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How to Write Social Stories That Work - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
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ysabetwordsmith
How to Write Social Stories That Work
The notes for my poem "The One That Keeps Demanding" include a lot of information about social stories, so I recommend reading that material as background for this post. Based on a reader comment, I decided to add some tips on how to write social stories that are helpful instead of hurtful. Then I figured it would help to put that section in a separate post so more people could see it.

Credentials: I'm not a counselor. I am a professional writer, editor, and reviewer which makes me good at understanding how storytelling works. I am a freak, which means I understand what it's like to have my reality off on a tangent from other people's expectations, and how to work around that. I am a student of philosophy, human nature, and pretty much everything else that catches my interest, thus giving me a very wide perspective on what works or doesn't work and why. I am a metaphysicist, which gives me experience with positive affirmations and other reality modifications. I am a teacher, so I have experience explaining things to people. I am an activist, which includes supporting diversity and agency for moral reasons; and a hobby-biologist, which means I know that the kitchen junk drawer of annoying quirks has saved species from many disastrous changes. I am a pragmatist, which means I care a lot more about what actually works than what people think should work. These are the skills and traits that inform my observations about designing effective social stories.


If you want to make social stories that are helpful rather than hurtful, consider these points:

* Choose a topic of interest to the reader, that is, something they want to do or to understand but struggle with. Then the story can help them accomplish a goal they value.

* Social stories are like positive affirmations in that they must feel true in order to work. If not, they usually don't work and may actually backfire. Often people need to start with very small steps. It can help to begin with stories about things a person has already mastered, especially if they're explaining those things to a younger person who hasn't gotten the hang of it yet. Then use a story to teach one little thing, before trying to introduce a big scary situation this way.

* Use the story to explain reasons why things are done a certain way (e.g. "It's not a good idea to eat food that has fallen on the floor. Then germs get on the food that could make you sick.") and offer a variety of solutions to challenges ("If instructions are unclear, look at the individual words for clues, or ask someone for help.").

* Use inclusive or indirect language, and avoid absolutes. "We" sounds less pushy than "You" or "I" and rules that apply to everyone are more fair. "Most people" do things that "everyone" probably does not. "Could" or "might" are less pushy (and often more accurate) than "will" or "do." Use "can" only where the reader has both the ability and permission to do the thing. There's no point offering good solutions like "take a break" if those are forbidden. These stories also aren't helpful if the person knows what to do but can't, for whatever reason, actually perform it.

* Keep your expectations reasonable. Just because you want someone to do a certain thing, doesn't necessarily mean they can. Parents want infants to sleep through the night, but that skill takes months to learn. Aim one step beyond the person's current ability. Go to the edge of the comfort zone, take one step farther, pause to appreciate the accomplishment, then step back. This stretches a soft boundary slowly and safely. Push too far, too fast and the result is failure and/or meltdown which is the opposite of helpful. Use the story to explain this process, help the person identify those thresholds and actions, and present techniques that enable more range or new abilities. This may mean going to a party for ten minutes instead of two hours, but a 10-minute trip ending in smiles is a success whereas a 2-hour one ending in tears and vomit is a failure.

* Imagine yourself in their shoes. How would you feel if someone gave you a story like this? What if it was a story about something that you personally struggle with? If that idea makes you tense up instead of relax, something is wrong with the story. A good social story gives an "Aha! So that's how it works!" feeling, not "Yeah, right."

* If someone rejects the story as told, ask them for their version. Discuss the differences. A healthy family or society allows for diversity and solves conflicts with negotiation, not violence. Don't be afraid to show different paths in a story. A person who chooses a problematic path now may later become willing and able to switch to a better one. Seeing several options presented together can support that change.

* Write badly with pride! Edit with enthusiasm! You can do a lot of good just by saying, "Well, that didn't work as well as I hoped. Let's make some changes and try again." This models a positive approach to problem-solving and good writing habits. Social stories are short and easy to change, although thinking of something that works better may be quite a challenge. No matter how good or bad you are when you start, you'll get better with practice.

* Encourage people to tell their own stories. This creates a life narrative, helps them break down a process into steps, and supports identifying options before making a decision. When they can think about and express their own reality, it is harder for other people to erase it. If they don't read well, let them tell the story all in icons if they want, or with stuffed animals, or whatever works for them. Once they have the hang of it, invite them to do a story that tells other people how to step into their world. We need things like "Stimming for NTs" too.

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