Using Photos and Videos to Create Social Stories

A haircut can be a scary experience for a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Getting to know what happens during one will help make them less scared of the event and feel more in control, which everyone deserves!

Visual tools are great ways to help children on the spectrum learn what to expect during new or often overwhelming situations. That being said, looking at the two photos below, which do you think would be more easily understood by a child with autism? I can only predict you chose the photo of the actual child receiving a real haircut in a real salon.

When my son was about two years old, I went to a workshop on using visual aides with children in early intervention. Early intervention is the time between birth and three for children with developmental delays.

The workshop presenters provided all the attendees with multiple social stories using the above clip art. Social stories are visual aides created to help support a person with autism in social situations or new experiences.

During the workshop, I thought my son, who is non-verbal, has severe receptive language delays, impulsivity, and inattentiveness, will not grasp meaning from those abstract images. I couldn’t even make out what some of the images were. The people looked like either egg heads or stick figures. However, I did love the concept. I decided to tweak the idea and use what I knew would work, actual pictures and videos of him.

Most toddlers and preschoolers love to see themselves! They love to look at their reflection in a mirror and flip through photos and videos of themselves on their parents’ phones. But also using their own images and videos in a social story places them in the exact setting you are hoping to help them be successful.

I knew exactly the first topic I’d address in a social story. Haircuts for Barclay were sensory overload. My husband and I would have to pin him down. I felt so bad for him because each one ended in a total meltdown, and after, he’d be exhausted, and I mentally drained. I also felt terrible for the stylist and every other person within a 100-mile radius. I was hopeful a social story would help.

I taught video production for ten years, so I have some experience, but even beginners can create simple videos. Programs like iMovie (which is free on your iMac and is also an inexpensive app for your phone) or my preferred PC program, Wondershare Filmora, are very user-friendly. 

We have been using the social story for about six months. I paired the video with a reinforcer. The level of difficulty during hair cuts went from a 10 to a 2! Here’s the thing to remember, he still is super uncomfortable getting his hair cut, but he is MOTIVATED to try harder to comply. Sensory issues are his reality, but the social story has helped him manage them more successfully.

Steps to Create a Video Social Story

 1. Select the Topic

Think about what situations your child really struggles in and how often it arises.  I chose the hair cut because he goes monthly, and it is so unpleasant for him.  Your child may struggle going out to dinner or to the doctor.  It also is polite to call ahead and ask the business or office if it’s okay if you record video.  My hairstylist appreciated being asked ahead of time.

2. Bring Help 

When I made the appointment for the haircut, I knew I’d be recording video and taking photos, so I made sure to bring my husband.  I’d be too busy to help the stylist.

3. What to Record

Take still pictures and videos of the entrance to the building.  If it’s an office, like a dentist, take photographs and video of your child in the waiting room, playing with the toys if there are any, and a sitting in a chair.  During the visit, take tons of video and photos.  Even if your child isn’t cooperative, keep recording, you’ll edit those portions out.  The day I recorded Barclay’s haircut video was pretty challenging. But I had enough footage recorded, I could piece together what looked like a successful visit.

4. Have a Reinforcer Selected Ahead of Time

This is probably THE MOST IMPORTANT thing.  At the salon where Barclay gets his hair cut, the reinforcer is built-in.  They have lollipops, and he loves them.  I have resisted the urge so many times to get lollipops as a reinforcer for other things because they work SO well at the salon.  I made sure to get a lot of footage of him enjoying that lollipop.  So maybe your reinforcer is the goodie box at the dentist or the cookie at the grocery store.  It needs to be something consistent and not over-used, so it’s highly motivating to them.  You may have to bring the reinforcer with you, such as a highly motivating snack or toy.

5. Editing Your Video 

You’ll upload all your footage to your editing program.  Try to keep it chronological.  Use videos and photos to tell the story.  Edit out portions of the video where your child is in distress or non-compliant.  I also think it is essential for you to do a voice-over.  Your voice is calming to your child.  Talk to them through the event.  Compliment them often.  Use happy background music.  I made a YouTube channel to upload all of Barclay’s social stories.  It’s free and super easy to do.

6. When to Use the Video

I suggest only using the video the day of the event or appointment.  If you show it to them days in advance, they may want the reinforcer.  I found that out with my son!  I showed him the Haircut Social Story video on a day he wasn’t getting a haircut, and he wanted a lollipop badly!  So limit viewing for the day-of. Show it before, on the way there, while waiting, during, and again after.

I hope this was helpful! Below you can enjoy watching “Barclay Gets a Haircut!”

Published by

Amy Nielsen

Amy Nielsen is a former children's librarian of nearly twenty years. She now spends most of her time obsessively pounding on a keyboard. She is the author of It Takes a Village: How to Build a Support System for Your Exceptional Needs Family, Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her upcoming YA Worth it debuts in May of 2024. She is also a freelance writer for The Autism Helper. When she's not writing, she and her family are most likely crusing the waters of Tampa Bay.

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