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Searching for Social Stories Online - Spotting the Red Flags

2 children reading a social story from a book

At a Glance

In this post, we will go over some potential red flags you may encounter when searching for social stories online.

Sometimes social stories do fall into some traps that can make them less effective tools or do more harm than good, but there are so many excellent and helpful social stories out there that it would be a shame to miss out on their potential benefits.

We have selected a few of our warning signs that the social story you are evaluating might not be the right fit.

Social stories and narratives can be a valuable tool for navigating specific situations, but the variety of situations to which they can apply sometimes necessitates a wide search for the social story that is right for you or the person you are supporting. 


Sometimes social stories do fall into some traps that can make them less effective tools or do more harm than good, but there are so many excellent and helpful social stories out there that it would be a shame to miss out on their potential benefits. 


One good way to evaluate a social story you might want to use is to check for some common red flags that may signal it is somewhat biased toward an allistic perspective, encouraging unnecessary masking, or not addressing the situation productively. 


In this post we will cover some of these red flags and then follow up next week with a list of some social story green flags!


If you’d like to share your own red or green flags we’d love to hear from you at hello@autismgrownup.com


Here are a few of our warning signs that the social story you are evaluating might not be the right fit.

“Behavior” Fixation

Sometimes social stories are written with a focus on a particular harmful behavior, and having that focus is not inherently a bad thing. 


Some actions can lead to harming oneself or others or crossing boundaries and are necessary to address. 


It’s also important when writing such a social story to do so with the understanding and recognition that these things do not happen in a vacuum and often have multiple contributing factors. 


The fundamental issue with this approach, even when genuinely harmful behavior is being addressed, is that it centers the part of the challenge that stands out to allistic people and can completely disregard or treat as secondary the needs of the autistic person who is meant to benefit from using this tool. 


It’s worth noting too that with the allistic bent of this approach, sometimes these types of stories will seek to “address” types of behavior that aren’t really problematic and may just stand out as not fitting in with allistic social norms. 


Remember, people are more than just their external behaviors, and supporting a person effectively means supporting the whole person!

Negative Goals

If you’ve heard us talk about IEP goals then you have probably heard us talk about the perils of negative language. 


It’s always important to clarify when we bring up this terminology that we are not strictly talking about the idea of negativity, but rather establishing goals or objectives that are focused on not doing something. 


Not only does this type of goal run the risk of the kind of “behavior” fixation we alluded to in the last section, even when there is some success it’s incredibly difficult to build upon in a scaffolded way. 


It is far more productive to set goals oriented around addressing underlying challenges with the understanding and hope that it will help to address the harmful component as well. 


It is worth remembering that while a social story may be used as a tool during challenging situations, it’s also something that we read and practice outside of those situations so that it can be effective in those moments. 


Social stories in and of themselves are not emergency measures. In that spirit, even when we know it is very important to address a particular type of harmful behavior, it is also important to remember that this is our opportunity to take a step back and create the types of frameworks that best set up the people we are supporting for success!

“Popularity” Narratives

This type of red flag can sometimes overlap with the type of “behavior” fixation social stories that attempt to address behaviors that are not actually harmful but instead fall outside of allistic social norms. 


When it comes to innocuous actions like fidgeting or flapping, social stories that seek to “correct” them may still feel the need to provide a justification for why we would want to stop doing those things in the first place and will often do so by presenting a “popularity” narrative. 


In essence, the story may try to explain that other people find it off-putting when they see a particular behavior or that they will like a person who doesn’t do those things better. 


To be frank, this is just a straightforward example of pathologizing the way some autistic people act and encouraging masking. 


While some autistic people may make the decision to mask in some situations, it is important that those of us in support roles remember that masking can be a painful and draining process and be incredibly careful about noticing the contexts when it is being promoted. 


Frameworks that imply innocuous behaviors are weird and that the best solution is to stop are doing the opposite of what we want!

Shaming

As we have alluded to throughout this post, social stories are meant to be tools for navigating challenging situations. By their very nature they need to be constructive to be their most effective. 


Social narratives that rely on shaming “bad behavior” are not only mean, they imply that the student isn’t so much facing challenges navigating a particular situation as they are failing to get their act together and simply need to be convinced to do so. 


As you might imagine, this framing can be incredibly frustrating for students who are facing challenges navigating a particular situation, especially when it is coming from people who are supposed to be helping! 


Not only can shaming be ineffective, it can convince the people you are ostensibly supporting that you are not safe to be around and lead to more masking, which will both hurt them and your collective ability to work on challenges as a team. 


When a person you are supporting is struggling, trust that what they are experiencing is real and make sure the tools you offer do the same!

Highly Specific Advice for Open Ended Situations

It is important we clarify what we mean with this particular red flag, as you will often hear us say that more specificity is a great thing in social stories


But specificity can be misapplied, in particular, if a social story is addressing a very open-ended situation and the specificity has more to do with how a person should act than the context from which they are approaching the situation. 


This red flag most often appears in social stories covering social interaction. One common example relates to eye contact and how much to do it in a conversation. 


Setting aside that encouraging eye contact is a form of encouraging masking, there simply isn’t any specific advice about eye contact that will universally apply to every social situation. 


Even when a social story that offers this type of advice is well written and the scenario being outlined makes sense, it can lead to unexpected frustrating moments in practice.


If you navigate enough social stories, you may find some that seem like they exhibit red flags that also have some positives. 


In those cases you may find it’s worth the time to individualize for the person you are supporting. Alternately, red flags can be a sign of deeper problems that signal it’s a good idea to look elsewhere even if a story covers a topic very specific to your situation. 


There are a huge variety of social stories out there and it’s not always easy to make those judgment calls! 


The important thing when keeping an eye out for red flags is to identify frameworks and tropes that could harm or fail to help the person you are supporting before they are put into use, so that when you do find a social story worth using it is more likely to be a positive and productive experience.

Conclusion

Speaking of positive and productive experiences, join us next week when we talk about some social story green flags, and in the meantime, if you want to share some experiences with social stories let us know at hello@autismgrownup.com


Until then, best of luck on your search and may you always find narratives that are specific, affirming, and easy to use!

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