The ILAUGH Model of Social Thinking

Core Social Cognitive Challenges: The ILAUGH Model

Michelle Garcia Winner developed the ILAUGH Framework of social cognition to explain the multiple skills and concepts that we must process and react to in order to succeed at social interaction and personal problem solving. Each of these elements of social cognition affects not only our ability to make and keep friends, but also our ability to process complex information in the classroom and the workplace. The ILAUGH Model is evidence-based in that each aspect of it has been researched and defined as a trait of persons with social relatedness issues. A brief summary of the ILAUGH framework follows:

I = Initiation of Communication (Kranz & McClannahan, 1993)
Initiation of communication is the ability to use one’s language skills to establish social relations and to seek assistance or information from others. Many students with autism spectrum disorders have significant problems initiating communication in stressful situations or when information is not easily understood. Language retrieval is difficult in anything other than calm, secure situations. Even within the higher functioning population with autism spectrum disorders, the student’s ability to talk about a favorite topic of interest can exist in sharp contrast to how that student communicates when needing help or when attempting to gain social entry into peer groups. Yet, these two skills – asking for help and understanding how to join a group for functional or personal interaction - are paramount for any student’s future success.

L= Listening With Eyes and Brain (Mundy & Crowson, 1997; Kunce and Mesibov, 1998; Jones & Carr, 2004)
Many persons with autism spectrum disorders and other social cognitive deficits have difficulty with auditory comprehension. From a social perspective, listening requires more than just taking in auditory information. It also requires the person to integrate information seen with that which is heard, to understand the full meaning of the message being conveyed, or to make an educated guess about what is being said when one cannot clearly understand it. For example, classroom teachers expect students to “listen with their eyes” when they point to information that is part of the instruction. They also indicate to whom they are speaking in a class, not by calling the student’s name but instead by looking at the student or moving closer. Students repeatedly relate to their peers through nonverbal cues, ranging from rolled eyes to signal boredom, to raised eyebrows to indicate questioning, to gazing at a particular item to direct a peer’s attention. Clearly to “listen with one’s eyes” requires students to have mastered the concept of joint attention – a skill that seems to effortlessly develop by the time a child is 12 months to 15 months old in neurotypical children, but may be missing from the social repertoire of the student with autism spectrum disorders, ADHD and similar challenges. Instruction in this essential and fundamental function of social interaction begins with teaching students that eyes share social information. Not all students understand this concept, nor do they grasp that listening requires full attention to both verbal and nonverbal cues. It can then expand to teaching students to relate to each other’s thoughts through play and other activities of social relatedness, followed by extending the student’s realm to attending to and processing increasingly complex cues that help students “listen with their whole bodies.”

A = Abstract and Inferential Language/Communication (Minshew, Goldstein, Muenz & Payton, 1992)
Most of the language we use is not intended for literal interpretation. Our communication is peppered with idioms, metaphors, sarcasm and inferences. Societies around the world bestow awards to writers, and even comedians, who are most creative with language. Each generation of teens creates its own slang; kids who follow along are in; those who don’t, are often out. Advertising and other forms of mass media follow these cues. The abstract and inferential component of communication is huge and constantly in flux. It is a mistake to assume that our students with social thinking deficits understand our society’s non-literal use of language. In fact, most of them don’t! Literal interpretation of language is a hallmark characteristic of individuals with ASD. Yet, as educators and parents, we either miss this impairment entirely – thinking our smart kids must understand our nuanced communication - or we address it in the briefest of ways, with instruction dedicated only to explaining idioms, irony and metaphors as part of English class.

Accurate comprehension of a communicative message depends first on the basic recognition that two codes of language exist: literal and figurative. It also involves recognizing and interpreting both the verbal words and the nonverbal cues that accompany them. It requires an individual to place the communication within the context of the social and cultural environment within which it occurs. Furthermore, the listener must take into consideration any prior knowledge or history involved and the possible motives of the person initiating the message. Finally, emotional maturity and social development factor into how well a person interprets what is being said.

Active interpretation of the motives and intentions of others emerges in the first year of life and expands in complexity thereafter. Children learn that mom’s tone of voice speaks volumes and that attention to only her words can miss much of her message. As children grow developmentally, they understand that message interpretation depends heavily on one’s ability to “make a smart guess” based on past experiences, what they know (or don’t know) about the current person and situation and the communication clues available. Language users assume their communicative partners are trying to figure out their messages. By third grade, neurotypical students understand that we are to infer meaning rather than expect it to be coded literally.

Abstract and inferential language comprehension appears to be directly tied to a person’s ability to quickly and flexibly discern the different thoughts, perceptions and motives of other people – in essence to “read the mind” of another from a social perspective.

For example, a 17 year-old teenager with high-functioning autism was visiting this author at her house. When the author tried to strike up a conversation with the teenager by saying to him, “I hear you are in the school choir”, the teen responded with, “No, I am in your house.” This is not sarcasm, but literal language interpretation.

Students who fail to expeditiously interpret the abstract/inferential meaning of language also struggle with academic tasks such as reading comprehension, especially that which requires interpreting a character’s thoughts and actions based on the context of the story and what one understands about the character’s history and motives. Without the benefit of real-world experience, these students are unable to imagine how characters might think, feel and act within the story.

U = Understanding Perspective (Baron-Cohen & Jolliffe, 1997; Baron-Cohen, 2000)
To understand the differing perspectives of others requires that one’s Theory of Mind (perspective taking) work quickly and efficiently. Most neurotypical students acquire a solid foundation in ToM between the ages of 4 to 6 years old. Perspective taking is not one thing, it represents many things happening all at once meaning it is a synergistic and dynamic process. A definition of perspective taking can include the ability to consider your own and others:

  • Thoughts
  • Emotions
  • Physically coded intentions
  • Language based intentions
  • Prior knowledge and experiences
  • Belief systems
  • Personality
  • While considering all of this with regards to the specific situation being considered.

Perspective taking is required any time you are in the presence of other people, even when you are not talking to them. Responding to another person’s perspective while communicating with them requires you do all of the above in relative light-speed, processing and responding your own as well as other’s thoughts within milliseconds to two seconds. The process can be overwhelming to those with social learning challenges, even if they are very bright.

The ability to take perspective is key to participation in any type of group (social or academic) as well as interpreting information that requires understanding of other people’s minds, such as reading comprehension, history, social studies, etc. Weakness in perspective taking is a significant aspect of ASD and other social cognitive deficits. However, like all other concepts explored in the ILAUGH model, one’s ability to take perspective is not a black or white matter. There is a vast range of perspective taking skills across the autism spectrum (Winner, 2004)

G=Gestalt Processing/Getting the Big Picture
(Shah & Frith, 1993; Fullerton, Stratton, Coyne & Gray, 1996)

Information is conveyed through concepts, not just facts. When involved in conversation, the participants intuitively determine the underlying concept being discussed. When reading a book of literature, the purpose is to follow the overall meaning (concept) rather than just collect a series of facts. Conceptual processing is a key component to understanding social and academic information. Difficulty developing organizational strategies cannot be isolated from conceptual processing. Students with conceptual processing challenges often have difficulties with written expression, organizational skills, time management and being overly tangential in their social relations. (All of these concepts require us to stay focused on a central theme or main idea and to keep our writing, discussions or planning focused to this central point. Many of our folks struggle with this, over-focusing on details and not focusing in the concept (an intuitive skills for neurotypicals).

H= Humor and Human Relatedness (Gutstein, 2001; Greenspan, & Wieder, 2003; Prizant, Wetherby, Rubin, Laurent & Rydell, 2006)
Most individuals with autism spectrum disorders, Asperger’s and similar challenges have good senses of humor, but they feel anxious since they miss many of the subtle cues that help them understand how to participate successfully with others. It is important for educators and parents to work compassionately and with humor to help minimize the anxiety these children are experiencing. At the same time, many of our clients use humor inappropriately; direct lessons about this topic are needed and relevant.

Human relatedness - the ability to bond emotionally with others - is at the heart of human social relationships and the fuller development of empathy and emotional regulation. Teaching students how to relate and respond to other people’s emotions as well as their own, while also helping them feel the enjoyment that arises through mutual sharing, is critical to the development of all other aspects of social development.

Books related to the above discussion include:

  1. Inside Out: What Makes a Person with Social Cognitive Deficits Tick?
  2. Thinking About YOU Thinking About ME, 2nd Edition


Baron-Cohen, S. (1995). Mindblindness. An essay on autism and theory of mind. Massachusetts: Bradford Book, MIT Press.

Baron-Cohen, S. (2000). Theory of mind and autism: a fifteen year review. In S. Baron-Cohen, H. Tager-Flusberg. and D. Cohen (Eds.), Understanding other minds: Perspectives from developmental cognitive neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press.

Baron-Cohen, S., Baldwin, D.A., & Crowson, M. (1997). Do children with autism use the speaker’s direction of gaze strategy to crack the code of language? Child Development, 68, 48-57.

Fullerton, A., Stratton, J., Coyne, P., & Gray, C. (1996). Higher functioning adolescents and young adults with autism. Austin, Texas: Pro-ED, Inc.

Greenspan, S. & Wieder, S. (2003). Engaging Autism: The Floortime Approach to helping children relate, communicate and think. Jackson, TN: Perseus Books.

Gutstein, S.E. (2001). Autism/Aspergers: Solving the relationship puzzle. Arlington, TX: Future Horizons.

Jones, E. &. Carr, E.G. (2004). Joint attention in children with Autism: Theory and intervention. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, 19 (1), 13-26.

Krantz, P. & McClannahan, L. (1993). Teaching children with Autism to initiate to peers: Effects of a script-fading procedure. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 26, 121-132.

Kunce, L. & Mesibov, G. (1998). Educational approaches to High-Functioning Autism and Asperger Syndrome (Chapter 11). In Schopler, E., Mesibov, G. & Kunce, L, Asperger Syndrome or High-Functioning Autism? New York: Plenum Press.

Minshew, N., Goldstein, G., Muenz. L., & Payton, J. (1992). Neuropsychological functioning in non-mentally retarded autistic individuals. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 14, (5), 749-761.

Mundy, P. & Crowson, M. (1997). Joint attention and early social communication: implications for research on intervention with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Vol. 27, No. 6, 653-676.

Prizant, B.; Wetherby, A. & Rydell, P. (2000) Communication Intervention Issues for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Wetherby, A. and Prizant, B (eds) Autism Spectrum Disorders: A transactional Developmental Perspective, Volume 9. Paul H. Brooks Publishing Company, Baltimore, Maryland.

Prizant, B., Wetherby, A., Rubin, E., Laurent, A. & Rydell, P. (2006a). The SCERTS™ Model. A comprehensive educational approach for children with autism spectrum disorders. Volume II Program Planning and Intervention. Maryland: Brookes Publishing.

Prizant, B., Wetherby, A., Rubin, E., Laurent, A. & Rydell, P. (2006b). The SCERTS™ Model. A comprehensive educational approach for children with autism spectrum disorders. Volume 1, Assessment. Maryland: Brookes Publishing.

Shah, A. & Frith, U. (1993). Why do autistic individuals show superior performance on the block design task? Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 34, (8), 1351-1364.

©2012 Social Thinking Publishing - Michelle Garcia Winner