A couple of years ago I received a phone call from Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and best-selling author. Intrigued and curious about why he was reaching out to me, I listened while Ron explained that he and his wife, Cornelia, had just begun learning about Social Thinking® to help their 23-year-old son, Owen.
He passionately described how Owen was born with strong early relationship skills which almost vanished overnight as a toddler. By his preschool and early elementary school years Owen was very limited in his language, social communication, and many academic learning skills. Ron and Cornelia, experiencing their own sense of loss, were searching for ways to connect to Owen. After their many traditional attempts to “reach him” fell short, they ended up following his lead and jumped into the rabbit hole of Owen’s affinity: watching Disney movies, over and over and over again, with him. This opened a door to relate to Owen at a level that made sense to him. It also gave Ron and Cornelia the opportunity to explore the world from Owen’s perspective. What they discovered was their seemingly clueless little guy was actively learning about the social world through the predictable relationships being mapped out in Disney stories. These were narratives that provided similar story lines in different contexts and a predictable set of human and animal relationships, all while exploring a range of emotional concepts. Disney movies guide their viewers in exploring the complications of love, hate, happiness, loss, triumph, anger, jealousy, and betrayal in a clear and obvious manner. Characters and situations that are good are very obviously good, and the evil is clearly evil. The Suskinds followed Owen’s fascination for Disney as he grew up, and through it they were able to explore, relate, and expand their discussions with him. And to their surprise, they learned that Owen was making some alarmingly deep discoveries about how people relate, think, and feel that were not evident in his day-to-day, moment-to-moment social relationships.
Ron decided to write a book to describe what they learned about Owen and his emerging understanding of the social world, as well as the connection they were able to create by abandoning their preconceived notions of how Owen should relate to them and instead exploring how they could relate to Owen. Ron’s book Life, Animated: A Story of Sidekicks, Heroes, and Autism was published in spring of 2014 by Kingswell (an imprint of Disney Publishing Worldwide) to critical acclaim.
I decided to spend some time with Ron and Cornelia to continue our discussions, so in 2012, after they attended a two-day Social Thinking conference in Orlando, Florida, my colleague Pam Crooke and I went off to Walt Disney World®. We spent the day riding Owen’s favorite rides to discuss what it is about Disney movies that have such strong universal appeal to so many of our children and adults with ASD and related social learning challenges. It was there I discovered that Ron and Cornelia were realistic parents. They knew that while Owen’s affinity for Disney gave them a window into learning about and celebrating their son’s many strengths—which included dramatic theatrical reinactments, discussions about the deep connections to the characters’ inner conflicts and achievements, and his ability to artistically render the characters with remarkable ease—they were not blinded by his strengths. They also recognized that Owen’s ability to relate to others and socially reason and problem solve in the here and now was still quite limited.
And, that’s where I came in. I agreed to work with Owen and his parents this past summer (July 2014) for two weeks of intensive clinical sessions. I subsequently learned that a group owned by Disney was making a documentary of Owen and his family’s experience and my treatment with him was to be filmed (see photo).
If you are familiar with the Social Thinking framework, you know treatment starts at the level of the student’s social mind. We avoid assumptions of ability or challenge based on test scores and instead start by trying to understand how the client views the world. From there we teach lessons at a level the individual can understand about his or her own and others’ perspectives, mental manipulation, and social self-awareness, focusing on social attention and related social skills. We also connect social learning to social academic abilities and critical thinking, skills that are highly valued in the classroom,community, and work environments.
People with the same or similar diagnostic labels (such as ASD) have different starting places in the treatment process, based on their own abilities to socially relate. To determine the level of a person’s social mind, we created the Social Thinking–Social Communication Profile (ST–SCP) which guides us in assessing an individual’s social abilities and designing an individualized treatment program.
Based on our Social Communication Profile, in our face-to-face interactions with Owen it was quite evident that he was what we describe as a Challenged Social Communicator. However, after reading Ron’s book it was also clear that Owen was far more able to describe different perspectives, beliefs, emotions, and related responses when using his beloved Disney narratives as the backdrop in his mind. Not only could he relate to his characters’ perspectives but he could wax poetic about them. Owen has a deep and even contemplative understanding of Disney’s characters, and he is able to use this information when trying to make sense of his own personal challenges. For instance, when feeling stressed Owen relates to this emotion by considering how one of his characters experienced a similar feeling. He finds encouragement and motivation in studying how his characters worked through the problems they experienced.
Yet in the fast-paced moment of direct social interaction this deep knowledge all but vanishes; he appears socially clueless and often disconnected from the people around him. Owen is a genuinely nice person and he honestly wants to make others feel good. But he struggles to focus his social attention on the people around him in face-to-face, moment-to-moment communicative exchanges. Because of this, others interpret him as aloof, desiring time alone, lost in thought, and often solely interested in the internal workings of his own mind.
When presented with such a discord between our understanding of an individual’s social mind and the manner in which that same individual presents himself or herself in social situations, we must stop and ask a different set of questions. Owen was not the first individual I had encountered who challenged the “inside/outside” assumptions most of us hold about being social: what’s on the inside is reflected on the outside and vice versa. Individuals like Owen have prompted me to consider all sorts of questions over the years and entertain different constructs about how we each interpret what “being social” means.
- Researchers continue to try to create advanced theory of mind tests to better understand how we can measure some of the social difficulties our teens and adults have when relating to others. They often do this by using videos of everyday people (not movie characters) and asking our adults to explain the intentions and emotions of the people in the film. The results have been mixed. Our adults tend to be more competent when judging the intentions of people in communicative interactions on film and less so when having to judge intentions in the real-life communication moment with another person.
- The incredible documentary film Wretches and Jabberers: And Stories from the Road (Biklen & Wurzburg, 2011) shows the life of two mature men with autism with very limited abilities to relate to people in real time yet who have profound strengths, often philosophical in nature, to make sense of the greater social world around them. What they have to say is nothing short of profound, but how they interact in the real-time moments of a social relationship demonstrates significant areas of incompetence.
- Why can some of my clients with more subtle social issues do a good job explaining how characters think and feel in a novel they read yet are not able to use their social knowledge with any ease when trying to maintain a friendship?
- Why can some of my students write a thoughtful narrative essay but constantly interrupt their teacher when in a classroom?
- As I look at my own social abilities, why am I far better at counseling my friends through their relationship difficulties than noticing my own difficulties in my personal social relationships?
Through Ron’s book about Owen and the time I spent with him, I gained a better understanding of the multiple worlds of our clients’ and perhaps even our own perspective taking/theory of mind abilities.
Theory of Mind and Social Executive Functioning
So what’s the bigger picture of this discussion? It’s this. Each of the bulleted examples above shows people’s ability to think more astutely about social information when they are observing it from afar rather than living through it. From my clinical work I have observed there appears to be a great divide between what my clients can understand about the world and what they can do in the moment of social interaction.
Maybe you’ve noticed this yourself, as a parent, teacher, or therapist of someone with social learning challenges. Maybe you’ve even remarked, as I have: “My child/client/ student can explain how other people are thinking in different situations but they seem to be aloof in their own interactions!” It leaves us perplexed! That said, even our simple remark implies we all have the belief that if a person can describe something they should be able to do it. Hmmm, maybe that’s another assumption we should put to rest?
The many standardized tests that have emerged in the past decade focus on this more voyeuristic (observational) form of theory of mind. They fail to test social ability in real-time situations. For example, in a subtest within the Social Language Development Test™ published by LinguiSystems (elementary and adolescent versions) students are required to look at pictures and explain what someone is doing and thinking. If a student scores well on this subtest then we, the examiners, tend to report that the student has strong basic theory of mind skills. We may then fail to qualify him or her for social pragmatic treatment. And therein lies the disconnect. What our students can figure out voyeuristically (such as when watching a movie, looking at a picture, or reading a book) does not involve our students executing that same understanding in real-time social situations. Execution involves executive functioning. “Standardized tests explore content but what we are trying to figure out is communicative competence” (Frith, 2012).
Communicative competence is more than theory of mind and related, more-complex, perspective-taking abilities. It requires socially based executive functioning. While researchers are still trying to sort out the relationship between theory of mind and executive functioning, it seems very clear to me. Our socially based executive functioning is what we use when we’re expected to transport our basic social understanding (theory of mind) into our own social relationships. Our more-distant, voyeuristic social mind provides us with precious time to process what others are intending, thinking, and feeling, such as when we watch a Disney movie, especially one we watch over and over again. But when in the real-time moment of our own social interactions, we don’t have the luxury of time. Our social interpretations of others have to merge with our own personal desires, thoughts, and emotions in millisecond timing for us to react and respond with perceived social competence. This requires theory of mind to piggyback onto executive functioning skills.
Social executive functioning provides the tools we need to engage in a cascade of thinking and related actions, allowing us to interpret, plan, and self-regulate through the moments of our social relationships. This is how we appear friendly through a boring social conversation, or shift gears if someone we are getting to know makes us feel uncomfortable and we decide to create a social exit plan on the spot.
For the individuals we work with who have social learning challenges, they often have weaknesses in the development of both their theory of mind as well as their executive functioning (not to mention their over-focus on details).
They have trouble firing these many interpretive, planning, and self-regulatory pistons all at the time. So while they may have the solid ability to interpret in “movie time” or voyeuristically, where no clear social response needs to be elicited from them (other than their own contemplation of the events), they consistently fall flat in real time when speed is at the essence of social communication.
Ron and Cornelia know that while Owen has remarkable interpretative abilities he still needs to work extensively on applying his theory of mind abilities in real time. We can value his movie time or voyeuristic theory of mind abilities, and use this to expand his thinking through collaborative discussions about characters, their emotions, and the situation. This helps motivate Owen in his real-time theory of mind experiences in face-to-face interactions. Owen has repeated opportunity to practice this with his peers as they participate together in their own Disney club.
By explaining this to Owen’s parents, they were better able to understand the disconnect between his ability to discuss social relationships and his difficulty engaging in them. We can also now better understand how to use his voyeuristic theory of mind experiences to help him relate, without expecting him to be competent within that moment of communication.
This all came full circle for me on a recent weekend in October when I had a long-planned opportunity to visit Owen. He’s a resident in the LIFE program in Hyannis, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, the girlfriend he loves so dearly, whom he had spoken passionately about during our summer treatment sessions, had just recently broken up with him. He was in tremendous emotional pain and demonstrating sadness, grief, confusion, and anger. The only way to help him make sense of this was by once again connecting Disney to real life and talking about how Disney characters dealt with their own loss, such as when Simba lost his dad in The Lion King. When these connections were made, he visibly shifted into a sense of calm; he could understand this from afar. Yet he quickly returned to his real-time stress as he struggled to integrate all this information and understand that while “real life” on the screen may depict happily ever after, the real-life relationships we live through do not always unfold in the same way.
One of the key things that helped Owen was teaching him to use his inner coach to remind him to carry his voyeuristic knowledge into his real-time life experiences. We continue to teach him how to connect with people he is less interested in to help him form new relationships. This requires him to work at creating a more socially organized mind around how people think and feel when they are face to face. Owen works hard practicing thinking about others and interpreting their feelings in real-time moments of interactions. When we call on and validate his voyeuristic knowledge, it is to relate to the movie characters that showed resilience when something they wanted did not come easily to them.
As Pam and I work with adult clients, we are encouraged to see that most of them are capable of strong social learning in real time throughout their adult years. This is especially true when we can validate their voyeuristic learning and understand the difference between the two.
Bowers L., Huisingh R., LoGiudice C. (2008). Social Language Development Test Elementary. East Moline, IL: LinguiSystems.
Bowers L., Huisingh R., LoGiudice C. (2010). Social Language Development Test Adolescent. East Moline, IL: LinguiSystems.
Frith, U. (2012). Why we need cognitive explanations of autism. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. DOI: 10.1080/17470218.2012.697178.
Suskind, R. (2014). Life, animated: A story of sidekicks, heroes, and autism. Glendale, CA: Kingswell.
Winner, M. G. (2013). Why teach Social Thinking? Questioning our assumptions about what it means to learn social skills. San Jose, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.
Wurzburg, G. (Director). (2011). Wretches and jabberers: And stories from the road [Documentary]. United States: State of the Art Inc.