Originally published by Autism Asperger's Digest Magazine 2008; Edited and updated January 2015
Where and when do we use Social Thinking?
Students (including adults) usually respond that social thinking is only used while within a social interaction, such as hanging out with friends, playing a game, etc. It takes much discussion for students to begin to realize that social thinking is active any time you share space with others, even if you are not in direct communication. How many of us move our shopping carts out of the way of a fellow shopper walking down the same isle of a grocery store? That's social thinking.
Social thinking is active not just when we are in the company of others, but any time we are thinking about others. When alone, don't we analyze past social interactions in our heads, wondering if the other person perceived our actions in the intended way? We call or email to clarify a message or offer an apology when we realize we may have been misinterpreted, or that our actions were just plain wrong. Social thinking at work!
Social thinking dominates our overall thinking time in a day. We use social thinking before, during and after a social encounter. Social thought helps us determine how best to shape our behavior so that others have good thoughts about us in return. If our goal is to help our students become better social thinkers, simply teaching a social skill is not enough. We must also teach these students about the presence of other people's own minds and social thoughts.
How? A useful strategy with middle school and older students is to use The Four Steps of Perspective Taking. These steps help students recognize and consider the extent to which we think about others and adjust our behavior even in the absence of intentional communication. We engage these four steps in any social interaction:
Step 1: As soon as two people share a common space, they have a thought about each other. I have a thought about you; you have a thought about me.
Step 2: I consider the other person's intentions and motives. If they seem suspicious, I will monitor the person more closely. The other person will also consider my intentions and motives.
Step 3: Each person considers what the other may be thinking about them. Is it positive, negative, neutral? Is there history between us upon which we weigh these thoughts?
Step 4: I monitor and possibly modify my behavior to keep the other person thinking about me the way I want them to think about me. They are doing the same for me.
These four steps happen within milliseconds and at an intuitive level, below our immediate consciousness. The first three steps involve social thought; only in the last step is behavior involved.
In our discussions with students we point out that this process is based on the basic assumption that we all desire people to have reasonably "okay" thoughts about us, even when our encounters are brief. Embedded in this assumption is its opposite: we don't want people having "weird" or uncomfortable thoughts about us. It can be challenging for our spectrum students to just perceive that others have different thoughts, let alone introducing that we all have good thoughts and weird thoughts about others. Most students with social learning challenges never stop to consider that they, too, have weird thoughts about other people.
Also, many of our students do not appreciate the role that social memories play in day-to-day interaction. We all have social emotional memories of people based on how they make us think about them over time. Those people whose actions plant "okay" to "good" thoughts in other people's minds are much more likely to be considered friendly and have higher chances of making friends than those who create a lot of "weird" or "uncomfortable" thought memories in the minds of others. In teaching social thinking we not only help our students realize they have to be accountable to their behavior over time, but also to the related social memories people hold about them. The reason I may call a friend or co-worker to apologize for how my actions may have been interpreted is to foster better social memories about me in their brain.
The Four Steps of Perspective Taking are at play any time we share space with others, and are a requirement for any student's classroom functioning. A hidden rule of the classroom environment is that all students and teachers join in mutual social thought about the others in the class, and that each student is responsible to monitor and adjust his behavior accordingly. A student who is not proficient in the four steps is usually considered a behavior problem.
Students with social learning challenges have to learn cognitively what we do naturally and intuitively. To help them understand perspective taking, we actively teach lessons around these four steps. To consider this more deeply, spend the day observing your own social thoughts and how they impact your actions in the presence of others. Your own social thinking can then be a guide for teaching ASD students. Teachers often find these students become quite interested in their own and others' thoughts once we break down the process into components we can observe, talk about and relate to our own lives.
In the next column we'll address a sister concept, the 4 Steps of Communication.