltdown, which is an involuntary physiological reaction and not a behaviour they can choose to stop. So in this case, using a social story will be completely ineffective at changing the behaviour.

5.  Are you trying to fix a problem by offering an impossible solution?

A good example of this is another common social story phrase – “I will use my words when I’m upset”. This is a not an option for lots of autistic kids, for whom access to language is seriously compromised during a meltdown. So this is an incredibly difficult if not impossible thing to ask them to do. In this case, not only is success unlikely but the pressure to do something hard during an already difficult time is likely to make things worse, not better.

This leads on to the next reason…

6.  Did you do your homework?

There’s lots of information you need to gather before you can start to write and use a social story. If the story is about a behaviour, you need to understand why the behaviour is happening and all the conditions that surround it – and I mean really understand, not make assumptions about what you think is going on. You need some observational data about when, where and how often it occurs.

You need to have a solid grasp on the kind of language and teaching style that works best for the individual child. And if the story is about an upcoming change or event, you need to have information about what’s going to happen and have thought of all the possible contingencies that you need to prepare them for. There is no point in trying to use a social story until you’ve done all of this.

How did you write the story?

One of the problems with social stories is that they seem so deceptively simple to make, but it’s actually a lot harder to get right than most people think.

7. Is the language appropriate for the person’s level of comprehension?

Obviously they need to be able to understand and engage with the story in order for it to be effective. Sentence length, vocabulary and grammatical structure all need to be tailored to their receptive language level.

This also applies to language that is too simple, by the way. Kiddiespeak is not always appropriate and can be a total social story turnoff, especially for older kids and teens. Also check you haven’t used figurative language like euphemisms, idioms, metaphors or hyperbole that might be causing confusion.

8.  Is the story individualized to the person?

There are very few situations in which you can effectively use a ready-made social story. They work for things that have a small number of universal steps that generalize well between situations, like washing hands and brushing teeth. But in most cases you’ll need to tailor the story to the person, with references and words they can relate to about themselves and their environment.

9.  Are you telling them how to feel?

I see so many social stories that end with stating how the person will feel if they follow the rule or do the behaviour. “I am happy when my hands are clean”. Not only is this projecting what you want them to feel and taking away their right to choose and express their own emotions, you’re adding an unintentional extra condition to the story.

What the person hears is “I will wash my hands, I will be happy”, like the happiness is just another step to the hand washing process. If they’re not happy, is the task still finished? Have they failed if they actually really hate having wet hands? For them it might be adding pressure and blurriness to something that seems clear to you.

10.  Are you using reasons or rewards they don’t care about?

For the social story to be an effective behaviour change tool, the new behaviour needs to have meaning and purpose for them. Throwing toys at your brother might be a really effective way to make him stop talking, and you may not care at all that he doesn’t like it when you do that. In that case, “my brother doesn’t like it when I throw toys” is just a piece of information and not a reason to stop.

11.  Does the story only tell them what not to do?

“I will not throw toys at my brother” doesn’t help them stop the pain they feel when their brother talks too much. You need to clearly tell the person what you want them to do instead, and replace the unwanted behaviour with a better way for them to get help.

12.  Is the language too specific?

The social story might say something like “I will raise my hand when I want to ask a question in class”.  This seems pretty straight forward, but what do they do if they have a question when they’re next door? What about if they need to ask a question, but don’t want to? What about if they just raise their hand slightly off the desk?

All of these things fit into the literal interpretation of what the story said, but are quite different to the intent. So if the story doesn’t seem to be working, check their understanding of what the story is asking them to do.

13.  Are there too many steps? Are you missing steps?

Sequencing is difficult for many autistic kids – that is, putting the pieces together into the right order and following along. When you’re trying to teach someone how to do something you already know how to do, it’s really easy to miss some crucial steps without realizing it. This means the person learning the skill then has to fill in the gaps, and that’s often too big of a mental jump for them to make. The story just ends up making no sense to them or leaving them confused about what it is you want them to do.

14.  Is the story a downer?

I’ve seen lots of social stories that would make me feel super bummed if I was on the receiving end of hearing them, especially several times a day. These are the ones that sound preachy, make the person feel bad about the negative effects of their behaviour or puts responsibility on them for the way other people feel. Social stories should be positive and encouraging.

What pictures did you use?

Adding images to a social story is a great visual support to help someone understand the story, but it also comes with some risks.

15.  Are your pictures too specific? Or not specific enough?

You want the images to be identifiable but not so specific that you’re locked into a particular colour or brand or style or location. Going the other way, images that are too generic will make it harder for the reader to make the connection between the story and themselves. Finding that sweet spot in the middle is really tricky.

16.  Is there a mismatch between the pictures and words?

Remember that for a lot of kids with autism, visual processing happens quicker than auditory processing so they’re probably looking at the images long before you get to that part of the story. They may not even hear some of what you’re saying, instead looking ahead or thinking about the pictures. This can be a problem if those pictures on their own are sending a different message than the words.

Take this example, that comes from a social story a friend was using.

The text says “It’s okay to cry when you’re sad. The crying will stop.” The message from the images alone however is more like “stop being sad”.

How are you using the story?

17.  Are you reading the story at a bad time?

Kids with autism are often very tired in the second half of the day as they start to run low on coping reserves, especially in demanding environments like the classroom. So after lunch is probably not the most effective time for them to be receptive to a social story. The same goes for right before, during or after a meltdown.

18.  Are you reading the story in an uncomfortable or distracting space?

Rustling beanbags, bright fluorescents, students yelling out answers in the classroom next door… it’s very difficult to pay attention when experiencing a flood of sensory input or trying to shut it out.

19.  Are you using the story without other behaviour supports?

Social stories are often not effective on their own, especially for more complex problems. Using them in conjunction with techniques like role play and modeling will consolidate the message and help boost their effectiveness.

20.  Are you using too many social stories at once?

I once had a teacher who was super enthused about social stories and confused about why their student wasn’t engaging with the ones they had made. They were well written, used simple statements and lovely clear images… but it turned out they were trying to read ten different stories to the student every day! It was just too much for the student to remember, the messages were getting muddled and they never had time to repeat the stories often enough to make them effective. So go slowly.

How do they feel about social stories?

21.  Have they lost trust in social stories?

This happens a lot with stories that prepare kids for a change or an event. The social story part goes well but then something happens to make the reality different to the expectation you created – the store was out of the reward you promised, Santa wore a different hat, the bus was late. This makes it a lot harder for them to trust the next story you tell them.

22.  Do they find social stories boring?

Why is it that social stories continue to be made with tiny unreadable fonts and crappy clipart? I wouldn’t want to read that either, especially if I was a kid who’s grown up on colourful apps, video games and YouTube. There are so many tools available for making engaging stories these days, without spending a lot of money – you can use Powerpoint, videos, comic strips. Make it fun to read.

23.  Are you changing the story as their skills progress?

Everyone likes to feel that they’re improving, and to have other people notice it too. Reading the same old story over and over that doesn’t acknowledge the parts they’ve already mastered can quickly become super demotivating. So if they’ve started turning the tap on themselves when they wash their hands, for example, change that step of the story to show that you’ve noticed for a bit of positive feedback and encouragement.

24.  Do they understand that it’s not a fictional story?

What signs are you giving them that this is something you actually want them to do, or that is actually going to happen, and not just a cute little story that happens to feature a character that looks and acts like them? In my opinion this is one of the real problems of calling them ‘stories’.

How are you evaluating its success?

25.  Are you objectively measuring if it’s working?

  • Are you collecting data about when, where and how often you read the story?
  • Are you collecting data on the behaviour?
  • Are you comparing that data to before you started using the story?

This is easier to do if you’re a teacher and the social story is linked to an IEP goal which has clear measurable outcomes for which you’re already collecting observational data. But maybe you’re a parent who’s just really frustrated that your carefully constructed picture book about brushing teeth hasn’t helped a bit. Do you need data to tell you that?

Well it depends what you’re using the social story for. In some behaviours the progress is easy to see, for others it’s harder to spot when things are getting better. Keeping track with notes or data also helps you to see patterns and make connections between the way you’re using the story and its effect on the behaviour.

26.  Are your expectations realistic?

Teachers and parents often feel like they absolutely should be using social stories, that they’re a miracle solution to any problem. But they’re not, they’re just one tool that can be helpful as part of a wider set of supports. They’re not the right answer for everyone and won’t be effective in every situation.

3 February, 2017 by Bec Oakley

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Bec Oakley is an autistic writer and proud parent, with an intense passion for 80s text adventures, Twizzlers and making the world a better place for autistic people and their families.