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Social Thinking, Executive Functioning and Mental Health: The interplay of the social mind, the academic load and emotions

Michelle Garcia Winner

Social Thinking Executive Functioning and Mental Health web

Social Thinking challenges routinely prevent individuals from accurately interpreting social information. These challenges can be said to represent a social executive function problem (sometimes called a social multitasking problem). The ability to socially process and respond to information requires more than factual knowledge of obvious social rules and unspoken rules (hidden rules of the situation). It also requires the ability to consider the perspective of the person with whom you are talking.


This means that each social situation requires a complex synchronicity of both social knowledge and related social skills. It requires the following social executive functioning:


  1. Reading the hidden rules of the situation
  2. Perspective taking (along with language processing)
  3. Visual interpretation
  4. Formulation of a related response (verbal or nonverbal) in a very short period of time (milliseconds-3 seconds).

Social thinking challenges also present themselves during academic tasks that require flexible abstract thinking. These include written expression, reading comprehension of literature, organization and planning of assignments and in more abstract math (such as word problems). As a result, persons with significant difficulties relating to others inter-personally often have related academic struggles in the classroom.


This is particularly true starting in about third or fourth grade when the curriculum becomes more abstract; requiring critical thinking related to what happens in other people's minds while also demanding a high level of organized thought.


Some students struggle with classroom participation from the moment they enter school due to deficits in their abilities to work and learn in a social group. Others don't develop obvious classroom and playground challenges until upper elementary school. Some manage to hold it together until middle school, at which time they become overwhelmed by abstract assignments, homework loads and increasingly nuanced social behaviors of their peers, which they struggle to interpret and respond to appropriately.


It is common for these students to develop academic problems only when they get older, even if they have been identified as “quite bright” using IQ tests and other psycho-educational measures. Some students are admitted to four-year universities, only to have their academic performance break down at that point due to being overwhelmed by the all the social thinking required to socially network (social executive functioning) and organize assignments while managing life skills/responsibilities (traditional executive functioning).


Social learning challenges were actually present in these university-bound students when they were younger, but discounted by teachers and parents because the student was so "bright." Parents, doctors, counselors and/or teachers underplayed the critical nature of social thinking in the everyday world, given that this is a critical part of our intelligence most often taken for granted. 


Unfortunately, many persons with social thinking challenges who have near average to way above average intelligence often experience coexisting (co-morbid) mental health challenges. Anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD) may emerge in early adolescence, or even in early childhood. Feeling as though they are not "swimming in the same pond" socially as others take a toll on one's emotional state and mental health. Social problems routinely become emotional problems.


Unfortunately, it is also not uncommon for us to meet bright students who are overwhelmed by socially loaded curricula (language arts) or school events (peer-based work groups, lack of social contact during classroom breaks). These individuals may be so overcome by the complexity that he or she may experience major mental health problems such as psychotic breaks or talk of suicide. Others deal with emotional side effects by lashing out with aggressive actions. Challenges in social thinking are to be taken seriously, as they affect not only one’s ability to participate fully in activities and lessons, but also how they view themselves and others. The social world isn't just about chatting and making friend, it is fraught with social-academic, social -executive functioning and social-emotional challenges. It's up to us as parents/caregivers and professionals to be aware and engage our teams in supporting individuals with social learning challenges across the home, school, and work day.

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