In the novel “Mockingbird” by Kathryn Erskine, the narrator Caitlin, who has autism, often finds social situations stressful because she just doesn’t “get it.” While most young children think in black and white, kids with autism really struggle with everything else in between, even as they grow up. Social skills stories teach kids with autism about abstract or changeable situations in a concrete manner they can better understand. Through pictures, minimal words and narration from you, your child can learn what to do in specific situations.
While playing with peers might come more easily to typically developing children, toddlers and preschoolers with autism must be taught social skills. If you put your toddler with autism in a room full of other kids, he will likely not know what to do and might play by himself in a corner of the room. Through a social story activity, you can show your child each event in the form of a picture -- show a picture of him entering the room, seeing the other kids, walking up to another child and saying hi or asking him if he would like to play. Kids with autism are visual learners, so use the picture along with a narration from you to describe to your child in concrete terms what he can do when he meets other children. You can use social story activities to show your toddler or preschooler how to play with his big sister, how to smile at a waitress at a restaurant or how to tell his preschool teacher he needs to use the toilet.
It’s typical for young children to be naughty, and the time-outs you would typically use with this age group are not as effective for kids with autism. You can teach basic moral principles, such as refraining from stealing or lying, hitting or biting, and running out into the street without looking, through social story activities. Show pictures of each of these events, outlining any consequences for failing to obey the rules. Explain through the pictures and narration that it is unacceptable to hit mommy, and if your child does hit, his favorite toy will be taken away. You might want to use a real photo of your child’s favorite toy and mommy to make the social story more realistic for your child.
Kids with autism become overstimulated much easier than other children -- large crowds or loud noises might cause a meltdown that ends with fidgeting or even screaming. Use social story activities to show your child what might happen at a particular event. The 4th of July is an exciting event for most children, but young kids with autism might find the loud fireworks too much to handle. Show your child pictures of you going into a crowd, smelling popcorn and cotton candy, and watching the fireworks. Point out that the fireworks make loud noises, so your toddler might want to cover his ears.
Tantrums are natural for every toddler or preschooler, and no young child likes to wait or hear the word “no.” You can help your autistic toddler or preschooler regulate his emotions by practicing social story activities together. Think of titles like “What to do when I must wait” or “When can I scream?” Show your child the steps of each event and explain when it is appropriate or inappropriate to do certain things. If your toddler throws a tantrum, talk him through it and remind him about the social story and ask him what he can do to calm himself down.