Can ‘Social Thinking’ Principles Change How We Approach Autism?

Can Social Thinking Principles Change How We Approach Autism

Takeaway: ‘Social thinking’ guides how we interact with people. And it’s much more universal than ‘social skills,’ which change from context to context. So, teaching children with autism how to think socially will give them a new framework to understand the people around them. And this can make socialising less stressful experience. 

‘Social thinking’ lies at the heart of every human interaction.

When interacting with people, we’re constantly trying to figure out what they think, feel, value, and believe. And we change how we behave, accordingly. For example, we might be angry with a friend but choose to stay calm because we see they’re hurting. Here, it might feel better to vent our frustrations, but we remember our larger social goal – i.e., to nurture our friendship and prioritise our friend’s feelings. And that’s the essence of social thinking. It’s about making decisions based on the combined needs of ourselves and the people around us. And we’re always doing this, even when we’re not actually interacting with anyone. For example, we seamlessly join the queue at a cafe without negotiating with other customers. I.e., we know the social rules in that situation, and we follow them.

But there’s a difference between ‘social thinking’ and ‘social skills.’

Social thinking refers to a larger framework that guides our interaction with others. Social skills are simple tactics we use, guided by our social thinking framework. In our earlier example about friendship, we were thinking socially by considering our friend’s feelings before acting on our frustrations. And this was a deliberate choice for which we had to be mindful of our thoughts and emotions, recognise our current social goals, and control our impulses accordingly. It’s only after this that we’d use our social skills to take action – perhaps putting an arm around our friend or saying a few carefully-chosen, comforting words.

So, ‘social thinking’ training helps children more than just teaching them social skills.

Social skills change rapidly based on things like how old we are, who we’re with, and what our culture encourages. For example, a five-year-old might simply say ‘Hi’ to her friends before playing, while a 15-year-old with her friends will likely offer a more extended initial greeting. And yes, this means the teenager has more refined social skills. But they both use their respective social skills within a similar social thinking framework. So, if children get this social thinking framework right, they’ll find it much easier to pick up (or improvise) social skills.

This social thinking vs social skills issue is very relevant to children with autism.

Autism is a developmental difference that changes how a child engages with the world around her. Typically, this means she’ll find it harder to get along with people, adapt to change, and deal with sensory overload (noise, bright lights, etc.) – although these traits can vary from child to child. (Learn more about autism spectrum disorder.) Autism’s social component is particularly hard on children, leaving them feeling isolated. Since they struggle to notice and decode non-verbal signals like body language and facial expressions, they miss out on essential subtexts in social situations. (For instance, they might miss the frown on a friend’s face that says she’s annoyed they’re breaking the game’s rules.) Traditionally, we’d help by teaching children specific social skills like taking turns while playing, sharing their toys, or making eye contact when talking. And we’d model good behaviour, roleplay different scenarios, and reward/praise their efforts. But perhaps there’s another way of approaching this.

A social thinking approach to autism redefines the challenge we’re trying to solve.

Michelle Garcia Winner is the speech and language therapist who coined the term ‘social thinking.’ When her students with high-functioning autism claimed they didn’t care about social skills or making friends, she asked them a simple question: “Do people think about you when you sit in class and you’re not talking?” Guess what their reply was? They said, “No. No one thinks about me if I’m not talking.” Imagine trying to teach them social etiquette when they haven’t yet embraced their social identity (i.e., that they exist socially even if they’re not the focus of attention)? That’s why a social thinking approach redefines our challenge. We need to teach children the underlying truths of our social world before attempting social skills training.

As our first step, we’ll need to teach children a new social thinking vocabulary.

What we need are actionable steps that children can test and practise. And this requires teaching them a new social thinking vocabulary. For example, we usually teach children with autism to ‘make eye contact’ while talking. But this can seem quite pointless to a child who isn’t yet interested in the social world. Instead, using the term ‘think with your eyes,’ reframes the situation entirely. It implies that eye contact will help them pick up extra information about their conversation partner. And crucially, that this extra information will refine how they think about and interpret what’s happening to them. Suddenly, eye contact becomes an exciting new thinking tool rather than just an arbitrary social chore.

We’ll also need to help children map social behaviour.

With social behaviour mapping, we’re teaching a child to see how actions and feelings are connected. Specifically, how our actions can change other people’s thoughts and feelings, which then changes how they treat us. For example, here’s a sample behaviour map (to be drawn out like a flowchart) related to anger: “If I kick a chair in frustration, it will upset my friends, making them use their ‘angry voice,’ which will make me feel more upset. Instead, if I tell them why I’m angry, they might comfort me with their ‘friendly voice,’ which will make me feel calm.” By laying out cause and effect like this, we’re showing children how the social world works and why it’s worth understanding.

Of course, how we apply social thinking techniques will depend on your child’s needs.

Since autism comes with a spectrum of traits, we’ll need to select our teaching techniques based on your child’s specific needs. So, if you’d like to explore how social-thinking education can help your child, feel free to get in touch with us. At The Ed Psych Practice, we offer face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

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