Once the school year sets in, children tend to acclimate to the routine. What happens when that routine suddenly changes? Perhaps it is a special assembly or fire drill at school, a substitute teacher in the classroom, or day off for a holiday. Many kids are able to make adjustments without major difficulty, but for some children – particularly those with a strong preference for routine – such shifts may cause significant anxiety, distress, or problematic behavior. How can we help these children to prepare for change and understand it in a safe, meaningful way?
One approach, an evidence-based practice that has been widely accepted and adapted within the autism community, is the use of Social Stories™ (http://www.thegraycenter.org/social-stories/what-are-social-stories). “Social Story ™” is a term coined by Carol Gray, who developed the concept as a way to help students on the autism spectrum to better understand challenging concepts or situations. Initially developed for children with autism, social stories can also be used for typical children as well as both children and adults with a variety of social/communication needs. A social story is carefully developed by examining the specific situation from all viewpoints in order to write a text with relevant content and an appropriate voice for the individual. Consisting of a series of short sentences, often written in first person, the story breaks down the ideas and facts about the change in a simple way that is meaningful to the child. The unique twist of a social story is that is balances new or difficult ideas with familiar, positive ones. According to Carol Gray’s guidelines, at least half of all social stories for any individual should affirm or praise things that s/he is good at.
This may be illustrated by a few examples, which obviously would be tailored to meet a specific child’s needs:
Situation: Danny has trouble leaving the classroom for a special assembly because it does not adhere to the daily schedule. The following story might be used.
“My name is Danny and I go to Pleasant School. I am in third grade. I am great at following the rules in my classroom. I am good at checking my schedule to see what is next.
Sometimes, we have a special assembly at school. An assembly is a time when lots of students come to one room to hear a person talk, to watch a performance, or to do a special activity.
When there is an assembly, we take a break from our regular schedule. We stop what we are doing and we walk with our teacher to the auditorium. I can do this because I know where the auditorium is in my school! I am great at walking quietly in the hall with my class. We may have to miss a regular activity, but that is okay. My teacher will make sure we have time for all the activities we need, either later in the day or on another day.
When we get to the auditorium, it might be noisy or it might be quiet. I can sit with other kids from my class who I know. I can listen to the person who is speaking at the assembly. I am a great listener so I can do this!
After the assembly is over, my teacher will tell me when it is time to go back to our classroom. I can walk back with my class. Then I can continue with my schedule.
It can be hard to stop what I am doing to go to an assembly. My teacher will help me know when it is time to go to an assembly and when it is time to come back to class. I can tell myself that after the assembly is over, I will be able to go back to my class. I will be able to continue with my regular schedule.”
Situation: Allie has a hard time understanding an early dismissal from school and feels anxious about the change. The following story might be helpful.
“My name is Allie and I go to Main Street School. I am good at reading the clock in my class. I know that school is usually over at 4:00. I can tell when the clock says 4:00.
Sometimes, school ends early. This can be because the teachers have a meeting, or because there is a special holiday or vacation coming. This is called an early dismissal.
When we have an early dismissal, my teacher will tell me what time school will be over: for example, 12:30. I know how to read the clock, so I can look and see when it says 12:30. When the clock says 12:30, it will be time for me to go home. It is okay that school is over even though the clock does not say 4:00, because it is an early dismissal day.
On an early dismissal day, the bus will be ready to take me home at 12:30. I can ride the bus, just like I do on a regular day. My mom will be waiting for me at home. In the afternoon, I will be at home and not at school.
The next time I am in school, I will stay until 4:00. Usually school ends at 4:00 but sometimes we have an early dismissal, and that is okay!”
Depending on the child’s level of language understanding, social stories can include pictures or photographs to illustrate the concepts. Whenever possible, the social story should be introduced in advance, several times, before the change actually occurs, so that the child becomes familiar with the facts of the new routine in a way that feels safe and comfortable, before s/he actually has to deal with the change. Students can be given the opportunity to take ownership of their social stories, to participate in writing and/or illustrating them, and to read the stories themselves. For a child on the autism spectrum or any individual who struggles with flexibility for deviations in routine, this tool provides more information, more time for processing, and more positive context than a simple announcement five minutes before the change: “We’re skipping art today because we have an assembly,” or an afterthought while getting ready for the bus in the morning: “By the way, school ends early today.”
In future articles, we will discuss how social stories can help a child understand new or unfamiliar situations themselves, aside from the change in routine.