My 7-year-olds struggle with a metabolic disorder, pyroluria, and a neurological disorder, Sensory Processing Disorder (also called Sensory Integration Disorder). The intervention that I’ve found to have the most tangible impact is Social & Sensory Stories. Please be aware that I am not an occupational therapist or a trained professional. I’m simply a parent using and sharing a modified technique that has worked very well for us. Please ask your occupational therapist if this therapy might work for you and use at your own risk.
Sensory and Social Stories are among the many valuable services that occupational therapists traditionally provide. These stories have also been shown effective for individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) including autism, Asperger’s syndrome, and pervasive developmental disorder. 1
Social stories were first developed by Carol Gray in 1991 and have been expanded and modified widely.2 Sensory stories were developed by Deborah Marr and Victoria Nackley in 2003.1
Social and Sensory stories are similar in that:
- their goal is to teach social skills, improve understanding, and reinforce appropriate behavior or performance,
- they work best if written from the child’s perspective, in first person (example provided below), and
- they may or may not include photos of the child performing the desired skill or behavior.
Social stories and sensory stories do differ slightly. Social stories attempt to teach an abstract idea or concept with a social context (e.g. how to make a new friend or be a good sport), while sensory stories focus on a specific occupation and include strategies the child might use to cope with the way their body over-responds to its environment (e.g. coping with noise at a birthday party). In the end, the way you use them is about the same. First you develop the story specific to your issue and then read it to or with your child each day just like you might a bed time story.
The first step is to identify the problem. For my son, walking in the rain is a struggle because he doesn’t like the feel of drops or wetness on his skin, a symptom of tactile defensiveness.
Problem: Child complains and tantrums when rain touches his skin.
Next I write the ideal story about how my son sees and feels this problem and how he copes with it appropriately. The story is written from his perspective and sounds like positive self-talk.
Here is the combined social and sensory story for my child’s issue:
I am Not Bothered by Rain
When I go outside when it’s raining, my skin and clothes might get wet. The raindrops might fall on my face or head, or on my hands or legs. I don’t like this feeling, but it doesn’t hurt. I don’t get upset. I stay calm.
When I am ready to go outside, I look out the window. If it is raining or looks like it might, I put on my rain coat. If I’m not sure, I ask a grown up.
My rain coat protects my skin from the rain. I put up my hood. My hood keeps the rain off my head and face, mostly.
When it’s raining, I bring my umbrella. I like my umbrella. It helps to keep me dry.
When I go outside when it’s raining, even with my rain coat and umbrella, my skin and clothes might get wet. I don’t like this feeling, but it doesn’t hurt. I don’t get upset. I stay calm.
If my skin gets wet, it will air dry soon. Or I can dry it with a paper towel when I get to where I am going.
If my clothes get wet, I don’t cry. I stay calm and when I get to where I am going, I change them because I have extra clothes in my back pack.
Rain is annoying but it does not hurt me. I use my rain coat and umbrella to keep me dry. When I get wet, I don’t cry or whine. I wait patiently until I get to where I am going, and then I dry myself or change my clothes by myself.
You’ll notice that the story above has an introduction, a central portion that describes how he feels and how he responds, and a conclusion that restates the appropriate behaviors. I also include photographs of my child doing the appropriate behavior to make it more convincing and so that they can see that they are indeed capable of the desired behavior.
There are workshops and books available from the authors noted below, and many typical sensory stories may be purchased here, but so far I’ve learned to make my own custom stories that are very specific to each of my children’s issues.
My son keeps a book of these stories in his desk at school to read during free reading times or when he is feeling upset. We also leave a copy on the table at home for daily use.
These stories have been very effective for my children, so much so that the public school special education teacher asked me to make them for other children in the school with social behavioral and sensory issues.
Give this a try for your family and post here what has and has not worked for you.
1 Marr, Deborah and Victoria Nackley. 2010. Using Social Stories and Sensory Stories in Autism Intervention. OT Practice.
2Gray, Carol. 2010. The New Social Story Book. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons.
Lorraine Wilde is a freelance journalist and environmental scientist. She posts regularly on her blog and has published articles at the parenting website www.Neighborhood-Kids.com. Lorraine is writing her memoir, Egg Mama: An Egg Donor and Her Extraordinary Family.