Preparing for Celebrations- “Let’s Talk About What to Expect”: Social Stories

Part 2 of the Surviving the Holidays Series

As a parent, you are constantly preparing. It starts with the diaper-bag when your child is an infant. “Do we have the wipes? A new change of clothes? Enough bottles? Pacifier? Where is Mr. Blankie?!” Now that your child is a bit older there are other things to prepare for, especially around the holiday season. In this post, we will be delving into mentally preparing your child for large celebrations with social stories.

Individuals with autism, developmental delays, and other diagnoses and special needs thrive with structure and can show resistance when presented with the unexpected. I’d dare to say that almost all people will do better when they know what to expect. During holiday celebrations, there is a lot to take in: the people, the smells, the food, the noise, the commotion, the unspoken rules around large gatherings, and so much more.

Social stories are a great way to prepare your child for these new experiences. According to Carol Gray, the pioneer of social stories:

A Social Story accurately describes a context, skill, 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.

At its core, a social story breaks down a concept into understandable chunks that will guide the person through the experience. So how do you write a social story? The steps below come from Carol Gray’s Social Story website.

Step 1: Think About the Way Your Child Has Been in Previous Similar Situations

Gather your thoughts and experiences to think about the way that your child has navigated previous experiences. How was he at Susie’s birthday party? How did family dinner at Grandma’s go last month? Talk to others involved and get their input too. Think about these things objectively and keep an open mind. Something might come up that surprises you!

Step 2: Pick What You Want to Prepare Them For

Jot down a list of things you might want to talk about. Examples are: how to greet family members, using an inside voice, the smells of new foods, how to open presents appropriately. Really, the list is endless. You can write a social story about anything! If your kiddo has trouble sitting at the table for extended periods of time, you can write about what to do if they need a break, really, anything.

We will pick opening presents for our topic and we’ll write this social story together.

Step 3: Answer the “Wh-” Questions About the Situation

According to the Carol Gray website, “A Social Story answers relevant ‘wh’ questions that describe context, including place (WHERE), time-related information (WHEN), relevant people (WHO), important cues (WHAT), basic activities, behaviors, or statements (HOW), and the reasons or rationale behind them (WHY).”

Think about the situation that you want to work on with your child. Jot down the answers to the WH- questions about the situation and think about it from your child’s perspective.

Example:

Where (place): Grandma Nancy and Grandpa Jim’s house, Opening gifts in the living room

When (time-related information): eat dinner at 5pm, open presents around 6pm

Who (relevant people): Johnny (the child), Grandma Nancy, Grandpa Jim, Cousins (Marie, Dennis), Daddy, Mommy, Uncle John, Aunt Carrie

What (important cues): after dinner, the family will go into the living room together. Grandma Nancy will go through the presents, look at the labels to see who the present is for. Grandma will give the present to the person whose name is on the label. Once Grandma has given all the presents out, Grandpa Jim will say, “Three, two, one, GO!” Only open the presents with your name on it.

How (basic activities, behaviors, or statements): Take a present, take off the wrapping paper, look at the present, thank the person who gave you the present by looking at the person, saying. “Thank you!” and giving them a hug and a kiss or a handshake or high-five. Place the new presents in a pile away from the ripped up wrapping paper. Put the ripped up wrapping paper in a big pile.

Why (reasons or rationale behind them): We don’t open other people’s presents because they are not for us. We wait to open our presents together because we like to watch and have fun watching each other. We thank the person who gave the present to us because they lovingly thought about you when they gave it to you. We put the opened presents away from the wrapping paper so they do not get lost.

Step 4: Start Writing

When you begin writing the Social Story, think about your child’s abilities, age, and attention span. The story you write for a 12-year-old will be much different for a child that is 5 years old. Think about your kiddo and what level of language they can understand, how long they can sit for, and what their perspective is. How does your child view the situation? What do they see?

The tone of the Social Story should be “patient, reassuring, and respectful” according to Carol Gray and in the first-person point of view (e.g., “I see Cousin Dennis opening presents.” Not, “You will see Dennis opening presents.”) The Story you are writing should never threaten, scare, cause anxiety, or shame your child, use inaccurate or unreliable information, or describe your child’s negative behaviors or past negative responses (It seems like a no-brainer but it must be said!). There are some “forbidden words” as well, according to the Social Story website. These words are: should, shouldn’t, must, mustn’t, ought, ought to, bad, naughty, inappropriate, etc. In order to use a positive, educational, and comfortable tone, include praise! We all like to hear what we are good at, what we have done well, and get those warm and fuzzies. Your kiddo wants to hear those things too!

Use descriptive and coaching sentences that “describe more than direct.” Use the answers from the section above for the “WH-” questions to direct this. Describe the situation in the simple format of: introduction, body, and conclusion. The story should have a beginning, a middle and end. Don’t be afraid of this! A sentence can be a paragraph!

These might seem like a lot of guidelines but it’s fairly intuitive. Basically, use positive language, speak from your child’s perspective, describe more than direct or coach, and keep your child’s ability and attention span in mind. See, not too scary. You’ve got this!

Example:

I am going to Grandma Nancy and Grandpa Jim’s house for our holiday celebration. There will be lots of presents in the living room when we get there. There will be presents for Dennis, Marie, and me. I will remember that we open presents after dinner. After we eat dinner with Grandma, Grandpa, Uncle John, Aunt Carrie, Dennis, Marie, Mommy, and Daddy, we will all go into the living room together. We will wait to open the presents until Grandpa says “GO!” We wait to open our presents together because we like to watch and have fun watching each other. Grandma Nancy will give the presents that are mine to me, the presents that are Dennis’ to Dennis, and the presents that are Marie’s to Marie. Once Grandma has given all the presents out, Grandpa Jim will say, “Three, two, one, GO!” Then we open the presents with our name on it! After taking the wrapping paper of the present, I get to look at what the present is. I will remember to find the person that gave me the present, look them in the eye and say, “Thank you!” I have a pile of presents that I put my opened presents on. I don’t want to lose my presents so I put them on the pile. I am great at opening presents and I am great at following directions!

Step 5: Pick Pictures to Go Along with the Story

This is where Google can be your best friend. Go through the story that you wrote and find positive, fun, and relevant pictures to go along with it. Have fun with this part! The pictures do not need to be perfect but they do need to be relevant.

For the Social Story we wrote together I might include pictures of: a pile of presents, family pictures, dinner table, people looking each other in the eye, a child giving a thumbs-up sign, etc.

Step 6: Print It and Read It!

Once you have the story completed and printed. Sit down with your kiddo and read it. Make sure that you are comfortable and in a positive frame of mind. Read this story over and over before the event so you are sure that your child has a grasp of the situation BEFORE it occurs. Be sure to read the Social Story right before the situation as well. It’s a great idea to bring the Social Story with you to the event juuuuust in case.

 

There you have it! Social Stories in a nutshell! Preparing your child (and yourself) mentally can create a sense of calm and a feeling of readiness for your family. Social Stories are an effective and easy way to do this. There are tons of great resources online to get you started. Take a swing at this and see what you can come up with. Please check out Carol Gray’s Social Stories website to learn more about what was mentioned in this post. A big thank you to Carol Gray for her amazing modality and for her incredible resources.

Let me know what Social Story you are writing to prepare your child for the holidays in the comments and remember to have fun with it!

Happy writing!

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