As I was turning the page on my calendar to April and remembering that it’s National Autism Awareness Month, I paused for a moment to think back on the pivotal role individuals with autism spectrum disorders have played in my life and work. For me and other professionals who seek to develop treatment pathways for people with social emotional learning challenges, people on the spectrum are great teachers. When we open up our own thinking to explore how these people process and respond to socially-based information, we discover a wealth of lessons right there in front of us about what it really means to have a brain that processes social information differently. In fact, it was my work with people with ASD that spurred me to develop Social Thinking in the first place.
Connecting the Dots
Most people may not know that the first chunk of my career (late 1970s to late 1980s) was focused on autism and rooted in behaviorism. I was trained in the behavior analytic approach to teaching social skills to individuals considered to have “classic autism.” (In today’s DSM-5 language these students would be ASD Level 3). My clients mainly demonstrated very weak language skills (some were completely nonverbal) and had intellectual weaknesses offset by some relative, yet isolated, learning strengths.
I learned from some of the best minds of that time. Dr. Robert Koegel taught me about autism and behaviorism as a university student. Then I spent six years working at the Indiana Resource Center for Autism (IRCA) with adolescents and young adults (many within five years of my own age at that time) and was further mentored in behavior principles by their brilliant director, Nancy Dalrymple, a long-time and strong advocate for individuals with autism in our community. Nancy taught all her employees that behavior is communication. We developed what were considered to be innovative teachings for students, most of who had grown up in institutions, in our quest to teach them community-based social communication skills. We targeted pro-social behaviors that simultaneously encouraged communication (e.g., saying hi, asking for help, saying no, or stop, or I feel happy or sad). We taught these language concepts to replace less desirable behaviors and provided tangible rewards, first to shape the behavior and then ultimately fading them out while the target behavior (e.g. communication and related behaviors) remained in place and generalized. This was good teaching and produced improved outcomes based on the goals we had set up for these students.
Behaviorism was what I knew, and while our students did meet their goals, their social cognitive functioning and related social behaviors were still very limited. Then during the early 1990s I had the opportunity to work with children and adults with head injuries or strokes. From them I learned to observe social learning systems in people who initially had language and “typical” social abilities before losing them. I couldn’t help compare and contrast their social abilities to my former clients with autism, and I began to see the overlap.
I think the real pivot point in my thinking arose after I started working in a high school district with students who are now referred to as having high functioning autism/Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD, etc.. Many had academic learning skills on par with their peers, yet they struggled to relate to others and demonstrated atypical social learning abilities. Some were very articulate, and very literal. When I first tried to bring my skills-based, behaviorally-based teachings to this group, they argued with me! They told me they didn’t care about social skills and they didn’t want a friend. Some of them refused to talk at all unless they wanted something explicit. These were individuals who were about to graduate and would need to fend for themselves in the adult world, yet they lacked the social know-how to get along with others, work in a group, or problem solve social situations.
At the time professionals described these students as not wanting to relate to others; I didn’t see that. I was noticing they did want to interact and figure out the “hidden social code” but just couldn’t do that because of their social emotional learning (neurological) challenges. I often found myself comparing what I had learned about my students with classic autism with this very verbal yet socially challenged group of high school students. Not all were diagnosed on the spectrum; some carried labels of ADHD, Tourette’s syndrome, bi-polar disorder, and some were simply labeled speech and language impaired. Also unlike some of my peers, I didn’t subscribe to the idea that individuals with ASD needed a very different treatment from my other students who had different labels but similar attention, social, and executive functioning challenges.
And More Questions
In the mid-1990s there was little treatment research to guide practitioners in working with these highly verbal students with social challenges. What little there was often didn’t align with what I was observing with my own students. The research described these individuals as having strong social knowledge but weak social performance. Yet when I would ask, “Do people think about you when you sit in class and you’re not talking?” they would fairly consistently answer, “No. No one thinks about me if I’m not talking.”
This wasn’t just weak social performance; this was lagging social thinking and social know-how, but at an entirely different level than demonstrated by students with classic autism who had more obvious social challenges. When compared to typical peers, my high school students often demonstrated weaker social attention when in a group, they were more literal in how they interpreted information, were less socially self-aware, and more awkward in their social presentation. Yet, most were mainstreamed, which meant the adults around them had more sophisticated expectations for their social behavior.
Clearly this group needed help, needed intervention, but clearly the behavior-based approach I had learned and used for years wasn’t effective with this group. Now what? They needed an approach that was more thoughtful. My students didn’t just accept everything we were teaching them, but they seemed to be more open to a treatment program that explained why we do what we do socially, one that taught them how they can choose to socially problem solve situations, rather than giving them rote, explicit directions for what to do.
All those years of working with and studying the diverse needs of people with ASD primed me to observe how my students demonstrated different social learning abilities which seemed to be tied to their social skills competencies, in spite of the fact they shared similar diagnostic labels. This meant I could not base my treatment decisions on a person’s diagnostic label as it did not provide enough information about their social learning needs.
I also began to ask a set of questions that were just never asked when treating people with autism and related social learning challenges, such as “What are social skills” and “Why do we use them?” This led to me to read research outside the field of autism (cultural anthropology and cultural psychology) while delving deeper into understanding how our brains interpret (perceive) and respond to (express) socially-based information.
Social Thinking Emerges
How to teach my students was another question. They seemed to respond to me teaching them about the dynamics of the social world and then working with them to identify behaviors they could produce that were consistent with social expectations my students held for themselves and others. I also noticed my students with ASD experiencing some significant challenges with interpreting and responding to academic school work requiring perspective taking and organizational skills (executive functioning).
As I began to develop social thinking lessons for my solid to bright, yet socially challenged students, I also noticed that my treatment approach would have to address at least three different fronts:
- Information and strategies for people with weak language and academic learning skills who needed to learn to appear more “pro-social” without expecting them to personally problem solve what to do across a range of social situations.
- A very different set of treatment programs and strategies for students who were expected to blend into the classroom, community group, or home and learn to problem solve social expectations and self-monitor and adapt their behavior.
- An approach that acknowledged and reflected that these same weaknesses in social processing led to academic issues and our students’ ability to understand and interpret reading comprehension of literature and written expression!
My students were responsive to learning about their own and others’ minds and how they worked, and how our behaviors influenced how other people thought about us and interpreted us. We started conversations about what it meant to be part of a group: a work group, a play group, even a group where no one seemed to be interacting with each other. Students opened up and admitted they liked being with other people but they didn’t know how to make things work at the level they were expected to socially “perform.”
Later I was to find out this aligned with psychology’s Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). More recently, many research studies have shown increased outcomes with using CBT to increase emotional understanding and social skills in children and adults alike with ASD, ADHD, and a range of mental health challenges.
It’s been 21 years since students told me they didn’t want to learn social skills. What I’ve realized is they were really saying they didn’t want to learn social skills using the behavioral techniques I brought to them. Despite all the research at that time (and even today) pointing to behaviorism as a way to treat people with autism, the reality was that developing the treatment plan wasn’t that clear cut. We could not use a fixed behavior plan to treat people with strong language and cognition but weak social processing systems. They required a different approach. Along the way I also realized that by specializing in working with people on the autism spectrum, I was carving out a path of treatment for those not only diagnosed with ASD, but for any person, no matter what diagnosis, who demonstrated social emotional learning challenges.
They Taught Me Well
As anyone who works with tweens, teens, or young adults knows, your students are your toughest critics. If something isn’t working, they tell you. If the lessons aren’t relevant, they tell you. On the flip side, they will also tell you what they like and what makes sense and how it affects their lives and widens their perspectives. With your students as your judge, you can adapt ways of teaching, develop new ideas, and create strategies that are meaningful and understood!
Being a student of the autism spectrum inspired me to explore what it means to have social skills, to share space with others, to join groups and exit groups, to chit chat and make small talk, and just how much we have to break down social concepts that seem so easy for typically developing people to understand, into concrete and relevant terms for those whose brains process social learning differently.
Since introducing Social Thinking and continuing to evolve and refine the methodology, my students with (and without) autism have taught me many lessons that continue to influence my work and my thinking today:
- We are all unique learners and a single way of teaching, no matter what methodology we are considering, just doesn’t work for everyone.
- As practitioners, we need to provide differentiated instruction to people who may share the same diagnostic label but learn in very different ways.
- People with social emotional learning challenges want to learn about their social selves. It’s not a matter of caring/not caring, but rather knowing/not knowing “how.”
- We will find more motivation to engage in social learning in these individuals when we bring them into treatment groups with students who have similar learning abilities. My students who thought they had stronger social abilities didn’t want to be in the same group with students who were obviously much weaker at social learning.
- Their motivation to participate is also directly proportional to our ability to provide them with lessons relevant to what they need to learn.
- We should not think clear differences exist between individuals on the higher end of ASD and those we consider socially challenged due to other diagnostic labels (ADHD, twice exceptional/2e, bipolar, etc.) and even those we might call “eccentric.”
- Most importantly, individuals with ASD are empathetic people who care about others, even if (and when) their brain doesn’t make social relationship building as easy as it is for the rest of us.
Today I continue to be my clients’ student and they continue to be my best teachers. I regularly tell them what they are teaching me, whether they are five-years-old or seventy-five-years old. I no longer see my clients as having diagnostic labels, as I once did early on in my career. I see them now as social learners in much the way I see myself as a social learner.
Social learning is not a linear process that can be taught in a fixed way. It’s up, down, and all around, shifting and changing from moment to moment. It involves learning about our thinking as much as it is learning about our behavior. It’s a willingness to explore what happens inside us and outside us, acknowledge our strengths and weaknesses, and be flexible in figuring out our best course of action in any given situation. It’s knowing we’re all teachers and learners every step of the way. I, for one, see this as the very best lesson of all! Thank you to every individual who has been, and will be, my teacher. Every day you teach me something new.