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Social Thinking Articles

Problem Solving Is At the Heart of Social Thinking

Michelle Garcia Winner

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Note: A Problem Solving Thinksheet follows this article.


In the late 1990s I introduced to the public the ILAUGH Model of Social Cognition. ILAUGH is an acronym that represents some of the core aspects of social cognition and related social skills that typically-developing preschool children acquire through routine exploration and interaction within their social worlds. These include Initiating communication, Listening with our eyes and ears, Abstracting and inferencing, Understanding perspective, Getting the main idea, and engaging in Humor and Human relationships. It is through using these ILAUGH Model concepts that our brains help us think critically about the people we engage and share space with on a daily basis, or read about in literature, on the Internet or in history and social studies.

The ILAUGH Model was the focus of my first book, Inside Out: What Makes a Person with Social Cognitive Deficits Tick? and it has stood the test of time. The model is based on research related to theory of mind, central coherence, joint attention, and other core social developmental abilities. The related strategies we recommend are based on our clinical experience.

Recently I was reminded of why I developed the ILAUGH Model; it emerged as I studied how to break down complex social concepts so I could teach our students how to become better social problem solvers! Our students need “more” than rote social scripts to improve their social functioning. They need to learn to adapt their behavior based on the people and the situation. Behavioral adaptation requires problem solving. Every letter represented in the ILAUGH Model is critical for helping our students become better personal problem solvers. Through it we teach them not just what to do, but the how and why of figuring it out on their own!

One of my very nice and quiet students has experienced more than his fair share of conflict with his school administrators this year. He prompted me to go back to my roots, dust off my old problem solving worksheet, and give it an update.

My student looks like he blends in with his peers, except that he keeps mostly to himself when not forced to mix with others to accomplish an academic task. In fact, a case review revealed he has a very limited history of forming friendships, playing and relating with others. Now, as a high school student, that means he’s had very little experience interpreting and responding to others’ points of view in social situations. Given his lack of friendships and time spent just hanging out with other kids (aside from his sibling), he hasn’t practiced being flexible or seeing the world from a different set of eyes.

Cognitively he can understand people have different points of view. That said, he is inexperienced in considering those points of view whenever he has a problem, especially when people don’t share his. This has led to ongoing conflicts with his school’s administration. So, in addition to his self-focused approach to solving his own problems, he doesn’t think about how other people perceive his intentions. Rather than people thinking he is able to take care of himself, they see him as someone who rejects school rules and is disrespectful of adults.

If you met this kid, the last thing you would think is that he is disrespectful. He is a dutiful academic student and is devoted to trying to sort out what social thinking is all about. He does not like to be thought of as disrespectful but at times he can’t help but think people are trying to make his life difficult.

Learning to explore not only our own intentions but how people are reading our intentions is where the social thinking rubber hits the road.

One of the approaches I’ve used is to teach my student that how he defines a problem affects how he tries to solve a problem.

For example: My client defined one of his problems as this: his PE clothing was causing him sensory dysregulation (my words, not his). To avoid sensory discomfort his solution was to cut the class.

In his mind the problem had nothing to do with others, so he didn’t communicate with his teacher about it. However, in the eyes of his teacher and ultimately the administrators, cutting PE class is unacceptable behavior. They felt if he had a real problem he certainly would have told someone about it along the way. In their mind, he can talk and he’s smart. They assumed his actions were more about being a behavior problem than they were about him having social learning challenges.

Once my student heard they wanted him to attend a “Saturday school for cutting” he became further indignant. No one at the school understood his problem! In turn, the school administrators became further frustrated because they perceived he was trying to avoid the natural consequences of his behavior, he cut class! The more my student dug in his heels, insisting he was just trying to solve his original problem, the more the situation kept escalating. He was completely unable to see people were now reacting to his inability to understand their point of view.

Ultimately the administrators, with the help of the attached problem solving thinksheet, are changing their conversations with him to explore all of his challenges. They can better appreciate there are problems they need to work at solving together. The structure of the thinksheet helps guide their conversations. It also helps structure my client’s thinking.

It’s an ongoing process that takes time. We’re trying to teach him how to consider other people’s perspectives in the moment of a potential problem rather than hyper-focus on his own. As he considers others’ points of view, he defines the problem differently, leading him to consider a different set of choices and related consequences. It was a wake-up call for him to learn that staying quiet is a choice that leads to undesired consequences! He is working on learning to identify and choose a path that helps meet his needs while also meeting the needs of others.

The speed in which all communicators survey their needs and make decisions is very fast. Being able to consider multiple perspectives during the problem solving process is not easy for our folks with social learning challenges! However, helping him see that how others interpret his actions impacts how he is treated and remembered further motivates him to learn how to think socially.

We are also working on him recognizing his mistakes and how he can form language and actions to apologize. Who doesn't need to be reminded of that set of strategies as well?

What this means in treatment is that we are moving step-by-step, breaking this all down. There is nothing fast about this learning process, especially when it does not come naturally to a person’s mind. We are exploring how his actions can be interpreted, what interpretation he wants others to have of him, and how to adapt his language and social skills to be interpreted in the manner he would like.

He practices within our Social Thinking group, trying out different ways he can describe the same core problem depending on whom he is talking to at the school and what they are possibly thinking about him. If he is trying to proactively explain the problem to his teacher he’d engage in a different discussion than trying to explain it to the teacher after he cuts his class!

And of course we need to address his strategies for managing his anxiety as he has little experience talking to others about their point of view and not just his own! The more experience he gathers over time the easier it will be, but for now it all seems difficult for him.

As much as I teach Social Thinking to adults and my clients, I have to frequently remind myself to re-visit the basics and avoid making assumptions that my bright, older students have figured all this out already. Returning to some of the first lessons I ever developed has been a good reminder to me that what I taught before to so many other students will continue to be important to teach to those I’ve yet to meet.

The Problem Solving Thinksheet that follows can help guide some of our teachings as we explore the social problem solving process. I hope it is as useful to you as it has been to me and my clients.


Click Here to Download the Thinksheet 

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