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Why Use the Social Thinking Methodology? 19 Concepts to Consider

Michelle Garcia Winner

Introduction to Social Thinking

Updated: August, 2018
Copyright 2018 Think Social Publishing, Inc.


Thinking socially is what we do when we’re around others and when we send an email, sit in a classroom, line up at the grocery store, read a work of fiction, watch a funny video, participate in a business meeting, drive in traffic, and engage in a host of other daily activities that involve social interpretation. We consider the context; take in the thoughts, emotions, and intentions of the people; and (when needed) use that information to determine how we respond. How we think about people affects how we behave, which in turn affects how others respond to us, which in turn affects our internal and external emotional responses. It's an incredibly complex process that most of us take for granted.


One’s ability to think socially develops naturally and becomes intuitive for most of us. But for many individuals this process is anything but natural. Individuals with social learning challenges may find it extremely difficult to think about what others are thinking and to use their social competencies in the exact moment they are needed. And, one's ability to think socially has little to no relationship with conventional measures of intelligence. In fact, many people who score high on IQ and standardized tests do not intuitively learn the basics or the nuances of social communication and interaction.


The Social Thinking Methodology was created by Michelle Garcia Winner and it continues to evolve with the help of Dr. Pamela Crooke. Our mission is to help people develop social competencies to better connect with others and experience greater well-being. We provide treatment frameworks and strategies that encourage individuals to focus their social attention, interpret the social context, and socially problem solve to figure out how to respond. The Social Thinking Methodology is based on research that includes but is not limited to the exploration of social-emotional development, neuroscience, communication science, emotions, anxiety, and depression.


Social Thinking’s concepts and strategies are designed for people with social learning challenges with near average to way above average language skills and IQ, regardless of diagnostic label (autism levels 1 and 2, ADHD, twice exceptional, social communication disorders, or no diagnosis at all). However, a subset of our work is being adopted into the mainstream classroom to encourage explicit social-emotional learning for all students. College freshman who took a class exploring core Social Thinking concepts consistently said in reviews that all students should take the class as a mandatory part of their education!


The methodology is also designed to guide parents and professionals toward better understanding of the social-emotional and social communicative process, to help them become more astute teachers of this information. Professionals and parents are using this information in schools, homes, communities, and work settings.


Consider these 19 concepts when using our Social Thinking Methodology:


  1. Social thinking is the user-friendly term for social cognition.
  2. For typically developing individuals, our ability to think socially develops from birth, much like our motor skills develop and help us learn to walk.
  3. A milestone of infancy is joint attention. This occurs when babies naturally follow the gaze of another person. Others follow a baby's gaze too when attempting to figure out wants or needs. This is the building block for many parts of social communication, including play, cooperation, sharing an imagination, and working as part of a group. Once this milestone is reached, complex communication develops rapidly.
  4. Being able to play effectively with peers in the early years provides the foundation for sitting and learning in a classroom as well as having back-and-forth conversations. From a developmental perspective, interactive play encourages problem solving and teamwork.
  5. Students with social learning challenges do not intuitively learn social information the way other children do. Instead, they have to be taught how to think socially to help them develop their social competencies.
  6. Individuals taught with the Social Thinking Methodology learn a four-step process guiding them to socially attend, interpret, problem solve, and respond to social information, and to use their evolving social competencies across contexts, whether they are in a classroom, on a playground, at home, or in the community.
  7. Social Thinking’s frameworks and strategies are designed to be used with individuals with solid academic learning and expressive–receptive language abilities. This is a language-based learning approach.
  8. Social skills are not to be memorized; social competencies evolve across our lifetime. As infants, we begin by using our eyes to be aware of our caregivers and then of other people. We think with our eyes to figure out others’ thoughts, intentions, emotions, plans, etc.
  9. Our thoughts and emotions are strongly connected; we teach about this connection using our Social-Emotional Chain Reaction. What each of us does behaviorally impacts others’ thoughts and feelings, which impacts how they respond to us, which impacts how we respond to them and ultimately how we feel about ourselves.
  10. We think about people all the time, even when we have no plans to interact with them; we refer to this as sharing space. We then interpret the social expectations within that situation and adapt our own behavior to do what’s considered “expected.” For example, in a restaurant you wait until the waiter comes to your table to order your food, and then you wait for the food to be delivered to your table. You do not yell out your order to a waiter passing by, or go to another customer’s table and ask them if you can finish their meal.
  11. As part of our humanity, we are on a daily quest to manage how people perceive us. We usually want people to avoid having weird or uncomfortable thoughts about us. To encourage people to have more neutral or pleasant thoughts and emotions about us, we consider how they may perceive us and adapt our behavior in hopes they consider us in the manner we intend.
  12. Most of the core Social Thinking treatment frameworks and strategies focus on how we as people, regardless of culture, share space and interact with others. We focus on humanity’s social agreements, which is why communities around the world invite our experts to present and share treatment materials.
  13. There are subtle shifts in our social behaviors across cultures. Using Social Thinking’s Social Competency Model, we teach individuals to be social detectives to help problem solve how to coexist or interact with people of different cultures and age groups.
  14. When we focus on the nuance of social communication, we find that social expectations evolve across our life. For example, how we apologize to another person shifts dramatically from 5 to 10 years old and then takes on a different form in our teenage and adult years.
  15. Our brain thinks socially, even when alone in our homes. To understand a movie, web clip, or TV show, one has to think about the character’s emotions, thoughts, reactions, etc. Even reading novels requires thinking socially.
  16. Our ability to think socially is at the root of our academic world, which requires us to think about the motives and intentions of people we read about in literature and history. Even when it comes to homework, it’s not enough to do it—a student has to turn it in for the teacher to know it’s been completed and award credit. A student has to consider the perspectives of their classmates and teacher to be considered a contributing member of the class.
  17. Our social competencies are just as critical in adulthood as they are earlier in life. To hold a job, we have to adapt our social behavior based on the perceived thoughts and feelings of the people with whom we work and live. This applies when using digital communication as well!
  18. The Social Thinking Methodology helps to take abstract, implied social information and teach it explicitly in a step-by-step manner. Our core treatment frameworks provide individuals a top-level view of key social information, for example:
    1. Four Steps of Perspective Taking
    2. Four Steps of Communication
    3. ILAUGH model (an acronym defining the social–academic connection)
  19. Students with social learning challenges can also have mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and other issues. Use of the Social Thinking Methodology does not replace the need for treatment from mental health providers, but it does incorporate strategies for anxiety management into its core teachings.

We hope you find our strategies and concepts helpful in your journey to teach social competencies. To kick-start your learning and dive deeper into our core concepts, watch our free webinar, The Social Competency Model: Teaching Social Competencies—More Than Social Skills. We’re thrilled when we hear from educators, clinicians, and families around the world that the Social Thinking Methodology has helped them change lives, and we’d love to help you do the same!

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