What if you could help your child with autism to prepare for a classroom environment, alleviate social anxiety, and increase personal safety, with just a few simple tools. Good news: printable social stories and visual schedules give you an accessible, low-cost, and effective way to do just that.

In partnership with your child’s teacher, aid, or ABA specialist, you can employ these educational techniques to teach your child about typical transitions, healthy interactions, and more.

Both tools are examples of positive behavioral supports, as they offer students the information they need to self-manage their responses to different situations.

What are social stories and why use them?  

As the National Autistic Society website notes, social stories were created by Carol Gray in 1991 as a means of teaching social skills to students with autism. They feature brief overviews of common social situations, along with tips on how to communicate, respond to cues, and engage in safe behaviors.

For example, this free social story from The National Autism Association’s Big Red Safety Toolkit includes pictures and text on the importance of remaining in one’s own house and not venturing outdoors without an adult present. This particular story is useful for individuals with a history of wandering behavior, which is common within the autism community.

Camping Social Story

School-specific social stories feature topics such as lunchroom interactions, appropriate classroom behaviors, or fire drill protocols. In the case of this fire drill story, the text and images work together to teach students what to expect on a sensory level; a stressful experience complete with loud noises, flashing lights, and general commotion.

Social stories can also suggest possible coping techniques, such as putting one’s hands over one’s ears to block loud noises during a fire drill.

Social stories like these empower students on the autism spectrum by preparing them for potentially demanding moments at school. A sense of what to expect is important for any child, but it’s particularly key for individuals with autism and sensory processing issues.

Reviewing stories about potentially stressful situations can help to prevent a child from engaging in meltdown behavior. Furthermore, averting tantrum behavior can ensure a child’s safety in the event of a real emergency.

Finally, reviewing new social situations may lessen the fear that accompanies them. In this way, social stories free children with autism to learn and make connections and provide socially appropriate behaviors and school-day expectations.

What are visual schedules, and why use them at school?

Visual schedules employ pictures and text to outline a series of events. Such schedules come in many different forms. A teacher might print a school day schedule and post it for the whole class to see, or a student with autism might have their own visual schedule via an app.

Regardless of the format, a visual schedule is useful if it enables a student to stay on task, navigate transitions, and lessen anxiety.

Even though it seems contradictory, providing a greater sense of structure may increase a child’s sense of flexibility. The visual schedule concretizes vague everyday phrases such as “in the future” or “at the end of the day,” which are difficult for students with autism to conceptualize.

They can serve to prepare students for changes in an everyday routine, and help to prevent miscommunications too.

As the Oklahoma Assistive Technology Center article, “Why use a visual schedule?” notes, “In the typical school … environment, a majority of the information is given verbally; it is frequently assumed that the student already knows or remembers specific information, and the assumption that students already know results in information not being given at all.”

Visual schedules and social stories mitigate such potential communication gaps between teachers and students with autism.

What makes these tools so helpful for students with autism?

Both tools play to the strengths of students with autism, whose cognitive processes often differ from those of neurotypical students. They facilitate greater learning and independence for students on the spectrum because they present information in an accessible format.

One common cognitive bias is the belief that everyone processes the world in the same way, but there’s great diversity within the human brain.

As Temple Grandin wrote in her 2006 update to the first chapter of her seminal work, Thinking in Pictures, “When I wrote Thinking in Pictures I thought most people on the autism spectrum were visual thinkers like me.” However, subsequent interactions with individuals on the spectrum taught her that there are actually three distinct thinking styles.

In her updated text, Grandin describes three categories: visual thinkers(people who think in pictures), music and math thinkers (people who think in patterns), and verbal logic thinkers (people who think in word details).

As a visual thinker, Grandin struggles to learn information presented without paired images. She recalls, “Tutoring me in algebra was useless because there was nothing for me to visualize. If I have no picture, I have no thought.”

Social stories and visual schedules tap into all three brain processing types. They pair words with pictures and create patterns too. Thus, they encompass various cognitive styles and serve as effective tools for individuals on the autism spectrum.

This overall accessibility is particularly helpful in cases when a child’s thinking style is difficult to discern; in fact, as Grandin observes, “Some individuals may be combinations of these categories.”

A visual thinker can follow the images in a social story or visual schedule, while a music and math thinker can track the repetitive structure and inherent patterns, and a verbal logic thinker can read the text.

And that’s why these tools are such valuable supports for children with autism: because they meet students where they are, in a language they can understand.