Social Story: Fire Alarms In School

One of the students on my caseload is autistic, and his teacher tells me he has recently developed a fascination with the fire alarms in our school, particularly with the idea of pulling them.  A fellow psychologist suggested I develop a social story for this young man that explains appropriate fire alarm protocol (for lack of a better description).

Social stories (for those of us too lazy to click a link!) are short illustrated stories designed to teach social skills to students with autism (and similar developmental disabilities).  In a social story, the student will see specific behaviors depicted in concrete terms and learn why they are or are not appropriate (e.g., “hitting other people can hurt them”; “we raise our hand when we need to ask a question”).  I was generally familiar with the concept of social stories, but creating my own gave me a new appreciation for the tool, as well as raised more questions than I was able to answer.

At the suggestion of our CST secretary, I decided to illustrate this social story with pictures taken on our campus.  I don’t know if this holds any water, but I’m hopeful that seeing familiar, local images in the social story will make the message a little more tangible to this young man than clip art or random pictures off the Internet.  The story itself is 8 pages long (including cover) and contains 9 images, of which 3 were obtained from the Internet (1 public domain, 2 licensed under Creative Commons).  The remaining 6 I snapped myself over the course of yesterday and today.

In the spirit of Dan’s repeated calls for critique amongst bloggers, I submit to you my first attempt at a social story.  Because I’m a big sensitive crybaby interested in sharing my thought process with you, here are some issues that are yet unresolved in my mind:

  • I had a hard time nailing the language.  Some pages I think are too easy; others, too complex.  I guess appropriateness varies by student, but what little text you see is the result of a number of re-writes, and I’m still not sure I’m entirely happy with the final version.
  • Don’t know if the pictures are concrete enough.  Are they too symbolic, especially the last one?
  • I wanted to keep the tone positive, but also make sure the student understood the consequences of pulling false alarms.  Like the point above, it’s a fine line to walk between not sugarcoating the issue and not making it too scary.
  • The administrative offices picture.  I don’t want the student to think that principal = trouble, but…
  • I don’t know if the last page is so contradictory as to be confusing to the target audience.
  • I didn’t feel the need to include a page of photo credits in the version I’m giving to the student, nor did I black out the face of the administrator who graciously agreed to pose for me.  This is the “public” version of the document, so I can attribute my photos properly and not put someone’s face on the Internet who never agreed to it.

OK, without further avoidance ado, I present:

Fire Alarms in School – Apace of Change


  • Without having any expertise with the audience for which your social story is intended, on the face of it, I believe the story is clear and concise. Additionally, I find neither the photo re: the principal’s office nor the last contradictory. Why do you believe the last photo is contradictory?

    MarcyWebb’s last blog post..Films in the Spanish Classroom: Real Women Have Curves

  • Thanks, Marcy. I guess I was just concerned about sending a mixed message with the words and the pictures – the picture says, “don’t pull fire alarms”, but the text says, “only pull fire alarms when there is a fire”. For most folks it’s pretty self-explanatory, but I’m not sure if an autistic student would make the same connection.

    All students are individuals, though, so maybe it’s less an issue of autistic v. not autistic and more to do with how each individual kid will interpret it.

    Damian’s last blog post..Social Story: Fire Alarms In School

  • Oh, and in case I wasn’t clear, I don’t think the picture of the principal is contradictory – I just didn’t want to make the student think that the principal is a “bad guy” or someone to be feared, just that that is a consequence of pulling the alarm.

    I found it difficult to convey the complexities of human relationship dynamics in short, basic sentences and concrete terms. I think there’s a lesson to be learned here…

    Damian’s last blog post..Social Story: Fire Alarms In School

  • I have had a high school student with down syndrome pull the fire alarm twice and was arrested but the social story really helped him. I personalized it more by using the word “I” as if he was telling the story. That tells him that the story is about him instead of someone else. Statements like “Fire alarms tell me that there may be a fire and I need to leave the building”, “I don’t pull the fire alarm unless there is a real fire”, “If I pull the alarm when there is no fire, the fire department may not come next time because they won’t believe me.” I’m not sure what age group you are teaching but if it is an older student I would also put in a page that causing false alarms is against the law (I could get arrested if I pull the fire alarm when there isn’t a fire). Many autistic students see things as black or white and this definite statement may help the student know that it is wrong. Good luck with your student.

  • Ooh, good suggestions; thanks. I like the first-person and legal elements – I work in a high school, so I think your suggestions are certainly age-appropriate. I will make some changes before I print and give to the student.

    Thanks Pat!

    Damian’s last blog post..Social Story: Fire Alarms In School

  • I was going to second Pat’s suggestion to include an “I’ statement. Perhaps include the student’s name … “The principal said, ‘John, If you pull the fire alarm then … ‘ “.

    Find a way to make them own the situation.

    I had to write social stories for a class. It was much, much harder than I thought it would be. I like that you didn’t use clip art, but instead used pictures of scenes from the student’s everyday life. I think that will help.

    Jackie Ballarini’s last blog post..Reviewing

  • I think the social story you’ve created is really quite good. I think the images from the school will add familiarity to the situation and they do a nice job of illuminating the ideas you’re trying to get across.

    I think the inclusion of the possible legal consequences are a good idea as well, since I think it’s pretty important that the student realize that pulling a fire alarm isn’t just against the school rules, it’s against the laws of the land. In that vein, the only thing I might add is something about how pulling fire alarms anywhere is a no-no, not just at school.

    Nice work!

    Ben Wildeboer’s last blog post..Creating stories in chemistry

  • My contribution would be similar to those above…most social stories I’ve seen have been not just first-person, but personalized. The first line of the story i typically “My name is ___________.” That might be followed by a related detail, such as “I go to _____________ school.”For autistic students, the point of the story is to help them internalize the message, and since they can have difficulty with seeing things from other perspectives, the more personalized the story, the better.

    Dan Callahan’s last blog post..This week’s comments elsewhere (weekly)

  • Hey, thanks for all the ideas, everyone. I added a page about legal consequences and put as much of the text into first-person as possible.

    Dan, great idea about adding information about the student; I will definitely consider utilizing that on my next social story.

    I uploaded the revised version here:

    Edit: I took it down because I realized I forgot to black out the administrator’s face again. I’ll get it up again once I get a chance to make that edit.

  • Hey Damien! Great story…I love writing social stories….I do them for a lot of students I work with. Have you ever watched Carol Grey’s training on how to write them? It’s about 4 hours or so long…a bit boring but it definitely helped me! My only suggestion is the same as someone else’s….Carol stressed using all “I” statements and including pictures of the student actually performing whatever positive social act it is….maybe a picture of him waiting in line at the fire drill? The only other thing is she always ends with a positive “can do” or “will try” statement….something like “Now that I know the rules about fire alarms, I will try to follow them when I am in school. I can do it!” Something like that 🙂

  • Thanks, Whitney. I like the idea of closing with a positive statement; that was really the only part of my final product I was dissatisfied with, but I couldn’t think of another way to end it.

    I’ll be keeping your and Dan’s ideas in mind for the next story I write; seems I’ve got the middle part down pat, but you guys gave some excellent suggestions for the beginning and end of the next one.

  • […] Social Story: Fire Alarms In School | Apace of Change […]

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