The Discovery of Social Stories (1990-1992)

Note:  If you are beginning the Social Story history here, the article, “From Canada to Mexico: Welcome to New and Past Subscribers” (Gray, 1990b), provides a quick overview of the history of Social Stories prior to 1990.

“If the goal is independence, teach on an island. If the goal is interdependence, teach everywhere else.” (Gray, 1991)

“Overall, the stories have been nothing but absolute success and have instilled excitement and enthusiasm in all of us down here in Cincinnati.” (Garand, 1992)

“Why do we announce we will make dinner in “just a minute” when in fact we don’t even know what we’re having yet?  Why do we tell someone we love the new tie they gave us… while we simultaneously plan to return it the next day?  Miraculously, most of us can make sense of all this.  Individually and collectively, we know what to do, and can recognize mistakes when we make them.  Even for those

things we can’t quite explain we have explanations for…”That’s life,” and “Life goes on.”  For children with autism, I believe the questions may be more numerous, and the explanations harder to come by.” (Gray, 1992a)

In 1990, Nelson Mandela was freed.  It was also the year of the Gardner Heist, the biggest art theft in history.  In the United States a gallon of gas cost $1.28, we were watching “Home Alone” at the movies and “Cheers” at home.  By this point in time, I was no longer listening to current hits on the radio as I drove to work.  I sang along to anything from the sixties on my short commute.  I have been doing so ever since.  Also in 1990, Adobe Photoshop software was released, and we were beginning to write web pages.  It was the year that I had a conversation with one of my students, Eric; the ‘tipping point’ that led to the first Social Story.

My Conversation with Eric

Eric was a student with autism in our grant-funded inclusion and vocational program.  He had a problem with interrupting, an issue that extended back fifteen years to his early childhood.  Regardless of what Eric’s high school instructors said, he had a response.  It didn’t seem to matter if the instructor was talking with Eric individually, or if Eric was part of a small group or with the entire class.  When Eric had something to say, he said it.

For years, I tried to teach Eric to raise his hand, wait for a turn to talk, and listen when others are talking.  In my office, when Eric and I discussed why and how students raise their hands, he would raise his hand when I asked him to practice.  Despite Eric’s sincere and frequent promises to ‘Stop interrupting,’ his interrupting continued unabated.  Despite a decade of positive behavior plans and interruption interventions, Eric had never held his comments back or raised his hand in class hand for a turn to speak.

An all-school assembly with a guest speaker marked a major turning point.  The speaker walked onto the auditorium stage.  He began by saying, “I’m going to talk to you today about change…”.   Eric had never been fond of change, and today was no exception.  He shared his comments from his seat, loud enough for all to hear.

I was unable to attend the assembly.  Still, I saw Eric’s interruption of the assembly on video.  That evening at home, I played the videotape several times.  I consumed a lot of ice cream, straight from the container.  I was frustrated; thinking it was time to move on.  I decided that I would seek a kindergarten teaching position in the spring.

What did I have to lose?  I called Eric down to my office to review the videotape of the assembly.  We called it Social Reading (Gray, 1990g), a strategy that utilized videotaped sequences and a large display tablet for notes to support critical conversations with our students.

Eric and I watched the videotape of the assembly several times, and took notes to compare our perceptions of what had occurred.  Eric said there were two people in the assembly:  Eric and the speaker.  Suddenly Eric’s ‘interrupting’ made sense to me.  Eric was doing what I had taught him to do as a young child; if someone talks to you, you answer.  From Eric’s perspective, he was attentive, responding to his teacher who, at the time, was the invited speaker.

After Eric had shared his description of the assembly, it was my turn.  I told him that I saw about 500 students.  In the course of comparing our notes, Eric said he wanted to “…stop interrupting”.  He began to create a list of things he needed to do to stop interrupting:  Raise my hand.  Listen when others are talking.  Give others a turn.  It was a list of all of the behaviors I had tried to teach him over the last several years.  Eric returned to class with his list.  For the first time in any class, Eric raised his hand.

Recently, I discovered a long lost Morning News that contains other details about my conversation with Eric that day.  The article, “The Road to Independence is Lined with People” (Gray, 1991d) does not mention the assembly.  Our conversation also included a discussion and review of video of Eric interrupting in his class.  In addition, it mentions the use of ‘social packets’ to reinforce what Eric had learned and support generalization to other settings and over time.

For years, Eric had confidently told me that he would, “Stop interrupting.’  I mistakenly had assumed he knew what that meant.  Despite my knowledge of Eric’s social impairment, somewhere I was harboring a mistaken attitude that Eric and I have the same set of social equipment. At the same time, I had underestimated his potential.  Previous to the assembly conversation, if someone had asked me if Eric had the ability to apply an accurate description of an event to his behavior, I would have said ‘no.’

The conversation between Eric and I was a turning point.  We had invested years into the interrupting issue, and the importance of taking turns in conversation, without success.  Placing the same information in writing made a critical difference.  Eric understood and applied what he read.

The First Social Stories

At this time, I was also a consultant for students with autism in nearby Holland, Michigan.  Tim, a kindergarten student, was having difficulty in his weekly physical education classes.  I came to observe.  Tim became very upset as the class played a game called “Charlie Over the Water” (an excerpt from my notes are below, right).  Taking what I learned from Eric, I wrote a story titled, “Charlie Over the Water” (Gray, 1990a), to help Tim learn the rules to the game. Tim reviewed the story once a day and just prior to the next gym class.  When the teacher announced that they were going to play “Charlie Over the Water” again, Tim raised his hand.  He wanted to be Charlie and played the game calmly and competently.

I began writing additional stories with the help of my assistants. There were other areas where Tim was having difficulty.  We responded with stories, for example, “It’s Time for Recess at VanRaalte” (Gray, 1990d) and “Lines” (Gray, 1990e).  Success with one story led to others.  A few stories were unsuccessful.

We were curious about stories that had ‘worked’.  What did they have in common?  At face value, each story addressed a different topic.  Looking past the varied content, we discovered that the successful stories shared a patient and positive tone.  We used that as a guide and began writing stories for other students.

The positive experiences with stories caused us to look again at the social packets that we had been using to support our students. They took on increased importance, and began to expand our thinking.  An article in the next issue of The Morning News titled, “On Losing a Job” (Gray, 1990f), described how social packets saved a vocational placement.  The preface in the same issue mentions Tim’s stories.  We encouraged subscribers to share ideas related to the use of stories to “…pool our resources” (Gray, p. 7). Things that previously seemed beyond the capabilities of our students, might be well within reach.  We closed the issue with “Guesswork” (Gray, p. 8).

We were now in the final months of our Challenge Grant funding.  In the May-June 1991 issue of The Morning News, we published excerpts from our completed curriculum manual, titled, *“The Curriculum System: Success as an Educational Outcome” (Gray, 1991a).  The following September, the last grant-supported issue of The Morning News closed with two articles.  First, “To the People of our Mailing List: Thank You” (Gray, 1991e) expressed our appreciation to our subscribers along with a complimentary copy of “The Curriculum System” manual.  In the last article, “On Chances and Pit Bull Terriers”, I wrote: “Teaching in the community is teaching toward planned goals and challenges, among factors we cannot always control.  It’s the classroom with the community invited.  The last five years, it’s been a great place to teach” (Gray, 1991b, p. 8).

A short time later, Future Horizons in Arlington, Texas, published “The Curriculum System: Success as an Educational Outcome” under the name, “What’s Next? Preparing the Student with Autism or Other Developmental Disabilities for Life in the Community”.  It is out of print, but the original pre-published manuscript is available to download here.

In the summer of 1991, at the Autism Society of America’s annual conference in Indianapolis, I shared the activities of our grant and the resulting Curriculum System manual.  I mentioned our successes writing stories for students with autism.  I was very nervous because I was incredibly shy about speaking before large groups at the time.  To add to the anxiety, Ruth Sullivan, Ph.D., a well-respected pioneer in the field of autism, was in the audience.  Joy Garand (Joy’s is now married, she’s Joy D. Nichols), a teacher from Ohio, was also in the audience.

A few months after the conference, Joy sent me a letter (Garand, 1991).  I recall reading her letter as I walked down the hall leading to my office.  I never looked up; walked right past my office.  I was so impressed that Social Stories were ‘working’ in Michigan and Ohio!  In fact, I had to see it myself.  I traveled to Cincinnati, where I was impressed by Joy’s infectious enthusiasm and amazed by the success of her students and the stories she was writing for them.  My visit with Joy gave me the confidence I needed to publish the first article describing Social Stories with a series of general guidelines (Gray, 1991).

Joy and I began collaborating.  Early the following year, Joy wrote a second letter to describe her experiences with social stories. She also shared some of her stories with me, which I included in, “How to Write Social Stories” (Gray, 1992b). It was the first effort to teach others to write social stories.  Shortly after that, we decided there must be at least “150 Ways to Describe Life” (Gray, 1992a).  So, we did!  We asked subscribers to submit topics for the first Social Story Book, and taught 150 Psychology students (just down the hall from my office) to write them!  The final book contained 208 stories.

The Social Story Book (Gray et al., 1993) was made available to our subscribers at cost.  It came in a three-ring notebook with a floppy disc that made it possible to tailor stories to a specific audience.  We revised the book and went to a second printing in August of the same year; a third printing in February of 1994.  We could not keep up with the demand, and quickly learned that we were a school district, not a publishing company.  Future Horizons, in Arlington, Texas took over distribution.  The cover of the book is pictured at the beginning of this article.

Dr. Edna Herron, on the Editorial Board of the professional journal, Focus on Autistic Behavior, learned about Social Stories and encouraged me to submit an article describing the approach.  I asked Joy Garand if she would be a co-author.  “Social Stories: Improving Responses of Students with Autism with Accurate Social Information” (Gray & Garand, 1993) was the first description of Social Stories in a formal journal.  It presented a researched-based rationale and suggested the first guidelines for writing Social Stories.  (We appreciate the permission to make it available here.  We’ve also included our original copy of the article.)

In Closing

The Social Story philosophy was in place long before the first social story; the definition of Social Stories and information on how to write them has seen more of an evolution.  There are sound basics that have been there since 1990.  The changes that have occurred have been in response to experience with Social Stories, research findings, and protection of the quality, integrity, and safety of the approach. See The Morning News & Jenison Autism Journal/The Best of The Morning News/Social Stories for a list of additional articles and documents that chronicle the evolution of Social Stories.

There is little doubt that the extraordinary experiences provided by the Challenge Grant changed how we viewed autism and our students.  It led us to an important philosophical shift. We abandoned rusty in-our-way assumptions, which allowed us to see what was there all the time; to observe and note the obvious. Our student’s perspectives, their vantage point, thoughts, and ideas were valid and due equal respect.

Throughout the grant, right from the very beginning, we publicly shared our mistakes.  Grant related experiences made us aware of an entirely new kind of mistake; mistakes rooted in beliefs that weren’t true and faulty interpretations of student behavior.  Without the grant and the change in philosophy and perspective that it created, we would not have Social Stories.  The grant passed an important baton to the stories we were learning to write.


  • Garand, J. (1991). Personal correspondence.
  • Garand, J. (1992). Personal correspondence.
  • Gray, C. (1990a). Charlie over the water. Unpublished story.
  • Gray, C. (1990b). From Canada to Mexico: Welcome to new and past subscribers. The Morning News. September, 2-3. Jenison, MI: Jenison Public Schools.
  • Gray, C. (1990c). Guesswork. The Morning News. November-December, 8. Jenison, MI: Jenison Public Schools.
  • Gray, C. (1990d). It’s time for recess at Van Raalte. Unpublished story.
  • Gray, C. (1990e). Lines. Unpublished story.
  • Gray, C. (1990f). On losing a job. The Morning News. November-December, 2-4. Jenison, MI: Jenison Public Schools.
  • Gray, C. (1990g). Social reading? The Morning News. September-October, 4-5. Jenison, MI: Jenison Public Schools.
  • Gray, C. (1991a). Excerpts from The Curriculum System manual. The Morning News. May-June, 4-7. Jenison, MI: Jenison Public Schools.
  • Gray, C. (1991b). On Chances and pit bull terriers. The Morning News. September, 7-8. Jenison, MI: Jenison Public Schools.
  • Gray, C. (1991c). Social stories. The Morning News. November-December, 1991. Jenison, MI: Jenison Public Schools.
  • Gray, C. (1991d). The road to independence is lined with people. The Morning News. January, 1-3. Jenison, MI: Jenison Public Schools.
  • Gray, C. (1991e). To the people of our mailing list: Thank you. The Morning News. September, pp. 3-4. Jenison, MI: Jenison Public Schools.
  • Gray, C. (1992a). 150 ways to describe life. The Morning News. September-October. Jenison, MI: Jenison Public Schools.
  • Gray, C. (1992b). How to write Social Stories. Jenison, MI: Jenison Public Schools.
  • Gray, C., Broek, E., Cain, S. L., Dutkiewicz, M., Fleck, C., Gray, B., Gray, J., Jonker, S., Lindrup, A., & Moore, L. (Eds.). (1993). The social story book. Jenison, MI: Jenison Public Schools.
  • Gray, C. & Garand, J. (1993). Social Stories: Improving responses of students with autism with accurate social information. Focus on Autistic Behavior. 8:1, pp. 1-10.