Developing Smart, Simple Social Stories Apps for Kids With Autism

Note: This post has been updated.

All I want for Leo and his also-autistic friends is a simple, smart, well-designed social stories app for around $3.99. But as of now, it doesn't exist. I don't understand why it doesn't exist.

Social stories are incredibly useful tools for folks like Leo: they use clear, focused language and pictures to help an autistic person better understand potentially stressful scenarios, and provide realistic expectations and options. They can be especially helpful for travel, holidays, establishing routines, transitions, or visits to new and unfamiliar places.

We used to make custom social story books for Leo, sometimes through iPhoto or Shutterfly, sometimes just a bunch of printed pages stapled together. But with iDevices and tablets, we now have social stories apps -- which take the social story concept one step farther, with voiceover. On his iPad, my pre-reader Leo can "read" his social stories independently. It's really damn cool, not to mention empowering.

Here's a iPad story we made for Leo two summers ago, detailing one of our family's weekly routines:

Great, right? Absolutely. But you know what is not great and has long made me grumble? The featured app, Stories2Learn, costs $13.99. Its competitor, Pictello, costs $18.99. [updated to add: Pictello features text-to-speech, which is very different than simple voiceover recording, and affects the price point considerably. For more info, see comments.] Similar apps -- like the special education-oriented, custom-content and voiceover-enabled Word SLaPps and Injini's Write My Name -- are $4.99 and $1.99* respectively. Why the price differences? Some of the higher-priced apps are more complicated than the lower-priced apps, but not all. What explanation, then, other than that ever-lingering special needs penalty cost?

With the front-runner social story apps offering more features than many users require, and costing more than many users are used to paying, there's an opportunity for someone else to capture a large, under-served, enthusiastic, loyal, and value-conscious audience. So, what should a potential social stories app developer keep in mind?

To work for Leo and his friends, here are the only functions a social stories app needs:
  1. Create/edit story button on home page
  2. Upload photos
  3. Enter custom text
  4. Record voiceover
  5. Page through stories by swiping and/or tapping a button/arrow
  6. Save stories as graphic icons with text titles, in list or folder format, and place them on the home page.
  7. (Optional) Share/upload stories, e.g., to use at school and at home
The interface needs to be smart and simple, in terms of available choices and steps. Any features more elaborate than the list above could be superfluous and confusing -- I just want to make the stories, and Leo just wants to read them. Though a discreet info button for parents/educators/caregivers/authors also wouldn't hurt, in terms of advising about language to use -- short, action-oriented phrases, if-then statements, avoiding pronouns, etc.

Potential developers should look at the striking UIs and graphics of (again) Injini, a company that is in my opinion the industry standard-bearer for simple, elegant, engaging, thoughtful, useful, special needs-friendly kids' app design. Honestly, I'd love to see what Injini could do with a social stories app -- especially as there's no reason the app would need to be limited to the special needs market. Developers could make an app called "My Stories About Me" or some such, and parallel-market it to families of toddlers and preschoolers as a way to connect with family and friend by making stories together or for each other, which would have the extra benefit/hook of reinforcing those reading skills.

I know that folks like Russ Ewell and Pamela Sloan-Bradbury are looking into developing social stories apps. They both participated in  October's Hacking Autism event, where we all observed not one but two groups focusing on social stories -- so I suspect Pamela and Russ are already on the right track, and I have faith they'll do the right thing. I just want them to do it faster!

I want a well-designed, affordable social stories app for Leo, and I want it now. I hope someone will step up.


And speaking of social stories apps ... you know what I never want to see again? I never want to see a developer make a choice that completely disregards their users' needs. I'm looking at you, Stories2Learn. Your software upgrade obliterated all of Leo's beloved social stories without warning, stories we'd spent months creating, stories that he returned to for comfort and reassurance and nostalgia on a near-daily basis.

I can recreate those stories somewhat, but as Leo has remarkable visual recall and super-precise hearing, he can tell that the new stories are not the same -- especially as some of the original stories' voiceovers were recorded by non-local visiting friends and relatives so Leo wouldn't miss them so much once they went home.

It's been a few months since the stories disappeared, and I am no less furious than I was upon first discovering they were gone -- especially since Leo is still plaintively paging through the Photos folder where the original social stories apps photos are kept, hoping they'll somehow magically reassemble into the stories he'll never be able to experience again, and misses so much.

I understand that it is not always possible to keep all original features and content when developers upgrade apps -- I'm a former software producer, so I've been in that position myself. But then I didn't make software specifically for kids like Leo, who have so few tools for creating routine and predictability; I didn't wrench away some of those kids' best tools for making sense of this utterly confusing and overwhelming world. Leo and his social stories-loving peers aren't interested in or in some cases aren't able to conceptualize the explanations why their social stories disappeared, they just know that their stories are gone, and they're devastated.

It was a bad choice to let the Stories2Learn upgrade delete existing social stories. A bad decision not just for financial reasons -- customers may have a hard time trusting you again -- but for compassionate ones. I am extremely disappointed.


*Please note that app prices change all the time. These prices are accurate as of today.


  1. Janice8:42 PM

    Check out book creator. I made two social stories today. I added personal photos easily. I did not need voice over, but just checked and it does offer a recording option. I found it easy to use. No instruction about social stories per se, but I referred to Carol Gray's book for that info.

  2. Thanks Janice. Can you provide a link to the app you're using? There are several apps called Book Creator - iBook Creator, eBook Creator, etc. Appreciated!

  3. As one of the developers behind Pictello I would like to respond to the price complained. There are several reasons why Pictello is not $3.99:

    1. Apple takes a 30% cut

    2. We include high quality text-to-speech voices so that people who can read and write but cannot speak can also make their own stories and so that others do not have to record their own voice if they do not want to. Pictello users can download and use 50 natural-sounding voices of 23 languages/dialects free of charge. We need to figure the license fees for the voices into the costs of the app.

    3. After we have paid Apple and the voices, we need to cover our ongoing development costs (everyone wants free updates don't they), including a graphic designer, our own time, software engineers and software testers (everyone wants error free, reliable and stable products).

    4. We need to pay thousands of dollars to translate and localize the product and key documentation into several languages to also serve non-English speakers.

    5. We also need to cover marketing costs (such as showing it at trade shows).

    6. We need to provide good training materials and documentation and good and quick technical support by email and on Facebook. For that we need to pay our support staff.

    7. To stay in business and to be able to continue to improve the product (to benefit our users) we need to, after a year or two, break even in costs and make some profit to re-invest in new products.

    8. Even though Pictello is a well liked, highly rated and reasonably selling application, we have not been able to recoup development costs at the original price of $15 and after a year had to raise the price to $19. At the new price we have a reasonable change to recoup costs as revenues at the new price are higher. Had we lowered the price significantly we would not have had enough extra sales to make up for the lower price but would have had to support more users and thus have had higher support costs.

    So why do some apps costs only $3.99. Typically for two reasons: (1) either they have a much larger market than the special needs population or (2) they are made by hobbyists who often (not always) have lower quality standards and rarely value their own time. Hobbyists do not value their own labor investment and thus count every dollar earned as profit. We cannot do that as we need to pay development and support staff and we could thus never sell a special needs app at that kind of price level.

    I hope this clarifies things a bit.

    David Niemeijer, CEO of AssistiveWare.

  4. Thanks for the explanation, David.

    I'd still like to see a simpler, less expensive social stories app. Perhaps a Pictello Lite?

  5. I am curious what features you would pull from Pictello to create a Pictello Lite. The only thing that could reduce our costs would be to remove the voices (one of its key benefits), but doing so would not suddenly make it a $3.99 app. Most of our costs would stay the same (e.g., can't offer less support on a lite version). Also, maintaining two versions adds to development and support costs.

    Additionally, this could lead to a situation where families choose the lite version to save money, not because it is an appropriate solution.

  6. Understood.

    Pictello -- which is what we're currently using -- has more features than we really need, especially in its extremely robust text-to-speech voice options that go far beyond simple voiceover recording (if I was an educator or speech therapist, I might feel differently).

    It's good to know the explanation behind those features and how they contribute to the app's cost, but I'd still like to see a simpler app -- and so would the users and orgs I talk to and consult with.

    However, as text-to-speech is a very different offering than simple voiceover, I am going to update the post with a correction.

  7. Try "making sequences". I like it cause it is simple, and shows the story, as well as giving my ASD littlies the opportunity to create the sequence themselves

  8. Thanks Heidi.

    I'd also like to address David's comments about price point -- as I mentioned above, there's no reason why a simple social stories app (not the robust, market-specific Pictello) can't be marketed beyond the Special Needs arenas, especially to the early learning market.

    As for Hobbyists -- it is true many app developers are scrappy or small scale; others are inexperienced and become developers because they identify a need. In some of the resulting apps, inexperience shows. That is why I'm asking both existing and potential developers to look to Injini as an example of what elegant, well-designed special needs-accommodating but not necessarily special needs-specific software should look like.

  9. Anonymous7:17 AM

    My kids are older now, but I would certainly have used a photo/voice-over/text over app for the iPad (if it had existed) when my neurotypical children were in the 0-3 year range).

    I'm not an app developer, but this minimal functionalty 1) choose pictures 2) record or type text on to the picture 3) buttons to move through the slide show seem fairly simple.

    Does that not exist in the "slide show" photo app domain?

    (actually, as I write this, my 11 year old shouted out "we never got to do this when we were little kids" as she watched Mali run Leo's social stories app).

    I can easily see this kind of show being used with neurotypical children (I used to make similar things printed out, though that was so tedious it didn't happen very often; I had a paper gallery of people my daughter knew, with their names -- imagine how easy that would be to do on a camera equipped ipad!).

    I hope you find what you're looking for. I also wonder if it would be possible for you to find a student or intern with the right app writing skills to work with directly to produce something appropriate. It would, for example, be a great service learning project for a tech-savvy student. It would recover significant work on your part, but that, in turn, would be an advocacy project for you.


  10. Anonymous7:21 AM

    I have a dream that such home made development can squelch the "special needs penalty cost." I continue to be horrified at the educational software market directed specifically at special needs kids (especially when the research/standards done doesn't justify a higher cost). I think we're really poised to talk about "universal access" (as we've discovered about the value of curb cuts in side walks).

    The social stories app is a universal app that would be of use to many, and also to do those with special needs (and, unlike some tools, it does not require research standards on effectiveness in order to be useful, especially at the $4 price point).


  11. As someone from the Free Software world, I can see a need that it could fill here. First off, I totally understand the Pictello's cost analysis and appreciate his price-point and need to run a business. But here is where I see how Free Software can fit-the-bill by working on software with different incentives. In the Free Software world, people donate time to translate software in different languages, make sound, art work, and other creative works under Free Culture licenses like Creative Commons like Wikipedia and Librevox does. Free Software developers also dont allow anti-features like disallowing backup of you data. So the idea would be to fund a bunch of free software developers to meet your software specifications for an APP. They would require a somewhat large sum to do this but the result of their work would be work a GPL/AGPL/BSD license. If done properly, others could join and fix software defects, add more languages, add better documentation. All of this would be done on a public software repository where anyone could contribute. And if at some point, you wanted more features, you could fund a second version with something like Kickstarer (like the Diaspora project). Now, Free Software, by itself, does not remove the possibilty of software defects, having a product done in a slow manner, poor documentation, a poor user interface or other issues, it just provides a way to allow people to openly collaborate on the software that was designed to meet your needs and does not leave you powerless like traditional software development does. You can hire anyone to work on it and are not locked to one team/company/person because its open. And after you make an app, you can choose the price and feed the profits back to create more features. It wont be easy to find such selfless people to do this, but if you do, it will be great.

  12. Janice7:38 PM


  13. Mel M1:46 PM

    I love the progress that is being made to help children with autism, it's so encouraging! My daughter is struggling to learn basic social behaviors, for example when she wants to get someones attention she throws a rock at them instead of tapping them on the shoulder. I am trying to explain to her with the help of http://onlineceucredit.com/edu/social-work-ceus-pcs the importance of interacting with her peers. I hope you take a look and please Shannon, let me know what you think!

  14. Anonymous3:52 PM

    I just wanted to share some great social story apps that have come available recently by i Get it Apps We started with their app called All About Me Storybook and now the app allows for you to add unlimited pages with information that children need to learn, but they also have social stories that I love because they come with a basic storyline with real photos and you can use that storyline or make your own storyline and pull in your own pictures and text and sound. We just downloaded i See-quence Going to a Restaurant and we programmed two different restaurants that me son likes to go to, along with a separate book for his menu favorites. I initially had a question on adding info in the app and the developer got back to me quickly. Best part is the apps are cheap enough to try out.
    Best to everyone! Tammy

  15. Anonymous7:33 PM


    I think I may have found out why we cannot find social stories on the App Store. For those of you who don't know, Carol Gray is the one who coined the term "social story" and "social stories." Along with that, she trademarked the terms. It reads loud and clear on her webpage that if anyone uses those terms and is selling a social story/stories she can/may take legal action. Therefore, you are taking a risk making an app using those terms. So, who knows what social stories may be under now because of this. There may be good ones out there hidden by another name or title.

  16. HELLO David i hope you can answer this for me please ,i have pictello and i am very happy with it .i have a slight problem which i may have created but i am not sure ,i had 3 stories in the library and i wanted to share them on my other ipad ,soi did back up ,and then i went to do restore from back ,it all went well but when i went to open the stories to hear them ,i clicked on it .the first page came up which is the title of the story ,but no sound and will not go any further .i am not sure if i explained myself well .have you got an idea of what might have happened.i even did it with file sharing but the same thing happened .i am from melbourne and i was at one of your presentations and you taught me a lot in that just one session ,so please come back when you have some time .thank you David

    regards Jane

    PS the update on pro to go was awesome i love working with it now .thanks

  17. I'm one of the developers behind Social Stories, an app designed to do exactly what you're talking about. We are working on the audio update right now and it should be out by the end of the year.

  18. My son is a newly diagnosed 6 year old....seems mist of the apps are for iPads....are there any good ones for Android?

    1. MomsWithApps lets you search for apps by category, including Android: https://knowwhatsinside.com/discover


Respectful disagreement encouraged.