What is Meant by Social Narratives in the Context of Applied Behavior Analysis?

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Appropriate social functioning is one of the biggest challenges facing people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Their ability to properly engage with their peers, acquire and use appropriate social skills, and maintain positive social relationships may also suffer due to their social skills deficits.

But behavior analysts have a variety of applied behavior analysis (ABA) tools and strategies for helping those with ASD improve their social and behavioral understanding. One such strategy is the creation of the social narrative—a written, descriptive story that helps individuals with ASD increase their awareness and comprehension of social situations and the appropriate behaviors that should be used.

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What are the Benefits of a Social Narrative?

Through the use of social narratives (also called social stories), behavior analysis can help individuals with ASD better understand the feelings of others in certain social situations, thereby improving positive social interactions and creating a safer environment for everyone.

Social narratives are used to address current social problems or prepare for impending or potential social experiences. For example, a behavior analyst may write a social narrative after the child engaged in a social unacceptable behavior such as hitting a classmate. A social narrative may also address recurring behaviors such as spitting or yelling, or it may help the individual transition to a new social situation, such as changing schools or going to the dentist.

Through social narratives, children with autism are introduced to social situations or behaviors they may find difficult or confusing, thereby helping them better understand social conventions and reducing their anxiety of the unknown.

What Does a Social Narrative Look Like?

A social narrative is a personalized story written specifically for the child. It will include clear, concrete language and related pictures or photographs (especially for visual learners and emerging readers) and will be written with the child’s vocabulary and comprehension skills in mind. It may be written in the first person (“I”) or the second person (“you”), depending on which form is easier for the child to understand.

The behavior analyst will introduce the social narrative to the child through direct instruction. The social narrative may be used daily as part of the child’s schedule, and the behavior analyst and other adults will reinforce the narrative by modeling the related behaviors for the child.

In general, a social narrative should include the following:

  • An introductory sentence that includes the “who, what, when, where, and why” of the situation
  • One or more descriptive sentences that acknowledges how the child may feel about the situation
  • One or more perspective sentences describing the proper social protocol the child should use
  • One or more directive sentences that explain how the child should behave
  • One or more affirmative sentences that describe how the social situation will play out.

For example:

(introductory) I have school each day. My friends are at school every day.

(descriptive) Sometimes when I get angry, I hit my friends.

(perspective) It is okay to be angry, but it is no okay to hit my friends. When I hit my friends, it scares them and makes them sad.

(directive) The next time I am at school and I get angry, I will not hit my friends. I will use my words and tell the teacher why I am angry.

(affirmative) When I don’t hit my friends, they will feel happy, and I will feel proud that I didn’t hit them.

There are a variety of ways in which behavior therapists can make social narratives that are attractive to children with ASD. Some examples include:

  • Creating flipbooks or comic strips
  • Using apps for creating stories: Social Story Creator & Library (iOS), Stories About Me (iOS), Stories2Learn (iOS),
  • Using the child’s favorite cartoon character or superhero