Social Thinking Articles


Assessment of Social Cognition and Related Skills

Assessment of Social Cognition and Related Skills main

Updated: May, 2015
© 2020 Think Social Publishing, Inc.

This short excerpt was taken from a more extensive article previously published in: Assessment for Effective Intervention, 27, 73-80. This article is a summary of the Social Thinking® Informal Dynamic Assessment and can be found in its entirety in: Thinking About You, Thinking About Me. Limitations of Standardized Tests In The Assessment of Social Skills.

Standardized assessment tools, which are often the tool of choice for busy clinicians and diagnosticians, generally provide the least amount of information about students' social skill abilities, or social pragmatics. Standardized test formats can actually destroy the social pragmatic assessment. The spontaneous nature of social skills defies assessing it through the more traditional structure of standardized test. The production of appropriate behaviors that are interpreted as our social skills require that multiple communicative signals to be spontaneous processed and immediately reacted via the encoding of a multi-layered (verbal and nonverbal) response that is appropriate in form as well as function given the communicative context. Most importantly this rapid exchange of communicative signals should remain fluid in that communicative partners should not actually notice the application of each person's social skills; the skills themselves are expected but not to be obviously detected. For example, when a student is conversing with a classmate, and the student wants to change the topic he is to do it subtly so that the classmate barely notices the transition. On the other hand, if the student announces, "I am now going to change the topic" the student's attempt to utilize a social skill is detected by the classmate and considered inappropriate.

In contrast to complex communicative environments, standardized tests are designed to study discrete skills that can be stripped of most competing variables. For example, when a speech language pathologist tests a student's auditory processing the assessment battery generally requires the student be tested in a quiet environment of not more than 25 decibels of noise, regardless of the fact that the student is virtually never exposed to that quiet environment when he has to process the messages from his teachers and fellow students across a school day.

The production of appropriate social skills is also not linked to intelligence as measured on traditional tests of intelligence (Frith, 1989; Wetherby, Prizant & Schuler, 2000). It is not uncommon that students on the higher end of the autism spectrum with tremendous language skills and least average IQs also have significant challenges in their ability to use language effectively to develop appropriate relationships with others. These students are considered to have weak pragmatic language or social pragmatic skills.

Structuring The Assessment of Social Cognition and Related Skills

The assessment of social skills requires diagnosticians to set aside the more traditional belief that results of formalized tests provide the most valid information about an individual, and recognize that the diagnostician's quest is to explore more functional and complex components of human relatedness. Furthermore it is critical to understand that social skills emanate from our knowledge of communication and language use. Typically developing persons regulate social skills, which includes the formulation of language appropriate to the moment, through intuitive knowledge of how others perceive the message of the speaker and/or by reading other related contextual cues. Speech Language Pathologists' professional objectives include assisting persons in their communicative abilities; therefore it is quite appropriate for these professionals to be central in the assessment and treatment process when working with persons with social cognitive challenges. However, any type of medical or educational professional may complete an assessment of a student's social skills. There is no single profession that monopolizes this type of evaluation.

The assessment itself is multi-faceted, pulling information from a variety of sources and contexts. A thorough assessment of social skills includes: (a) observing the student with his peers and in different environmental contexts; (b) the diagnostician relating with the student without facilitating the student's social success; (c) a battery of informal assessment tools; (d) administering carefully considered standardized measures; (e) interviewing teachers and parents with regard to the students social cognition and social behaviors.

Observing The Student With His Peers And In Different Environmental Contexts

The school environment is typically the most complex social environment in which the student participates. Observing the child in this environment is ideal and should be a priority for diagnosticians who work within this setting. Observation of the student with his peers is critical given that peers appear to be the quickest to assess social aptitude. While older students are more forgiving of a younger student's weak social skills and younger children are not as attentive to these details, the student's peer group is the most critical, while also having the most direct contact with him or her across the school day.

Observation of the student should be done in structured (classroom) and unstructured (recess or lunch break) settings. Upon completion of the observation the diagnostician should also ask a teacher or other familiar caregiver if the behaviors observed that day were typical of the student's day-to-day functioning. This allows for caregivers to provide descriptions of a student's behavior beyond the baseline of the observation.

The observation itself should allow for you to monitor a student over a block of time lasting at least 15 minutes in each environment. During this time it will be important to observe not only how he initiates relationships with others but also how the student sustains them during the unstructured time. During structured time it is important to observe how the student participates as part of the classroom by focusing attention, seeking assistance, engaging productively in assignments and responding to the needs of the teacher as well as the other students.

The observation is not only of the student himself but also of how the peers respond and relate to the student's approaches, or lack of social approach (Winner, 2000). In fact, observation of the peer group often guides professionals in their understanding of what is considered to be appropriate social behaviors for the specific context in which the student is functioning. Each social environment has its own set of expected social behaviors that can vary from campus to campus and/or classroom to classroom. The observation, in part, is to determine if the student is socially savvy enough to identify how to modify his own behavior to meet the needs of the varied social contexts in which he communicates. Taming the Recess Jungle (Gray, 1993) is a booklet that provides further information when assessing a child's understanding of the abstract social environment of recess.

Interacting With The Student Without Facilitating The Student's Social Success

Adults facilitate interactive success when relating to students by simplifying and rephrasing unanswered questions, maintaining topics that have no real interest to the adult listener or allowing a child to engage in a monologue type interaction even though the student fails to demonstrate any significant interest in the adult he or she is speaking to. As professionals assess a student it is important that they devise methods to interact with students that purposefully overrides the tendency for the adult to facilitate success during this discourse. This author is not familiar with any readily available standardized assessments that actually monitor or measure social pragmatic skills while the child is actively engaged in discourse.

This author has devised an informal assessment of interactive skills to probe a student's ability to shift perspective, formulate questions about others and maintain a topic around another person's areas of interest. The informal assessment technique is referred to as the double interview. The double interview encourages a student to engage in an interaction with diagnostician across 2 contrasting contexts: when the diagnostician interviews the student, and when the student interviews the diagnostician.

The Diagnostician Interviews The Student

Interviewing a student about his or her life is a fairly typical procedure when initiating an assessment. During this interview questions are asked that help to explore the child's awareness of his strengths and weaknesses, his friendships and his personal interests.

While gathering the information about the student the diagnostician notes the student's ability to respond appropriately to the questions, maintain eye-contact while producing other non-verbal social skills such as appropriate body language, proximity, tone of voice, loudness of voice and facial expression during the interaction. Upon completion of the interview, the diagnostician summarizes for the student the information learned based on the student's responses to the questions.

The student makes inferences about pictures of the diagnostician's family.

Immediately after the interview, the diagnostician explains that it is only fair that the student be allowed to interview this adult as well. However, to help with the interview the diagnostician presents the student with a carefully selected set of photographs that provides the student with visual information about the adult. For example, this author uses 3 pictures and he student is then asked to interpret why this author has these pictures on her table.

The significance of the use of the photographs is that they help to reveal challenges related to a students ability to recognize faces and/or his ability to make functional inferences. Not all persons with social challenges have difficulty recognizing persons through their facial features, but for those that do this one "screening" task may be revealing. Many persons with social cognitive challenges are weak at making inferences, which requires them to take what they know and make a guess. Weak inferencing skills may result from not being able to take perspective of the diagnostician or not accounting for contextual cues. The photograph analysis task serves as one of many different ways to "screen" functional inferencing skills. After a student has provided explanations of the photographs, the diagnostician clarifies any confusion to ascertain that the student does understand the accurate interpretation of the pictures before advancing to the next task.

The Student Interviews The Diagnostician

The diagnostician again reminds the student that he or she can use any information they see in the office to generate questions to the adult, including the photographs, which are still positioned in front of the child. A cue card can also be presented to the child with words on it that are used to ask questions such as "who, what, when, where, why and how."

During the interview process it is critically important that initially the adult does virtually nothing to facilitate the students success in creating a good interview. After the evaluator has clearly explained what an interview is and discussed how questions are different from comments, his or her job is to sit and wait to be questioned by the student, while also noting the child's responses, or lack there of. This is often a very quiet time. If a student is demonstrating anxiety from the task, the diagnostician can assist in creating some structure for the student. For example, four small squares can be drawn on a piece of paper and the student can be told he only has to ask four questions to complete the interview. If the student still struggles to produce questions about the diagnostician, one of the photographs is shown to the student and he or she is encouraged to ask a question about a specific person in the photograph. Typically, the students are encouraged to ask questions about the author's daughters, since they are closest in age to the student.

Other Social Thinking® Informal Dynamic assessment Tasks

Using picture sequences to explore gestalt processing

The socially themed picture sequencing task provides information about how the student is able to create a gestalt from contextual cues in the pictures combined with the students' own life experiences. This type of information helps to reveal how well a student is able to organize themselves around conceptual thinking, which is a critical skill for school related tasks such as reading comprehension, written expression and playing games with others on the playground.

Interpreting social scenarios through photographs

Isolated photographs that depict social scenarios can also provide valuable information on how a student interprets visually presented information to infer the social understanding. These are available in boxed picture sets often referred to as "emotion and expression" cards through speech and language publishers.

Many of the errors made by students with social cognitive challenges in their social relatedness as well as in their academic work, are from a lack of their ability to consider and comprehend contextual information. Devising informal assessments to explore a student's ability to abstract and infer information from contextual clues is another important feature of determining the depth and extent of social skill challenges.


Social skills are a manifestation of social knowledge. A student's social intelligence is not directly contingent upon his or her academic intelligence as measured through psycho-educational testing. Thus, it is not uncommon to find very "bright" students having significant social skill challenges, which are difficult to measure and define through traditional assessment procedures. Since few appropriate standardized assessments exists, the importance of utilizing informal assessment tools is stressed in this type of evaluation.

Mandatory components of an assessment of high-level student's social skills include: (a) observing the student with his peers, across different aspects of his environment, (b) relating with the student without facilitating the student's social success, (c) informal assessment tools, (d) administering carefully considered standardized measures, (e) interviewing teachers and parents about a student's daily functioning.

The result of a more interactive, informal assessment of social cognition is that it provides specific functional information to better define treatment strategies that foster the development of social thinking and related skills. Further research to support and possibly standardize some of the currently used informal assessment tools is critical; however, teachers and families need functional information now to assist students in their quest to develop functional knowledge and related social skills that ultimately help to facilitate independence and interpersonal satisfaction.


Frith, U. (1989). Autism: Explaining the Enigma. Oxford. Basil Blackwell Ltd.

Gray, C. (1993). Taming The Recess Jungle. Arlington, Texas: Future Horizons, Inc

Wetherby, A., Prizant, B. & Schuler, A. (2000). Understanding The Nature of Communication and Language Impairments. In A. Wetherby, & B. Prizant (Eds.) A Transactional  Developmental Perspective, (pp.225-249). Baltimore, MD: Paul Brookes Publishing Co.

Winner, M. (2007). Thinking about you, Thinking about me. Think Social Publishing, San Jose, CA.

Winner, M. (2000). Inside Out: What Makes The Person With Social Cognitive Deficits Tick? Think Social Publishing, San Jose, CA.

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