Social Stories as a Means to Teach Mask Wearing

Stephanie Naberhaus, M.S., CCC-SLP, Speech-Language Pathologist, Building Bridges Therapy Center

As everyone knows by now, wearing face masks is one of our many new norms.  It’s hard to go into a public place such as a grocery store and find someone who is NOT wearing a mask.  In our changed world, not wearing a face mask means decreased opportunities for social interaction.

While face masks might be bothersome, the majority of us can deal with our discomfort and still wear them for the common good.  Unfortunately, what many might define as bothersome or uncomfortable can be described as intolerable by individuals with Autism.  Sensory issues such as not being able to tolerate the feel of something on your face, or the anxiety that results from something new like wearing a mask, are just a few of the reasons people with Autism have difficulty wearing them.

There are, however, things we can do to increase the likelihood that people with Autism will wear face masks.  Social Stories were created by Carol Gray to help individuals with Autism understand social situations, expectations, social cues, new activities, and/or social rules.  As the name implies, they are brief descriptive stories that provide accurate information about a social situation.  These individualized stories clarify social expectations using visuals and specific sentence structures. Knowing what to expect by using a Social Story can help individuals with ASD successfully tolerate new situations such as wearing a face mask. 

There are three types of sentences that should be used when creating a Social Story: descriptive, perspective and directive sentences.  Descriptive sentences define anticipated events where a situation occurs, who is involved, what they are doing, and why.  Perspective sentences describe the internal status of the person or persons involved and directive sentences are individualized statements of desired responses stated in a positive manner. They may begin with “I can try…” or “I will work on…”.

Below is a sample Social Story about wearing a mask in public using the types of sentences listed above.

When I go to the store, I see people shopping with masks on (descriptive). They are wearing masks to help stop the spread of COVID-19 (descriptive).  COVID – 19 is an illness that can make people very sick (descriptive).  Wearing a mask can help protect people from getting COVID-19 (descriptive).  I do not like seeing people wearing masks (perspective).  It makes me feel scared (perspective).  I do not like the feeling of a mask on my face. (perspective).  It is uncomfortable (perspective).  I will practice wearing my mask for a few minutes each day (directive).  The more I practice wearing a mask, the easier it will be to wear (directive).  I can practice taking deep breaths before I put my face mask on, and this will help me feel relaxed (directive). 

A Social Story should have a ratio of 3 to 5 descriptive and perspective sentences for each directive sentence. Avoid using too many directive sentences; they will be lost without adequate contextualization.  Write in first person and on the individual’s developmental level.  Stories should include pictures or other visuals that fit within this developmental level to supplement text.  

New social norms will be unfolding over the next few months.  We are all striving to adapt to a changed world with new and different rules for social engagement.  Social Stories can be used not only to help our loved ones with Autism wear masks but to help maximize their participation in a variety of social situations.