Using social stories to prepare kids for a hospital stay

Heading to hospital for the first time can be daunting. We look at whether using a social story can help prepare your kids for this new experience and calm their fears.

Heading to hospital for the first time can be daunting for both kids and adults alike. For parents of kids with autism, that first visit to hospital can be an especially tough experience. 

Combining a change in routine with a new place and the fear of the unknown, a visit to hospital can be deeply upsetting for autistic children and their families.

However, using a social story can be an effective way to help prepare your child for a new experience, such as a visit to hospital.

What is a social story?

A social story lays out what will happen through text and pictures. Social stories have been used since the 1990s to help kids on the autism spectrum prepare for new experiences. 

A social story for autism will usually contain:

  • simple text explaining what will happen
  • pictures showing what they may see and do
  • directions for how they should behave
  • ideas on how they can calm themselves during the experience.

Social stories can be used in a variety of situations, such as starting school, heading on holidays or visiting hospital for the first time. By providing concrete answers to common questions, social stories reassure kids and makes the thought of a new experience, such as heading to hospital, a little less scary.  

How do you put together a social story?

Effective social stories for kids should contain the following elements:

  • Answers to common questions about the new experience (why, what, where, when, how and who). 
  • Specific details to guide the child through the situation, using language they will understand.
  • Suggestions on what to do if the child feels anxious or unsure, such as squeezing a toy for comfort. 
  • Examples of expected behaviours to follow, such as waiting quietly for your turn.
  • Positive reinforcement to encourage the child to meet these behaviours, such as stating how proud you’ll be if they allow nursing staff to check on them. 
Child patient making a draw in the hospital room

How should you use a social story?

You should share the story with your child several times before the new experience to ensure they are as prepared as possible. The key to using a social story is repetition.
If they’re old enough, let your child read the story themselves. Load the story as a pdf on their device so it’s easy to access, wherever you are.

Remember to be positive. Social stories for kids should always emphasise expected behaviour and should not focus on negative aspects of the new situation.

My Visit to Hospital Social Story

Bupa partnered with St Vincent’s Private Hospital and Amaze to create a handy social story for kids visiting the hospital for day procedures. Claire Hewitt, from St Vincent’s, explains the social story came about as a suggestion from one of their staff.  

“Everyone agreed it was a fantastic idea and would be a huge help to our smallest patients and their parents and carers,” Claire says. “When children understand what is happening, they are less anxious and that makes their visit to hospital much more pleasant.” 

St Vincent’s has also ensured the social story is easily accessible throughout the hospital. “The social story has been presented to our paediatricians, so the patient can learn about the social story from the moment the surgeon books them in for their procedure. Our nursing staff on the ward have (also) been involved at all levels of the production of the social story,” Claire says.

Feedback from patients has been overwhelmingly positive so far, with families, “thrilled to have such a simple and effective way to prepare for a visit to the hospital.”

You can access the My Visit to Hospital Social Story in article or video versions. There’s also a parent resource available, to guide you in using the social story. 

With some planning and preparation, that next visit to hospital may not be as daunting as you fear.
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