Published Articles

The First Step of Communication: Teaching Thinking Strategies

Autism Asperger's Digest

Originally published by Autism Asperger's Digest Magazine
Column 3: Think Social
May-June 2008 issue
Written by: Michelle Garcia Winner

Last time we discussed the first of the 4 Steps of Communication: Thinking about the person with whom we communicate. In this column we explore concrete strategies related to this step. In future columns we'll tackle the remaining steps of communication: establishing and maintaining a physical presence, thinking with your eyes, and using language to relate to others.

To review, we each engage in relatively unconscious thinking as we consider the people around us. "Why are they near us?" "Are we are going to communicate with them?" "What do I know about this person from the situation we are in?" "What history do I know about his/her life?"

We also draw upon the internal social awareness we have of our own and other people's minds. This includes the shared knowledge we are all expected to have about each other:

  • Understanding that people have unique thoughts based on their own unique experiences.
  • At times people manipulate our thinking by trying to make us think something that is not true.
  • People's thoughts affect their emotions; their feelings affect their thoughts, etc.

Furthermore, as we engage in the communicative process we constantly analyze our own thoughts and the thoughts of others to help us navigate the "social dance" we call communication. Most of us learn this intuitively. However, our students with perspective taking challenges have to learn this information cognitively, through explicit teachings, which is a much slower form of learning.

Add to this the further complication that we are all supposed to engage in the above thinking at light speed (milliseconds to 2 seconds!), since communicative acts are not just skills but skills processed and responded to within less than 3 seconds!

Students on the autism spectrum vary considerably in their functional level and speed of social perspective taking. Some students understand others have thoughts and experiences that differ significantly from theirs, and that different experiences shape people's thoughts differently. Other students have trouble even considering that others have unique thoughts. We can only develop functional treatment when we know their entry level of social knowledge.

Students who use language to communicate, but can't understand people's thoughts, motives, emotions, beliefs, etc. quickly and efficiently are referred to as Emerging Perspective Takers (EPT). Our focus with this group is helping them learn about the process of thinking: that each person has different thoughts; that we have to try and figure out those thoughts; and then we have to adjust our own behavior based on how other people think. We can do that by teaching them the following four levels of social thought. (These should be taught in the order listed).

Winner's 4 Levels of Teaching Social Thought

Level 1: I have thoughts.

Teach the student to be aware of his/her thoughts about other people. Who is behaving? Who is being naughty? Who makes them feel good, who makes them feel bad? Who is following the rules; who is breaking them?

The key to teaching the EPT is to focus on the child and make all lessons relevant to their world. These students can't understand enough about other people's minds to role play, read stories about other people, or otherwise appreciate other people's experiences. At this level, all teaching needs to be student centered, ego centered.

Level 2: Other people have thoughts.

What does that other person think? What does he notice? Does he know who is doing what is expected, and who is breaking the rules? Does he show any feelings about this? Teach the student to make predictions about others: what do you think they like to think about? How do you think they feel? Use comic strip conversations (Carol Gray) to make pictures of what others may be thinking.

Level 3: I can figure out what you are thinking about or what you know.

Watch people's eyes to figure out what they are thinking about, based on what they are looking at. Help the student discern when someone is thinking about him verses another person.

Draw different people (stick figures are A-OK!) and their thought bubbles. For example, draw the student, Mom or Dad, the teacher, and another representing the man who sells popcorn at the movie theater. Create simple scenarios that help the student learn that people have different knowledge based on their different experiences. For example, who knows where the keys to the house are kept? (Student? Mom? Teacher? Popcorn man?) Why does that person know (or not know) that information? Who knows where to find the student's classroom? Why does that person know that? Who knows how to run the theatre popcorn machine? Give the student plenty of chances to work through these situations. For some, understanding may come slowly.

Level 4: I can (and should) adjust my own behavior based on what I think the other person knows.

Again, use visual comic strip characters and thought bubbles. Who should I tell about my family's weekend at the beach? Mom, Dad, my teacher, my classmate? (Answer: The student should tell his teacher and classmate, since his mom and dad were already there.) Why should he tell his teacher/classmate? (Because they were not there.) Help students learn to think about what other people know or don't know before engaging in conversation. This level of awareness also helps develop narrative language.

Adjusting for the IIPT

Students older than 8, who function at a more advanced level of perspective taking, a level I describe as Impaired Interactive Perspective Takers (IIPT), need teaching strategies that focus on learning more about the nuance of social information and social thought. These students are generally quite strong verbally and can readily converse about other people's thinking. However, they still have difficulty adjusting their own behavior based on what other people might be thinking. An array of lessons exist to help this group study and practice social nuance. Some of the foundation concepts to be taught include:

  1. People have thoughts about you all the time, just like you have thoughts about other people all the time. Therefore we have to self-monitor our behavior by considering what people are thinking about us, and adjust as needed.
  2. Our friends are people who make us feel good, so if you want to appear friendly, you have to ask other people questions based on what you remember interests them.
  3. Social rules change with age. It is vital to help students understand ways in which we modify our own behavior as we get older. For example, in elementary school you are taught to apologize to someone you've wronged in some way. But by middle school you have to realize that your "actions speak louder than words" and an apology may not be enough. When working with IIPTs, be sure to spend time discussing the nuance of the social mind, their own observations of others, noticing expected/unexpected social behaviors, etc. Then give students lots of practice modifying their own behavior based on the ways we want people to think about us.

At the heart of social thinking work is creating strategies and a common language to help our students think about the impact their words and actions (or nonactions!) have on others' minds and thinking. Each student is different, and situations that involve real-life experiences will be most meaningful. Hopefully, these discussions, and the ones to come, serve as a launching pad to create your own unique strategies to teach the person in your life to think social!

Find more detailed information on teaching the IIPT and higher level EPT in Thinking About You Thinking About Me, 2nd Edition (Winner, 2007); find lessons to help develop these concepts in Think Social! A Social Thinking Curriculum for School aged Students, 2nd printing (Winner, 2008); learn more about the different levels of perspective taking by reading a free article, "A Spectrum of Perspective Taking" in the philosophy section at