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Social Thinking Articles

The Anxiety Ah-ha!

Michelle Garcia Winner

Nov 12, 2008

Michelle Garcia Winner

Updated: May, 2015


At Social Thinking we continue to create new ways to understand and teach about social learning. We travel and give workshops, work in our Social Thinking Clinic in Santa Clara, CA, and create products to inform the public about what we have learned. Even though we are restricted in the types of research we do (we don't want to be a conflict of interest!), we are constantly creating and testing our theories with our student and adult clients. Please refer to the research section of our website to see how others are studying concepts related to social thinking.


Here's an example of a recent question that we've tested in our clinics and continue to explore.


What is it about some clients that allow them to progress a bit quicker than others?

We realized that we have this group of clients who present with social learning challenges due to significant anxiety. We know that many of our clients struggle with anxiety, but these particular individuals were able to really articulate about the genesis of their problems. They consistently told us that they truly understood the concepts of social thinking and were motivated to use them, but would stop at the point of implementing them due to anxiety. This was very intriguing because many of our students with AS and similar social learning challenges would tell us they truly didn't know about many aspects of social information until we explained it to them. This group with anxiety stated they routinely thought about social information, but would get stuck. We observed that the group with heightened anxiety showed a more linear and steady improvement when we included cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques with social thinking (which also is CBT based).


This was our "ah-ha" moment!  Anxiety, for many, is the "tail wagging the dog," meaning a small part of that person may have control over the whole person. While anxiety treatment is important for this group, the first step is to teach them to learn more about the social mind and social expectations. These individuals can appear socially very impaired and retreat to the point that they may even start to feel shunned by their peer group. Our thinking for this group is that the social anxiety puts up a yield or stop sign in their brain that prevents them from accessing and interpreting their own social thinking information in ways that allow them to interact easily with their peers. 


This group also needs to start with strategies for calming anxieties before looking at how their own behavior affects others' thoughts. Many accidentally learn self-defeating behaviors (e.g., "I don't think anyone wants to talk to me so I will just stay away from everyone") from their dysfunctional coping strategies. With treatment can formulate a social thinking plan as part of their anxiety treatment plan. Part of the process is to learn how to use an "inner coach" to overcome their self-defeating thoughts, encouraging them to move through (rather than to avoid) the social thoughts and skills they need to positively influence the thoughts of others.  Take a look at the Spirals of Anxiety Lesson and handouts for one example of the blend.


Note: Anxiety is complicated. Please make sure to include a mental health professional in your decisions related to treatment. In terms of grouping these individuals for teaching, we typically include the more anxious students with our highest-level students who have true social learning challenges. Initially, you may not know the difference between the two groups, but you will likely observe that the anxiety group, if they do their self-study (homework), will move through your program more rapidly and with fewer questions about how the social mind works.

Related Articles

Anxiety and Social Competencies (The Spirals)

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Based on our growing experience, it appears that some of our students have high levels of anxiety, but also have solid social knowledge. For these students, we still find that helping them through their anxiety has a lot to do with helping them explore and practice their social competencies. The Social Thinking teachings helped to put this all into context. Thus, these same lessons have shown to be helpful to them as well. In this article, we will review of concepts that led me to create what my students now call, The Spirals (i.e., Spiral of Social Success and Spiral of Social Failure).

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Over the years, I observed so many students get upset by the fact they had “autism” or “Asperger Syndrome” or “ADHD” and in as much as they could verbalize these terms aloud they still didn’t seem to understand what their learning challenges actually were.

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Social Learning Affects Life Outcomes: So why call it Non-Cognitive?

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Do a Google search on the term “non-cognitive and social skills” and you will see that “well informed” people from universities, government, and media are referring to social skills as being “non-cognitive.” In this article we discuss how in fact social skills are nothing but “cognitive” skills – abilities that research shows has huge implications for an individual’s life.

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