Treatment: Teaching Social Thinking and Related skills is Different from Teaching Social Skills

Social thinking develops the basis and motivation required before social skills advancement

Michelle's work is targeted for the individual who has near normal to way above normal verbal intelligence and has relatively strong to excellent receptive expressive language. These students tend to be described as functioning on the higher end of the autism spectrum, which includes Asperger Syndrome, PDD-NOS, high functioning autism, and like disabilities.

Why not just teach these students and adults social skills?
Unlike those who are lower or moderate functioning on the autism spectrum, persons who are "higher functioning" are able to engage in more explicit meta-cognitive learning (thinking about thinking). As Michelle worked with these higher functioning students over the years, she noticed that they had awareness and thoughts about what was going on around them. Although their interpretations were weak or inaccurate, they were actively trying to figure out how to cope in the confusing, fast-paced world of social relations.

Furthermore, she recognized that these students and adults, as bright as many were, were not as "bright” with regards to social intelligence. We, their teachers, parents and friends assumed they had far greater understanding of the social world than they did. For example, they did not understand that "eye balls show gaze direction," nor did they understand that by looking at people's eyes, they could figure out what someone might be thinking about. This "joint attention" normally develops in infants between 9-12 months of age! Other students did realize how to "read" people's eyes but did not understand how to use that information to communicate nonverbally with them (e.g. if you look at a waiter in a restaurant you get his attention).

Traditionally, we have attempted to teach students how to use their eyes better by simply telling them to "use eye-contact." However, it quickly became apparent to Michelle that students with abstract learning challenges were not figuring out intuitively that eye contact has deeper social meaning. Thus, she set out to teach this, and a wide array of other lessons, in an effort to explain to her students how people "think about what people think."

This teaching technique goes deeper than teaching a social behavioral response pattern. It is based on the understanding that people's social behaviors stem from intuitive social knowledge acquired since infancy, knowledge that our students did NOT intuitively learn in depth and complexity.

Key to the treatment of social thinking challenges are Michelle’s “Four Steps of Perspective Taking” and “Four Steps of Communication”. These, used along with the ILAUGH model set a platform for the development of social knowledge and better social responses.

To help students learn the inner language of social thought, Michelle developed a "social thinking vocabulary" to help adults and students explicitly discuss social concepts. Michelle realized that we don't have a vocabulary for talking about social expectations in an explicit manner. Instead, we simply expect people to be socially appropriate. At best in our cultures, we explain to students that they should "respect, cooperate and negotiate" with others. However, when one stops to ponder these terms, one realizes they are difficult to define. When a student is told to be more "respectful," he or she cannot interpret what they are actually supposed to do behaviorally.

When using the "social thinking vocabulary," however, students learn exactly what is expected and better yet, teachers and caregivers learn how to explain it to them. Some examples of social thinking vocabulary include:

  • "Think with your eyes" instead of teaching just the behavioral expectation of “use eye-contact;”
  • "Keep your body and eyes in the group" instead of saying "pay attention;" and
  • Make a “smart guess” rather than a “wacky guess" rather than saying "predict."

Michelle's groundbreaking treatment strategies evolved from her early work with classically autistic students, to working in public schools, to running her own private clinic founded in 1998. Assisted by many talented therapists, she has developed best practices for working with these students.

Increasing demands on Michelle’s time as an author, international speaker and social thinking trainer, combined with the growth of her clinic in San Jose, California necessitated a shift in direction. In 2008, her Center for Social Thinking became a nonprofit clinical services organization, "Teach SOCIAL Silicon Valley." Staffed by the same talented therapists who formerly worked for Michelle, Teach SOCIAL Silicon Valley (TSSV) provides the same clinical and school-based social thinking educational services to people who live in the Silicon Valley region of California.

Michelle continues to provide clinical services, assessments and consultations at her smaller clinic, Social Thinking, along with colleagues Stephanie Madrigal and Dr. Pamela Crooke. The Social Thinking clinic will serve as a training clinic for professionals around the world to learn more about applying social thinking as a treatment and assessment methodology.

  1. Is ABA the Only Way?
  2. Intro to Social Thinking for Teens
  3. Homework and Beyond!
  4. Social Thinking At School
  5. Using 'social building block' - from play into academics...

Good books to get started with learning about treatment include:

  1. Superflex: A Superhero Social Thinking Curriculum Package
  2. Sequences: 6 & 8-Step for Adults
  3. Sticker Strategies to Encourage Social Thinking and Organization
  4. Think Social! A Social Thinking Curriculum for School-Age Students (2nd Printing)
  5. Thinksheets! for Teaching Social Thinking and Related Skills
  6. You are a Social Detective!

©2012 Social Thinking Publishing - Michelle Garcia Winner