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How to Individualize a Social Story

Person with a laptop and notebook, individualizing a social story

At a Glance

In this post, we will offer some strategies for individualizing social stories to turn them into a better fit for your situation and needs.

We are breaking down these strategies into four main categories: images, use of language, incorporating the perspective of the individual, and collaborating with the individual.

This post is primarily written for caregivers and professionals, however, it is broad enough for Autistic adults to individualize social stories of their own. Especially because Autistics are the end user.

Social stories are a valuable tool that can be used to navigate a huge variety of situations, from managing difficult situations to mapping out what will happen at new events to explaining public emergencies that might disrupt a day-to-day schedule. 


You can get a sense of the different types of social stories that are out there in the social stories section of our store, and we are just starting to scratch the surface in terms of the library we want to build! 


Social stories can map to so many different situations that one of the bigger challenges related to social stories is figuring out if one already exists for your situation. 


More challenging can be when you find one that is close to what you need but not quite the right fit for you or the person you are supporting. How can we better fit our social stories to meet our needs?


At AGU we have made all of our social stories editable to make customization easier, but once it is possible to tweak a story to fit your need it is important to consider your approach and your objectives. 


The purpose of today’s blog post is to offer some strategies for individualizing social stories to turn them into a better fit for your situation as well as some guidelines for translating your story needs into new or revised pages. 


We are breaking down these strategies into four main categories: images, use of language, incorporating the perspective of the individual, and collaborating with the individual.


One thing we want to point out from the beginning is that while these strategies may seem like a lot, they are also just meant to be guidelines worth considering and it’s perfectly OK to be realistic about the amount of time you have to devote to any given social story.


Many of these strategies can just be things worth keeping in mind as you go!

Images

Images can be a crucial component of social stories that really helps drive home the specifics of a given situation, but choosing the right image is not always as straightforward as it may seem! 


Some images may be too abstracts, others may project and unintended message, and others still may not include all of the necessary information that the words on the page are trying to convey. 


If a particular image doesn’t feel like it is working, don’t hesitate to try something different! 


Better to engage in a little bit of trial and error than to go without a social story entirely. 


As we will get to later on, the more you collaborate with the individual using the story the easier that process will be! 


But before we even get to the trial and error portion, how do we identify images that might be a good fit for our custom social story?

Real Photos for Concrete Situations

Whenever possible, we recommend using real photos to depict concrete situations or objects that can be conveyed through photos as opposed to illustrations. 


Depending on the situation this can include images like stock photos depicting a particular action, sprites of particular objects, shots of particular settings, and individuals conveying a particular feeling. 


Real photos are generally preferable to illustrations because social stories are meant to cover real world situations, so it can be helpful to convey a given situation’s reality as closely as possible. 

Adding Icons for Abstract Concepts

While we generally advocate for using real photos whenever possible, it is also true that social stories may sometimes talk about an abstract concept that cannot easily be captured in a picture. 


Sometimes using pictures in those situations may have the opposite of the intended effect and make the abstract concept more confusing or send the wrong message. 


When it is time to convey an abstract concept like “executive functioning” or “introspection” using icons or even adding icons to a real image can help to convey the idea while using icons in contrast to the photos can hint that an abstract concept is being conveyed. 


In situations like this checking in with the individual can be hugely beneficial, as they can indicate whether a given icon choice is a good fit or if they want to see something different.

Using Items and Settings Important to the Individual

When we talked about real photos above, we noted the value of conveying situations as realistically as the medium of social stories will allow, and one way to take that a step further is to focus on settings and items that the individual you are supporting actively uses or settings where they might expect to encounter the situation outlined in the story. 


Alternately, if taking pictures is not a realistic option for you and there are many types of stock images available, it can be worth considering which one is the closest match to the individual’s needs. 


If you can pick any picture of peanut butter, for example, why not check and see whether the person you are supporting prefers creamy or chunky? 


This is another great check-in opportunity and can help build the individualization process into the teaching of the narrative itself!

Language

Clear and Concise

Language in a social story is a balance between clearly converting the situation it covers and keeping the story reasonably short and simple. 


When in doubt a few more short and digestible pages is preferable to a single page with a lengthy and hard-to-decipher sentence.

Accessible to the Individual

Everyone has unique needs, and sometimes those needs revolve around using language that is easily accessible in the situations when this social story is being used. 


Even if certain language seems like the clearest and most concise version, it is not helpful if the person it is supposed to benefit can’t really use it! 


If, for example, an individual has a way of communicating a particular concept that is unique to them, it can be preferable to use that language in an individualized story compared to a more standardized usage because the story is meant to be built for the individual!

Story Consistency

This is the type of guideline that feels more obvious if you start a story from scratch but can be easy to overlook if you are tweaking a story to fit your needs. 


When swapping out pages it can help to reread the story a few times to make sure all parts of the story still makes sense. 


Sometimes removing one page can also remove crucial context from another page, while new information you add might contradict something already on the page. 


Those types of problems tend to stick out once you take in the story as a whole and can typically be fixed as long as you are looking out for them!

Language Consistency Across the Story

While language variance has its value in other types of writing, in social stories it is beneficial to be consistent with word choices across the story to reflect the topic at hand as clearly and concisely as possible. It’s also worth double-checking your verb tenses across the story as well.

Incorporate The Individual's Perspective

Why Are We Using This Social Story?

When looking at a social story for individualization purposes, it’s worth revisiting the question of why we are using a given story in the first place. 


Crucially, our “why” needs to focus on the perspective of the person who is meant to use the social story and makes sure we are incorporating elements most important to them.

What Challenges Does the Individual Focus On?

While this question can apply to any social story, it really comes into focus when considering social stories that deal with a particular behavior. 


Even though a given behavior can be the result of all kinds of different contextual factors, the core challenge and measure is whether that particular behavior stops. 


But is that focus a good reflection of the thought process of the person who is using the social story? 


If we are talking about yelling at others, for example, is the challenge simply remembering not to raise our voices in certain situations or is there a challenging emotional or sensory component that can lead to yelling that needs to be addressed in some way? 


While generalized social stories might try to account for multiple possibilities, when you are customizing you have the opportunity to hone in on those crucial individual details! 


The reason we ask this question is to try to avoid centering our perspective and instead center the person who is using the resource.

Collaborate With the Individual

What Do They Think of the Images and Wording?

If we are taking the time to customize we should also be taking the time to make sure those added images and words resonate with the person who will be using them! If it works for the individual, you might be able to select some of those things together, but in the absence of being able to do so practically check-ins are also a great idea. 


While it may be frustrating to carefully select an image you thought was perfect only to find out you didn’t quite have the idea right, if we are already taking the time to customize then it’s worth a little extra time to get it as close to perfect as we can.

Checking In Over Time

Once you have your social story set, one great way to ensure continued collaboration in using this particular tool in service of a given goal is to check in from time to time and make sure it continues to be as effective as possible. 


After all, we grow and change all the time and something that was perfect a few months ago might need a little tweaking this time around. 


Whether it’s something straightforward like a new favorite character that just has to be included in the story or a change in the context in which the person using this tool is navigating challenges, check-ins are a great reminder that we are continuing to work on this together, that the person you are supporting isn’t alone, and that it’s a great thing to bring up if they are not sure a given tool is right for the job any longer. 


The last thing we want is for people who need these types of tools to feel like they get one and then are left on their own to succeed or fail, and regular check-ins are one of the best ways to avoid that unfortunate scenario and keep your social stories unique and individualized!

Individual Preference Takes Precedence

Earlier in our post we talked about some recommendations on when to use real photos, when to use icons, and what kinds of language to use. 


But despite this generalized advice it’s crucial to remember that we are talking about individualization, and sometimes individual preferences can deviate from our general recommended guidelines. 


In those cases, it is worth remembering that guidelines are meant to be helpful tools rather than hard rules and you can absolutely defer to the preferences of the individual you are supporting! Do they prefer drawings of food to pictures of food? Awesome, have at it! 


Would they rather see their favorite character than a person in a stock photo? Go for it! 


Finding out those kinds of preferences is a sign that you are doing a good job collaborating. As long as we are still keeping our eye on the main objective of the social story.

Conclusion

There are so many different ways to write a social story and they do not necessarily have to be perfect to have a positive impact. 


If you are taking the time and energy to individualize a social story for someone you are supporting you are already taking an amazing extra step to help. 


We hope this post has offered some additional strategies and food for thought to keep in mind when navigating social stories and considering how to adapt them to a specific set of needs. 


If you’d like to see more about individualizing or writing social stories or want to share our experience, we’d love to hear from you! Just drop us a line at hello@autismgrownup.com

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