Social Thinking Articles


Updates on Social Thinking’s Cascade of Social Attention: A Conceptual Framework to Explore a Systems Approach to Social-Communication

Michelle Garcia Winner and Dr. Pamela Crooke

Oct 01, 2013

Updates on Social Thinking’s Cascade of Social Attention: A Conceptual Framework to Explore a Systems Approach to Social-Communication

Copyright 2013 Think Social Publishing, Inc.

(Note: This article updates and expands upon the ideas and the Cascade of Social Attention as described in our article, “Social Learning and Social Functioning: Social Thinking’s Cascade of Social Functioning” originally published by CHADD in the October 2013 edition of Attention Magazine.

Persons with social learning/social skill challenges represent a range of diagnostic labels including but not limited to those diagnosed with ASD, Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD, Hyperlexia, Social Communication Disorder, subtypes of Learning Disabilities, Sensory Integration Disorder, a range of mental health problems, etc. The common link among people with varying degrees of social skills challenges is they all share some level of underlying weakness related to their social learning system.

As interventionists (parents and professionals) who are seeking to develop meaningful treatment programs, it’s helpful for us to consider key aspects of the social learning system, starting with one of its main drivers: social attention. 

Focused attention is key to performance of any kind. If you want to play tennis well, you need to attend to the ball. If you want to play computer games well, you need to attend to the information on the screen. If a person is to develop good social skills, he or she needs to attend to the situation and the people in the situation on an ongoing basis.

Social Thinking® helps student/clients, parents, and professionals continue to learn how to better understand what it means to be “social.” For this reason, in this article our focus will be on social attention.

Organizing Our Social Attention

We each have those things, ideas, people, or situations that we prefer to think about. It’s where we most regularly and easily focus our mental energy. Yet, to be social participants in the world, we are also expected to adapt in a socially expected way to what is going on around us.

  • Internal drivers. Think of these as “mind magnets” – the things a person is driven to focus on based on their own native interests. Mind magnets can be objects, people, gaming, topics (such as science or astronomy), etc.

  • External forces. The social world around us. This encompasses everything that occurs and is related to our social functioning. Being social requires us to shift attention away from our internal drivers toward the situation and the people in the situation.

Most of us can juggle those two forces at the same time; yet this presents a very real challenge to our students with social learning difficulties. They often struggle to shift their attention away from their mind magnets to the social external forces around them. This is likely the result of neurologically-based weak social attention.

General Attention and Sensory Processing Systems

Most people operate from one of two general attention processing frameworks. There are those who focus on the details. They tend to have what we call “bottom up processing” that starts at the detail level and flows upward toward concept formation. On the other end of the general attention spectrum are the concept processors. They are good at seeing the big picture or understanding the overall gist or concept of what’s happening. We refer to this as “top down processing.” People with strong detail processing may be weak at conceptualizing situations. People with strong conceptual abilities may be weak working at the detail level. Both abilities are valuable; think of them as different rather than one being “better” than the other. That said, we tend to see that people with greater social learning challenges typically have more detailed processing styles.

We also know that our sensory systems impact our social attention processing systems. Our clients born to difficulties with sensory integration often have weaker abilities to attend to external forces. They may be internally driven or distracted by specific sensory experiences.

The Cascade of Social Attention is a tool that can help you think about social interpretation and how it influences our social communication skills. Social attention, social processing, and our social skills are synergistic processes and responses. Therefore, we want to first consider our clients’ processing style (detail focused versus conceptual) and their sensory regulation abilities. Both may impact their social attention, yet they are not exclusive to social attention. It’s also important to note that different types of anxiety may arise and affect our clients based on how they process and respond to social information.

Social Thinking’s Cascade of Social Attention

1. Situational Attention

Situational attention is the ability to attend to the situation we are in and quickly and efficiently note shifts or changes in it. We are always in one situation or another. We shift from situation to situation across our day; however, not all people are astute observers of the situation. As people become part of a situation it is expected that they focus on what is socially relevant in the situation. This information helps them figure out how to react and respond. For example, when you go into a doctor’s office, you notice that you are to sign in, then sit quietly while waiting to be called. Only at the point your name is called should you attempt to go through the door to actually meet with the doctor.

2. Perspective Taking/Theory of Mind

As you attend to the situation you are also expected to attend to the people in the situation. Attending to people always requires perspective taking. Theory of mind (ToM) refers to our ability to attend to and understand that people may know something different than we do, or that people may play tricks on us. People must form fairly robust ToM to develop more sophisticated perspective taking: one does not exist without the other. When we enter a situation with other people, we try to figure out who the people are and what we know about them. This helps us figure out how to adapt and respond to those people in the situation. For example, in the doctor’s office it is expected that you speak to a nurse prior to a doctor. It is also expected that you understand that people in the waiting room are also waiting for the doctor and your behavior impacts their comfort as everyone is sharing space together. Figuring out how to react and respond to the people and situation requires basic theory of mind and perspective taking.

3. Interpreting/Abstracting

As things happen with people in situations, we attend to the language and physical actions of others to interpret what people are saying or doing. We use this facet of our social attention when people are in proximity to us but also when they are people we are reading about, listening to on the radio, or watching on a screen. 

It requires social and situational attention to understand what people mean by what they are saying and/or doing. If I am talking to a person face to face, I will interpret what is happening between us based on the situation and what I know about the person combined with what he or she is saying through words, tone of voice, facial expression, gestures, eye-gaze, stance, etc. 

Some of our students with social learning challenges have solid social and situational attention, and their interpretive skills are fair to solid, even though many of these students tend to be more subtly literal than would be expected given their general appearance or academic ability. However, when a student’s social and situational attention is relatively weak, that student is less likely to be able to actively interpret the meaning carried through social and situational cues. In this case, the person with weak social and situational attention will also be a weak interpreter and will tend to interpret what is going on in the situation more literally. It is common for us to notice that our very socially inattentive clients are very literal. This is not a coincidence. 

As we become more sensitive to how strong or weak our students’ social and situational attention is (combined with what we know about their general attention and sensory processing), we can more accurately understand why their language processing is more literal versus abstract. This is important! Helping our students who are highly literal develop better skills in interpreting what is happening around them may require us to help them develop stronger social and situational attention.

4. Social Self-Awareness

As we co-exist with others we are expected to compare ourselves and our actions to others around us. This social external force helps us self-regulate our behavior to an expected norm. As children age they become increasingly aware of how people perceive them. They may experience emotions such as embarrassment and humiliation if they think people are having negative thoughts about them in certain situations. 

Some of our clients have more subtle but significant challenges with their social skills. Yet they are still highly aware that people may have uncomfortable thoughts about their behavior and may not seek to include them in spontaneous peer driven activities. However, we also tend to see that our clients who have weak social and situational attention and related weak interpretation skills also tend to have weak to non-existent social self-awareness. Therefore, our students’ social self-awareness impacts their treatment progress. 

a. Weak social awareness and highly literal: For our students who are highly literal, with weak perspective taking and poor social awareness, we often have to start treatment with helping them become more aware of their own and others’ minds. Their lack of social self-awareness also makes it more difficult to achieve social cognitive gains in a timely manner since they are unaware they even have these social challenges! 
b. Solid social self-awareness and solid interpretive skills: When planning treatment for our students with relatively solid social and situational attention, solid social interpretation skills, and solid social self-awareness, we need to involve them in being more attentive and responsive to very subtle, nuanced social information, as this translates to helping them adapt their social behaviors in a more nuanced manner.  

5. Social Behavioral Adaptations: Social Skills

The more aware a person is of how others perceive their social behaviors, the more a person attempts to try and match their social behaviors to what is expected in the situation. However, to adapt effectively in a situation and to the people in the situation requires very nuanced social behavioral adaptations. For example, to a neurotypical teenager there could be a world of difference between someone raising one eye brow in response to what a person says versus raising two eyebrows! 

Our students with relative weaknesses with their social and situational attention, interpretations and social self-awareness are likely to produce awkward or odd social skills. Their social behaviors are significantly out of step with their peers and their peers tend to easily notice this and understand that the person has some type of brain-based social skills problem. 

This is not the case with our students with more solid social and situational attention and solid social interpretation skills. They can exhibit subtle but significant social behavioral adaptations (social skills). For instance, they may appear subtly “off” in a social situation or they may not be sensitive to the nuances of a situation. Other students may interpret their behavior as “arrogant” when in reality the student was just trying to be helpful or was doing his/her best to “fit in.” Since these students appear somewhat socially neurotypical looking given their higher social self-awareness, their peers are often unforgiving and often quite blaming with regard to their social behavior. 

Both types of clients need assistance in learning to develop stronger social behavioral responses to help them improve their social skills when compared to their previous abilities. In the following list we outline some, but not all areas in which we may be observing our students’ abilities and possibly be providing specific coaching as part of our treatment.

  1. Voice loudness matches that of neurotypical peers in that situation.
  2. Tone of voice and prosody is expected to the situation and the age group.
  3. Eye-contact: thinks with eyes to be alert to what is going on around them as well as shows interest in others.
  4. Physical presence is typical. This includes standing the appropriate distance from others, with hips and shoulders positioned in the socially expected manner.
  5. Uses language in a manner that keeps others feeling comfortable most of the time.
  6. Initiates communication to join a group of peers in a manner typical of neurotypical peers.
  7. Exits a social interaction in a manner that is typical of neurotypical peers.
  8. Waits their turn to speak most of the time.
  9. Shares space effectively by reading the situation to know when is a good time to talk and when is a good time to remain quiet yet observant.
  10. Is aware of intentions of people who are in relative close proximity.
  11. Relates to neurotypical peers in a manner that is different than how they relate to adults in the same setting.
  12. Adjusts their humor based on what they know about the people around them.
  13. When communicating with others, seeks to understand how people are attending to and responding to them to gauge whether or not they need to adjust their behavior if they are being misunderstood.

6. Different Types of Anxiety As Part of Our Social Emotional Response 

When observing and working with clients through our Cascade of Social Attention we have noticed trends in processing and behaviors: many exhibit world-based anxiety and many others exhibit social anxiety. Some students fall somewhere between both of these trends and display a combination of both of the anxieties described below. This is not uncommon with elementary school children who have subtle but significant social skill challenges in school. As they age up you will likely notice that social anxiety and depression may become the compelling anxiety as they also continue to manage their challenges coping with change. There are very different treatments provided to our students depending on the type of anxiety they manifest. All interventionists need to help students manage their anxiety as it relates to their social learning challenges. It is important that we see anxiety management as a multi-disciplinary endeavor.  

a. World Based Anxiety: Those who tend to be more literal and detail focused tend to have “world based” anxiety – which we define as anxiety based on the unpredictability of people and situations and having to deal with all this change as they experience their world. We specifically do not call this “generalized” anxiety – as this has a different, broader meaning. World based anxiety is specifically triggered by difficulty they experience in anticipating and coping with change (change in setting, people, objects, expectations, the temporal elements of the world, physical maturation, etc.).
b. Social Anxiety: Those who have moderate to strong social and situational attention tend to have stronger social self-awareness. Yet, most people who have social learning challenges also have weaker social competencies compared to their neurotypically developing peers. They lag behind in social emotional development. This gap between their weaker social competencies and how they would like to be perceived by others produces compelling social anxiety and related depression as they age.

Interventionists will struggle if they are working with a group of students who are a mix of these different types of social attention trends, as their students have such different social learning needs! As always, our goal is to become aware of the challenges our students face and then match our treatment to their needs. If we are being effective and our students are growing in their social and situational attention, social self-awareness and social skills, the programs we provide need to also adapt to continue to meet their changing needs. Think of the Cascade of Social Attention as being a guiding tool to help you consider the systematic learning needs of your students as you design appropriate treatment for those with social learning challenges. 

The Cascade of Social Attention helps us take a systems approach to exploring social communication and related anxieties while also helping us observe that different students are best represented by different social learning trends. This information dovetails directly into our Social Thinking –Social Communication Profile (ST-SCP). In the ST-SCP we have identified five different types of social learning trends or categories. We then take a practical look at how each of these trends or categories represents different ways in which subgroups of our students process and respond to a variety of information (social-academic interpretation, adapting in the presence of peers, engaging in socially-based problem solving, etc.). This allows us to look more systematically at how the different levels of the social mind impact a range of different functions and life outcomes. From our experience, identifying how each of our students fits into one of these five categories can be helpful when:

  • selecting peers to group with the student in a “social skills group”
  • identifying relevant starting places in treatment
  • identifying the need for a range of ongoing lessons/strategies
  • engaging in transition planning discussions

Why Teach Social ThinkingAs we take this systems approach to exploring social learning and the far-reaching impact of a person’s learning strengths and weaknesses, we can better understand the need for short-term and related realistic long-term treatment plans. Social Thinking methodology and the work we do is not limited to simply helping a student learn better social skills. We are helping interventionists create a more precise framework in their minds to explore related, appropriate treatment strategies for each of their students. 

You can learn more about the ST-SCP in our free article, The Social Thinking-Social Communication Profile: Levels of the Social Mind or learn more about how all this information connects more deeply in the book, Why Teach Social Thinking?

Social Competency: Cascade of Social Attention Summary

Organizing one’s own attention:

Internal drivers - “Mind Magnets”: The information a person is driven to focus on based on their own native interests; this can be objects, people (e.g. little siblings, etc.), science, etc.

External forces - "The Social World": Requiring one to shift attention away from internal drivers in order to attend socially to what is going on around them in the situation and the people in the situation. 

Conceptualize or detail focused: Abstract interpretation also requires conceptualization, however more literal interpretation also encourages a more detail-focused lens- or the more detailed focused lens can encourage more literal interpretation. 

Cascade of Social Attention:

1.Situational attention: As a person becomes part of a situation they focus on the key concepts, which help them to understand the context in which they are now to react and respond. 

2.Perspective Taking/Theory of Mind: Once in the situation – who are the people, what do I know about them and even if I don’t know anyone, what do I know about people and how they may think and feel based on the situation. How do I think and feel?

3.Interpreting/abstracting: Given how I am attending to my self and others in the situation, how do I interpret any form of communication (language, tone of voice, facial expression, gestures, eye-gaze, stance, etc.)

4.Social Self-awareness: How do I compare me to you in this situation?

5.Social Behavioral Responses (social skills): Any and every type of social behavior we produce to express our thinking or intentions directly or indirectly.

6.Social Emotional responses:

a. World Based Anxiety: Those who tend to be more literal and detail focused tend to have “world based” anxiety – which we define as anxiety based on the unpredictability of people and situations/dealing with change they experience in their world. We specifically do not call this generalized anxiety – as this has a different broader meaning. World based anxiety – is specifically triggered by difficulty with anticipating and coping with change (change in setting, people, objects, expectations, the temporal elements of the world, physical maturation, etc.)

b. Social Anxiety: Those who have moderate to strong social and situation attention tend to have stronger social self-awareness. Most people who have social learning challenges may also have weaker social competencies compared to their typically developing peers. The gap between their weaker social competencies and how they would like to be perceived by others forms the foundation for the development of compelling social anxiety and related depression as they age.

This all leads to your social response: 

Social Competencies
: The ability to use critical thinking to help interpret and respond to socially based information. This includes but is not limited to adapting your behavior so that people are more likely to respond to you in the manner you had hoped based on your own personal social goals.


Michelle Garcia Winner is the creator of the Social Thinking methodology and founder/CEO of Social Thinking. A prolific writer and international speaker, she specializes in the treatment of individuals with social learning challenges at the Social Thinking Center, her clinic in Santa Clara, California. Michelle helps educators, mental health professionals, and parents appreciate how social thinking and social skills are integral to a person’s success – be it in school, in relationships, in the community, or in their career.

Dr. Pamela Crooke is the CO of Research and Clinical Operations and Senior Therapist at the Social Thinking Center. She is a co-author (with Michelle Garcia Winner) of four award-winning books related to Social Thinking. She has served on the clinical faculty of three universities and worked in the Arizona public schools for 15 years. Her current areas of research include practice-based research and implementation science related to the Social Thinking methodology.

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