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Understanding Social Learning Styles Using the Social Thinking–Social Communication/Characteristics Summary (ST-SCS)

Understanding Social Learning Styles Using the Social Thinking–Social Communication/Characteristics Summary (ST-SCS)

Updated: May, 2023
© 2023 Think Social Publishing, Inc.

The obvious goal for professionals working with learners with social communication differences, difficulties or disabilities is to better define key factors in assessment and then use the information to develop effective and practical social supports. When determining the social communication learning style or characteristics, we have found it most helpful to start from ground zero, which means we don’t use a diagnosis (or lack of diagnosis) as a variable. Instead, we examine the individual’s current social learning strengths (and challenges) and consider mental health factors, social developmental level, temperament (for lack of a better word), likes/dislikes, and their personal social desires or goals.

We first need to acknowledge that the social communication learning process is fraught with complexity because it is also a social emotional process. Most of us tend to respond emotionally (internally and perhaps externally) to those who are around us and how they treat us and others. This means we need to consider factors related to social language as well as social emotional processing. Key factors include being able to read the context, responses related to non-verbal cues (i.e., situational cues), what one knows or doesn't know about the communication partner, how we think and feel about what they say and do (tone of voice, facial expression, word choice, gestures, etc.). And, to complicate matters, the social communication process is synergistic and dynamic and constantly evolves with age.

Social Thinking (thinking socially) vs. Social Skills

The term Social Thinking® was created by Michelle Garcia Winner in the late 1990s to move teaching beyond and beneath the level of encouraging students and clients to simply memorize and use social skills. The early work focused on how social cognition (thinking socially), metacognition, and emotional processing could be used to build supports through language and cognitive-¬based tools. Her motivation was to move away from a “one size fits all” approach to teaching more deeply about the social world. She began documenting what most clinicians and teachers know: some approaches are better suited for certain kids while others are not. And that in order to figure out the most effective, efficient and practical teaching tools, we need to understand the learner’s strengths, their needs, and their goals. This deeper look at learner characteristics lead to a series of articles and hypotheses over the years. This article will suggest ways to understand the social learner without relying solely on standardized testing and to use what we learn to build better teaching and support programs.

A model for understanding How the Social World Works

One way to think about describing the social world is to use the rich research and evidence base from the social sciences. If you are at all familiar with the Social Thinking Methodology (STM), then you know that we love to build models, visuals, and combine theory to form logical and practical ways for people to understand the social learning process. These models are always dynamic and changing because the evidence that informs them is dynamic and changing. In 2017, we proposed a visual model to help define the social thinking process and then build teaching supports based on the individual learner. From the information processing literature, we propose that that building social thinking for social competencies starts with a four-tier process that includes: social attention, social interpretation, and social problem solving (or decision making) to figure out how to socially respond, or when to not respond at all. Social responses can include what we do with our body, eyes, facial expressions, words, etc. (Winner & Crooke, 2017). This four-tiered process is summarized in the Social Thinking- Social Competency Model (ST-SCM) (Winner & Crooke, 2017).

Social competencies can include but are not limited to:

Social attention - We notice and/or observe where we are, who is present, and what’s happening). Gathering information through social observation allows us to make sense of our observations through,

Social interpretation - We use our social minds to consider the information we’ve gathered to assign meaning. We also consider our own/others’ thoughts and feelings while using knowledge about how the world works (world-based knowledge) to,

Socially problem solve - We consider potential dilemmas, others’ point of view, and our own social goals to decide whether or not to,

Socially respond - We take action (or not) with our bodies and words. We may comment or rather hold that thought. We might move towards a group or move away. Our social responses are based on accomplishing our own social goal(s) or social desires.

The ST-SCM is evidence aligned and grounded in the seminal work related to social information processing, social learning theory, and social cognition. In our model, social skill production does not stand alone. Instead, it is based on how we move through the four steps above. In other words, social skills are the output of a complicated observational, interpretive, and problem-solving process. This means the production of social skills is not simply an act resulting from memorized behaviors produced on cue but are in fact a result of the social mind’s intricate social reasoning.

So, thinking socially (social thinking) occurs when we consider the context (e.g., where we are, who are the people and what’s happening) and what we know about our own and others’ thoughts, emotions, beliefs, desires, motives, prior knowledge, and experiences in that situation. We use this information to interpret and possibly respond to others. We use our social thinking even when we are not intending to interact with another person. For example, whenever we read fiction, our social brain needs to figure out what we know about the character’s thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. We interpret intentions of characters in movies and online. Thinking socially (social thinking) is a building block for social competencies (Crooke, Winner, & Olswang, 2016).

Corey was an autistic third grader who had superior language and intellect as measured by standardized tests. He performance on these and other academic tests prompted teachers and support staff to assume he didn’t need other supports. After all, his “raw intelligence” made learning new fact-based information extremely easy. He rarely had to read or hear something more than one time before he learned the concept – except for social concepts. Corey had memorized basic social skills for the classroom and consistently “raised his hand” to answer questions; however, when the teacher called on another student to answer, Corey would either yell at the other student or walk over and hit them. When asked, “Why are you hitting those kids when they answer the question?” Corey replied very matter-of-factly, “Those kids are stealing my answers!”

Different Social Learning Styles and Characteristics

The development of the ST-SCS was developed, in part, because of a desire to better describe a range of unique learning styles by looking at patterns in social learning characteristics. In the example above, having a better understanding of Corey’s social communication learning style could help to guide the development of more refined teaching and support tools. Not all autistic learners have the same social characteristics just as non-autistic students. Winner this early in her career and began looking more closely at the different social learning styles. She discovered there were some social learners who were a good fit for the Social Thinking Methodology and others who were a better fit with other metacognitive supports or more structured social skill approaches. For example, a skill-based intervention seemed to be helpful for those students whose social communication learning style was more literal. These students needed more supports for understanding the social world, and the cognitive and language demands of the Social Thinking Methodology (STM) would bog down their learning. On the other hand, some students with strengths in cognition, language, academics tended to be a good match for the metacognitive tools and language-based activities found in the ST methodology. From this early work, she developed the Perspective Taking Scale which included three learning style subtypes. The perspective taking scale was published in articles, books and websites and eventually morphed into six different learning subtypes found in the Social Thinking-Social Communication Characteristics Summary (ST-SCS).

This learning style characteristic summary is dynamic and continues to change according to the latest research, extensive clinical experience, and family input (ASHA definition of evidence-based). The ST-SCS components are evidence-informed and based on a foundation of evidence-based concepts and definitions. Therefore, the ST-SCS should be thought of as a descriptive tool to help interventionists better understand the learning nuances of the students and clients with whom they teach. The ST-SCS should never be used to diagnose or measure progress.

Characteristics Found in the ST-SCS

A key factor in developing social thinking and social competencies is having social awareness of oneself and others to observe social contexts and how people share space within these contexts. Observation requires awareness of one’s surroundings and the people within them. We noticed that our students had different types or styles of social awareness to the place, people and what was happening in their environment. These same learners, on the other hand, had extreme awareness of shapes, sounds, or other items of interest. The hypothesis based on these different types of social awareness is that some social learners have a strong sense of social attention that is intuitive, while others may have strengths in non-social attention and/or may need different levels or types of support to refine their social attention. The team began to refer to this phenomenon as one’s “social radar” system. This led to developing six social learning styles (includes two subtypes) that are now found in the ST-SCS. These social learning styles are on a continuum from a very strong social radar to a developing or fully supported social radar. By initially defining one’s intuitive social radar, teaching and supports can be developed that tap into this learning style. Again, it is important to note that the social learning styles are not about a diagnosis and represent characteristics found in all types of learners, both neurotypical and Neurodivergent.

These social communication learning styles include:

  • Neurotypical Social Communicator (NTSC)
  • Nuance Social Communicator (NSC)
    • NSC includes social anxiety and attention/executive functions as mediators of social communication
  • Emerging Social Communicator (ESC)
  • Pre-Emerging Social Communicator (PESC)
  • Significantly Challenged Social Communicator (SCSC)
  • Self-Protective (Resistant) Social Communicator (SP-SC)

Multidimensional Characteristics of Learning Styles

The ST-SCS represents multidimensional characteristics based on the synergistic and dynamic ways in which social cognition and social metacognition impact social and academic learning and emotional health. The characteristics used to define the different styles of learning include:

  1. Understanding one’s own and others’ minds (including the use of social radar)
  2. Emotional coping (mental health challenges)
  3. Social problem solving
  4. Peer interaction including play
  5. Self-awareness
  6. Academic skills
  7. Bullying, tricks, mental manipulation
  8. Time management

The Influence of Neurology

We postulate that the variance in people’s social learning styles is, in part, due to unique neurology present at birth. These hard-wired social characteristics, in turn, impact and influence future social and sensory learning. Neurotypical and neurodivergent individuals represent a huge range of cognitive, sensory, and language skills and it is logical that not everyone learns concepts in the same manner, depth, or speed. In other words, learners are unique so tools and outcomes should be unique too.

This can be confusing for parents who assume that because two children have the same diagnosis, they should have similar teaching or support programs and will have the same outcomes. This is both unfair to the student and the families. Rather, describing different social communication learning styles allows for teams to describe, for example, why a particular student may be more literal in their language arts class, or struggle with more abstract content.

We feel it is important to work with families and teams to develop a logical guideline for the learning strengths and struggles unique to each to best support each student. While prognoses are often problematic, in that educators and families may underestimate the person’s learning trajectory, they can also be a place to have honest discussions about what happens in the future. The reality is that federal monies to support adult programs, transitioning into adulthood, nuances of the work world, and building mature relationships are limited in scope and having honest discussions early can mean proactive lifetime supports. Many people don’t want to talk about prognoses but avoiding these tougher discussions is not the solution either. As a reminder, IEPs are short-lived. Most of a person’s life does not include an IEP so at some point we need to focus on helping individuals learn to live as independently as possible while experiencing well-being in their social and career goals. Working towards one’s social goals is a lifelong process, not a K-12 sprint.

Important: This ST-SCS was not designed to reflect developmental patterns, nor does it reflect or encourage a “recovery-based” model. In a nutshell, this tool is a way to describe the strengths and needs of individual learners. The descriptive categories are meant to be a resource to describe students eight years of age and older because 3rd to 4th grade tends to be a time when social communication learning styles become more solidified. In other words, individuals don’t typically move from category to category over time. By the time a person is 8-9 years of age, their unique social learning style may become apparent. It is also important to recognize that social development continues to evolve throughout childhood and even in adulthood. What was too difficult to understand when young can be, in part, aided by maturity. When we look at a person’s progress, we need to focus on how the individual has improved compared to themselves rather than how that person compares to others of the same age or grade.

Using this descriptive tool is in no way meant to limit the growth of an individual or their potential, but rather should help with selecting teaching materials and guide discussions about realistic expectations for learning and independence. Again, this should never be used to measure progress in therapy or as a pre/post teaching tool because that would imply that the learning styles or characteristics are linear, which we believe is not the case. This tool is also not designed for use with preschool children (we use modified play scales for this age range) or with older adults (category descriptions do not fully describe their issues and needs). Finally, note the lack of preciseness of the descriptors as some individuals will have characteristics in more than one category. The idea is to determine which learning characteristics best describe the individual globally.

Learning Styles and Social Communication Characteristics

The following ST-SCS learning styles are described below with an initial emphasis on strengths, followed by areas of noted relative differences and/or challenges. Reminder: These learning styles are based on 30+ years of observations, dynamic assessments, and family input. Please take these descriptions in the manner they are intended: To help readers think more deeply about the social learner with whom they work and teach.

Neurotypical Social Communicator (NTSC)

General description: This social learning style tends to acquire social milestones in what is described as a neurotypical trajectory. They learn social thinking intuitively, often with little effort, but benefit from social reminders for social problem solving. This group has a wide range of academic strengths and challenges.

Observable social, emotional, sensory, and academic learning characteristics of the NTSC often include (also explained in further detail throughout this section):

  • While some individuals in this group show delays in expressive and or receptive language, their social development is a relative strength.

  • This group tends to be flexible in working with a range of people and changing situations, in play-based, peer-based, and academic situations.

  • While they do make social errors across their lives (sticking their foot in their mouth, not always being sensitive to what someone is thinking or feeling, etc.), these hiccups tend to be part of a social learning process where the person learns from their social mistakes and, hopefully, avoids doing the same in the future. In fact, these mistakes are a way for them to become more adept socially to meet their social goals (e.g., joining groups, conversations, dating, advocating, expressing opinions, etc.)

  • These social learners may seek counseling from friends or mental health professionals for social issues over the course of their lifetimes. They may be overwhelmed by social demands and face anxiety and depression.

Strengths: Intuitive and/or strong social emotional connection to others and an astute social radar system. Demonstrates a range of appearing “very cool” to not cool at all. Can adapt their social behavior to meet their own social desires or the social expectations of the group (social chameleons). Some prefer big groups of people while others prefer a smaller social circle or will stick with a trusted friend. Can establish and maintain peer networks to feel connected within whatever community they choose. Either know or can learn how to determine when others are dishonest, trick, lie, or manipulate them or take advice from trusted others if they are not aware of the deceit.

Teaching and supports: Some may seek the help of counselors to navigate the complicated waters of social emotional relationships, work, and life pressures. Many seek the counsel of friends and family. Some may need additional academic or executive functioning support. This group of learners is a good fit for most components of the Social Thinking Methodology.

Prognosis: This group has equal opportunities to succeed and opportunities to fail in work, relationships, and social problem solving. However, they have an intuitive foundation of tools and strategies, along with flexibility, to make social choices and cope with the outcomes of those choices.

Nuance Challenged Social Communicator (NCSC)

The NCSC includes both socially anxious individuals as well as those who struggle with attention and executive functioning. While these two subtypes of learners often have a foundation of social competencies, we hypothesize their social anxiety or sustained social attention and/or executive functions challenges, prevent them from accessing their social cognitive information.

NCSC-A (Socially Anxious Style)

General Description: These individuals are often described as “blenders and faders” with anxiety. They blend in or subtly fade out when anxiety strikes. Some people may describe them as shy, and they often fly “under the radar” of professionals or parents noticing because they avoid social situations outside of their families. They tend to have a highly developed social radar or one that functions with great exaggeration. Rather than recognize that we all have thoughts about what others do and say (usually in benign ways), they may hyper-exaggerate this idea and overly focus on their and others’ thoughts.

Observable social, emotional, sensory, and academic learning characteristics of the NCSC-A often include (also explained in further detail throughout this section):

  • This group, we hypothesize, is neurologically predisposed to experience more anxiety and to intuitively doubt their social abilities.

  • Their resistance to interacting in situations that make them uncomfortable can mean they appear to have greater social challenges than they do because when comfortable or around family and close friends, they appear at ease and able to access their social competencies.

  • However, with social anxiety they appear highly uncomfortable. They may over focus on their feelings of anxiety and retreat from others, leading some to think they are aloof or not interested in others.

  • This group tends to respond to teaching and strategies that specifically address their anxiety and not solely social competencies.

Strengths: These learners tend to have strengths in the areas of language, academics, and cognition. However, many are anxious about their workload and may succumb to anxiety, unable to complete their assignments. It may be that this group has difficulty with executive functioning, which may at the core of their anxiety. This could impact not only their social relatedness (social executive functioning) but also their organizational skills (organizational executive functioning). Some of the students in this group we have worked with may be slightly more literal and naïve than others their age; however, this may result from a lack of overall social skills practice because they shy away from relating to people when they feel uncomfortable. Individuals in this category often excel in careers that allow them some level of predictability and fewer demands to interact with co-workers or clients.

Areas of concern: Many individuals are mistakenly thought to have behavior issues because of a refusal to participate in activities that are anxiety-provoking. Group work can be difficult throughout school and work, and many learn strategies to avoid social interactions, including isolating themselves through books, computer gaming, videos, etc. Sensory integration/sensory processing issues need to be ruled out with this group and are generally, to date, unexplored. It is reported that those with social anxiety, when compared to other types of anxiety, have the hardest time gaining and sustaining employment.

Teaching and supports: The NCSC-A benefits from strategies and lessons from the Social Thinking Methodology combined with other mental health/anxiety approaches for treating social anxiety. The focus of supports is to help these learners appreciate they often do have social competencies, but that anxieties can get in the way of them accessing what they might already know. Anxiety certainly gets in the way of them practicing their social competencies. The key is to explore and celebrate competencies through guided practice, role play, and exposure prior to actively attempting to minimize the social anxiety. Mental health professionals should be actively involved in working with this group. Social learners in the NCSC-A tend to work well with the next group, NCSC-EF, or those considered to be neurotypically developing.

Prognosis: Those born with higher levels of social anxiety usually need to develop strategies to manage their anxieties throughout their lifetimes, their prognoses, with supports, is good.

NCSC-EF (Executive Functions/Attention Mediated Style)

General description: These students demonstrate what we would consider to be well-developed social radar in that they are highly aware that they have thoughts about what other people do and say and that others notice their words and actions too. They also understand that each person has their own unique perspective of the world. However, they often struggle with attention and perception of the subtleties of social cues and may be less attuned to others’ facial expressions, body stances, and gestures, thereby limiting the feedback they receive from others when interacting. As the nuanced demands of social communication increase with age, so does the discrepancy in how these learners are perceived by their peer group.

Observable social, emotional, sensory, and academic learning characteristics of the NCSC-EF often include (also explained in further detail throughout this section):

  • Average to superior verbal language skills and cognition with no delays in language development when younger.

  • More executive functioning challenges that may make written expression and organizational skills more difficult than would be expected given their academic intelligence.

  • Attentional issues are also commonly found in this learning style.

  • Anxiety is also common in this learning style but may be less about the social aspect of anxiety and more about executive functions and missing core information due to attention issues.

  • Tend to prefer the attention of adults and may seek them out as often as possible to talk to, even during recess and lunch breaks at school.

  • If born with a more extroverted personality, they can be described as egocentric. If more introverted, they tend to withdraw from group communication. This withdrawal can be perceived by peers as not interested in being with others, even though they often crave group membership.

  • As they age into upper elementary school and beyond, may be keenly aware of social missteps in others, but not always aware of their own.

  • Peer rejection may be significant, and there is usually an awareness of non-acceptance from their peer group.

  • Unfortunately, there is a high incidence of bullying in this group. Peers see these social learners as similar in academic knowledge and assume their intuitive social understanding is the same as theirs. To make matters worse, adults see these students as “smart, charming, and engaging” and assume their peers see the same.

  • Teaching and counseling professionals often consider them “neurotypical” because they see adequate to exceptional performance on academic testing. As a result, they assume there are no social learning issues.

  • Parents often report that their children report feeling rejected and disconnected from their peer group. Professionals may dismiss these concerns because the student they see at school easily relates to adults.

  • There is a high risk for developing social anxiety, OCDs, and depression by upper elementary school and beyond. For many, by the time they are pre-teens and teens, mental health supports are critical.

  • There may or may not be a history of sensory-based issues in early childhood.

  • Can explain the basic social rules (“talk the talk”), even when young but struggle to apply in the moment with nuance. Often struggle with the social executive functioning of perspective taking (“walk the walk”).

  • While able to pass theory of mind tasks, they may struggle to see how their intentions are read by their peers during communication. They may also struggle to read communication nuances to intuit others’ subtle communicative intentions.

  • Professionals should consider evaluating executive functioning (EF). EF issues can impact how productive at completing schoolwork they are, even if they are acquiring all the academic knowledge.

  • Actively explore how they anticipate the amount of time an assignment/task/project will take, and then check back to discuss the accuracy of their estimates. If they tend to over or underestimate the time required, help them to adjust their estimates based on what they have learned about the process or what they’ve learned about themselves.

  • This group often fails to qualify for services because their struggles are too “mild.” The reality is that their challenges are apparent and are not mild to the peer group.

  • These learners may be confused by subtle abstract language such as the way people communicate indirectly with each other.

  • Often achievement-oriented and bright, this learning style has a characteristic of struggling to do their work independently because of organizational issues. It is not uncommon to see lack of preparation or being overwhelmed by having to assume responsibility not only for work but also sleep schedule, hygiene, meal planning, budgeting, completing homework on time, developing peer relations, dating, and coping with their own sexual needs.

Strengths: This group tends to be solid to extremely good language users and many have keen academic intelligence, scoring well to exceptionally well on tests. They may also demonstrate many other talents, such as in music, arts, or even athletics. They can be voracious learners, specifically in the realm of science (also in literature, history, or any number of varied topics).

Areas of concern: Some individuals may have academic issues, mostly related to feeling overwhelmed by the executive functioning load and inadequate social emotional coping mechanisms. Others may be bogged by attentional issues and anxiety related to overwhelm. Some may have dysgraphia (difficulty coordinating the physical act of writing) while also having simultaneous difficulty organizing ideas, sorting related details, or considering the reader’s interpretation while also focusing on grammar and punctuation. Yet when tested on each individual area of written language, they perform well. Some NSC-EF may have other learning disabilities that may or may not be related to their social learning differences and/or challenges, such as difficulties learning abstract math concepts or dyslexia.

Peers can be very unkind to this group because they perceive them as academically equal or superior. If they talk too much in class or in a meeting, they may be perceived as a “know-it-all” or “show off.” They may state their thoughts about another person without fully realizing how that person is feeling upon hearing this perceived criticism. This group is most at risk for persistent bullying, teasing, and trickery, not only as children but into their adult years. This group may unintentionally (or sometimes intentionally) provoke or insult others and struggle to fully understanding the depth and complexity of social emotional concepts, such as making and keeping friends, what it takes to maintain a marriage, and so on.

Teaching and supports: For those who are 11 years old or older, supports must focus on the possibility of comingled issues related to anxiety, depression, and social competencies (or lack of). The often need support to deal with feelings of social rejection and imperfection. Many strategies from the ST Methodology can be a part of the learning supports for this learning style.

Teaching should focus on exploring social emotional nuance and sophistication, including understanding how intentions are perceived by oneself and by others. These students require time to practice nuance-based social thinking and skills, which include dynamically adjusting social behaviors based on the people and context. Other key areas include an emphasis on self-advocacy, assuming increased responsibility with regards to life skills, practice in the community, and accepting responsibility for their own learning. This group of learners is a good fit for most components of the Social Thinking Methodology.

During the school years, focus less on pushing for complex academic classes to allow for building organizational skills for managing their workload when it is less intense. It’s important to help the students learn at what level they can learn to manage their own assignments and how to advocate for themselves as they leave the high school campus and enter into the academic world of the university system. Some, while very bright, do not learn to effectively manage their homework/classwork; these students would likely benefit from a transition to college program that teaches self-management of academic homework. Or, if the student has a strong history of rejecting the idea of completing classwork/homework, vocational training programs shouldn’t be ruled out to help maximize their learning strengths in a more hands-on type work environment. With maturity, these same students may be able to participate in a university-type academic program after they gain further maturity and insight into how they best learn and self-organize to produce written assignments.

Prognosis for NCSC (A and EF styles): Prognosis for these two groups can be quite good, but also fragile. They have solid chances to succeed in intellectual goals, getting/maintaining a job, finding a life partner, etc. However, they also have significant risks is there is no safety net.

Some adults with this social communication learning style ultimately seek counseling or are told they need counseling for their lack of nuance-based social emotional connection with others (usually referred from spouse, friends, children, or at times even their workmates). Others have made choices in careers and partners that allow them a very stable, happy life but seek counseling to understand why they struggled in the past. With those who face tremendous challenges with completing their schoolwork, it is important to be realistic about their potential for being able to do the coursework in a college/university program.

Emerging Social Communicator (ESC)

General description: May appear awkwardly engaged. Parents, teachers, and peer note that social differences and/or challenges may not be apparent until after engaging in interactions or when sharing space over time.

This social learning style represents the largest range of individuals within the ST-SCS. Social learning characteristics vary among those who are ESCs but there are some core characteristics that are similar across social learners (social interpretation and critical thinking for social situations). While ESCs tend to show differences and challenges when young, maturity is their friend and social strategies can be very effective throughout their lives as they establish and work towards their own social goals.

Note: In general, ESCs have a greater need for basic social lessons before moving into deeper metacognitive strategies and tend to work well together in groups. However, there are times when a student with this social learning style has very strong cognition and/or language and there may be benefit in putting them in a social group with NSC-(A/EF). Please remember that ESCs tend to be much more literal learners so there may be some lag in the speed and efficiency in learning the concepts and strategies.

Observable social, emotional, sensory, and academic learning characteristics of the ESC often include (also explained in further detail throughout this section):

  • Are often described as friendly when engaged, but socially aloof.

  • Social radar system may not be highly in tune with what is happening around them from a social situational perspective.

  • Measured verbal and performance IQ may span from mild cognitive challenges to gifted. Most often have a history of a language learning delay or disorder.

  • May have a range of sensory needs that are prominent when young and may continue throughout adulthood (flapping, toe walking, rocking, food sensitivities, etc.).

  • Often desire social interaction but struggle to relate to peers of their own age without facilitation. Seek out interactions with adults or peers much younger.

  • Neurological differences in tone of voice, voice loudness, and pitch.

  • Neurological differences in posture or rigid movements when communicating or sharing space with others.

  • Reading situational and physical social cues (facial, gestural, tonal, etc.) is very difficult as well as understanding their own and others’ emotions.

  • Common perseverations in thoughts or interests that are described as unusual for their age. Given these intense interests, they may develop strong specific skills related to their areas of interest.

  • Thinking through social perspective taking requires extra time to process and respond to social information.

  • Tend to struggle with or fail the early Theory of Mind tests when in preschool/early elementary school but may be able to pass these same tests as they get older.

  • Development of joint attention and pronouns tend to develop much later.

  • Lean towards literal or rigid interpretation of spoken and written language, which is likely to impact how they interpret reading of literature. Many are described as having auditory processing or central auditory processing struggles.

  • Significant executive functioning issues affecting homework and written expression.

  • Awareness of time and time management may emerge slowly with maturity and concrete learning activities.

  • Usually are very literal and concrete thinkers without an understanding that social inferencing (interpreting situational cues, determining the motive of the communicative partners, interpreting the words spoken, assessing the tone of voice) is needed to determine the intended message.

  • Decoding written language and comprehending factual information can be a strength, while comprehending literature or the social nuance of the classroom can be difficult.

  • Narrative language may be a struggle as they try to organize and convey thoughts through verbal and written language in a way others can easily understand. To narrate one’s story with language requires the speaker to consider what the listener or audience knows and doesn’t know (perspective taking) and how to share (narrate) the information in a manner that makes sense to this other person’s life experiences.

  • In written work, there is a tendency to be highly disorganized and over-focus on details with challenges in organizing their thoughts or write summary-¬based information (book reviews, etc.). Most need extensive assistance to understand the myriad of social and work expectations delivered each school day.

  • On the other hand, some ESCs have an artful ability to convey their own thoughts in writing based on their own interests and perspective if they can create written work free from others’ guidelines and expectations. For example, they may write a good science fiction fantasy story but can’t produce an essay assigned by the classroom teacher. This can be very frustrating to the teacher, parent, and student alike as there is often a discrepancy between self-generated written expression based on a student’s area of interest versus completing homework assignments requiring the student to take perspective of the teacher’s expectations, etc.

  • With regards to anxiety, most ESCs experience anxiety tied to the imperfections of how the world works compared to the way they think the world should work. There can be issues with transitions, understanding what may be next on their schedule or why their schedule may need to change on any given day. They may also become easily confused in dynamic social environments, which may lead to emotional as well as sensory dysregulation. This group, from our observation, does not have severe social anxiety.

  • Most often need supports to be aware of where they are in space, who is around, hygiene, etc., usually called self-awareness.

  • Parents often describe their children with this learning style as “smart but clueless”.

  • May have strong scientific visual learning strengths but might not.

  • Often enjoy concrete humor such as slapstick rather than irony and sarcasm, which are abstract and much harder to understand.

  • Can be motivated to work hard when offered behavioral systems (behavior plans) as long as an explanation is given.

  • Attending in groups (groups to classrooms) can be difficult without strategies and supports. Consequently, they are much better at concentrating and learning when only required to focus their social attention in a smaller group (e.g., 1-3 other people).The irony is that we often expect these students to do well in classroom-based learning because of their high measured IQ/learning. As a result, a paraprofessional is assigned to “pay attention in the group” and then translate the information to the individual. This can take autonomy away from the learner and further complicate independence around learning.

  • Adapting what they do and say around others in the moment can be very difficult and peers tend to describe these learners as “awkward” or unusual.

  • Because self-awareness can be difficult, teachers describe ESCs as talking out of turn, talking for an extended length of time, and difficulty working in peer-based groups. Teachers and parent describe these learners as “known to be off-topic, tangential, or perseverative in communication,” but truly enjoy communicating with a variety of listeners.
  • This social learning style is often celebrated early in development for their incredible honesty. This is likely due, in part, because lying involves the social complexity of understanding the other person’s perspective, which can be extremely difficult. However, with age and practice, ESCs learn about how tricks and lying and may attempt simple tricks or lies.

    • Recognizing others’ communication intentions usually requires extra teaching and support. Teaching the concept of “stranger danger” starts with teaching that others have different thoughts or may try to manipulate their thoughts.

  • As ESCs age up, it is important to continue to teach about how some tricks are for fun and other tricks can put people in danger. This issue continues into adulthood and teaching should extend into the concept of mental manipulation (email scams, false advertising, and people who target their trusting/unaware nature.

  • Bullying is less pervasive for this social learning style in that the peer group is far more forgiving of their differences because the differences are more obvious. In fact, friendship clubs and peer mentoring programs are usually designed for these social learners.

  • The reality is that there are social hierarchies on playground and at school. While we wish this was not the case, it remains a fact is most schools. ESCs are mostly unaware of these hierarchies and think they are part of a friend group simply because they are near other students. Peer mentors can be helpful in coaching and including these students as well as teaching other students about the ESCs learning differences.

  • Assistance with gaining employment is usually needed for job interviewing skills. However, once in a job fits their thinking and learning style, they can be highly productive and very successful workers. This learning style does best when engaging in tasks where they work around others but aren’t required to interact dynamically with others as part of their job description. Many are excellent scientists, computer programmers, horticulturists, animal scientists, or the many variations of those and other areas.

  • Work peers may continue to notice differences in social, critical thinking and problem-solving, but may provide help or mentoring. In some ways, their obvious differences can be protective in that others are more likely to be more supportive and forgiving of social hiccups.

Strengths: Many ESCs, but not all, have stronger visual learning skills than auditory processing ones. Many are excellent text decoders and can read (decode) early in development. Individuals often do best academically in the early years of school when their attention to detail makes them strong rote learners. These learners tend to excel as they age in the areas related to their interests. Some ESCs are model students as they are devoted to following routines (class rules, group rules), and includes studying. If born to a temperament or a tendency towards hard work and tenacity, many are quite successful at meeting academic course requirements, even if unable to fully understand the work. There are many adult ESCs who live most of their life achieving different university degrees as they are excellent classroom learners but may not excel at applying that knowledge outside the classroom.

Areas of Concern: This learning style tends to do well comprehending fact-based information but struggle to interpret information based on predicting what people are thinking and feeling. Hence, there are often difficulties tackling grade level curriculum in middle and high school even when test scores in a given subject (such as reading comprehension) indicate grade level scores. Time management and/or awareness of time tends to continue into adulthood.

Depending on personality, some may struggle to figure out how to enter into peer groups and initiate social language and non-verbal communication to actively maintain interaction within the group, while others with more assertive personalities may barge into peer groups and dominate the conversation without realizing they are out of step with the group. There is also a tendency to be far more naïve than their peer group, not anticipating other’s motives, which may make them more susceptible to being tricked without realizing this is happening to them.

Teaching and supports: This learning style benefits from a variety of supports ranging from routine social skill programs when young to more sophisticated lessons and strategies from the Social Thinking Methodology. When young, interventionists may need to focus on establishing or enhancing joint attention skills, sharing enjoyment with others, and supporting needs in sensory regulation. In addition, expressive and receptive language skills are typically an area of continued focus. A blend of behavioral, relationship development, sensory integration, speech, and language services, will all be important. This group benefits from continued learning about social thinking at basic levels throughout their lives. Progression of lessons must start with first learning they have their own thoughts, others have thoughts, and finally how and why people manipulate those thoughts. Please see this article for a series of lessons and a longer description of how to develop a teaching and support plan for these learners (Crooke & Winner, 2022).

Transition to adulthood: It is critical to honestly explore abstract and critical thinking as well as how the individual independently manages their own unmodified homework assignments. This will help to determine readiness or fitness for attending an academically-based college/university program after high school or moving into the work world. If the individual has a history of requiring intensive or full adult support to help them through academic coursework, then college may not be the best next step. Make sure to include a discussion about vocational training programs or encouraging a work pathway. Many ESCs are practical, hands-on learners and vocational training provides them a more direct path to developing skills for independence.

Prognosis: ESCs live happy, successful, and fulfilled lives, usually with guided independence across their adult years. Parents are often concerned about their naïve understanding of the world and tend to want them to live at home for a longer period. This may slow but does not eliminate their own march toward independence. Many ultimately live independently but have a trusted team of adults (parents, other relatives, or paid caregivers) to help when dealing with social critical thinking and significant changes in their routine. For example, an autistic 32-¬year-¬old client of ours lived in his own apartment, prepared his own meals, maintained hygiene, took the bus around the community (although he had a driver’s license), paid his bills, maintained a job, and kept his apartment relatively clean. However, when life changes occurred (moving to a new apartment, applying for a new job, dealing with a bus schedule change), he usually needed his parents to help problem solve.

Pre-Emerging Social Communicator (PESC)

General Description: Rote learners who tend to need significant academic, adaptive, and social support. Highly distracted in unstructured situations but tend to thrive in highly structured situations. This group tends to be easily recognized by their obvious social learning differences and/or challenges from a very early age and often get an early diagnosis of autism spectrum.

Observable social, emotional, sensory, and academic learning characteristics of the PESC often include (also explained in further detail throughout this section):

  • Easily overwhelmed in unstructured social contexts or in situations with more than a few people. They are detail focused and are described as having “context blindness.”

  • Described as extremely “aloof,” these individuals have a desire to interact with others but struggle to maintain social attention.

  • When overwhelmed by people or other sensory information, PESCs tend to use sensory tools to calm themselves to a greater extent than ESCs. Anxiety within this group is exclusively related to changes in their world, including routines, people, environment, etc. They do not experience social anxiety.

  • Most often a history of, and ongoing challenges with expressive and receptive language. Many in this learning style have difficulty understanding and using pronouns. There is also a tendency to use echolalia (echoed speech) throughout childhood and into adulthood.

  • This group typically fails Theory of Mind tests (First Order Thinking and Second Order Thinking) into adulthood. The concept of mental manipulation (related to second order Theory of Mind testing) may be able to be taught to them cognitively/conceptually to some extent with direct and intensive teaching as they move into upper elementary and middle school to those with some strengths in cognition and language.

  • Stranger danger must be taught using explicit rules. This is a must!

  • PESCs may struggle to discern reality from fiction; many get cartoon or movie characters stuck in their heads and insist that these characters are real or that characters on TV are real.

  • This social communication styles learns best with direct instruction. This includes how to understand others’ perspectives while playing games. For example, the point of playing a game is to keep the other person from knowing your cards/plan. Perspective taking and self-awareness struggles can get in the way of the learner understanding the need to whisper or hide their cards.

  • Many are good text decoders math calculators. Comprehending inferential information in math word problems can be very difficult for them. As the curriculum becomes more inferentially based, this group of social learners show significant struggles in understanding grade level assignments even with full support from a paraprofessional.

  • Spoken, narrative, and written language are very difficult, and adults intuitively try to support communication in this group by asking 20 questions to try to decipher the story.

  • Tendency to lack awareness of time or feel a sense of urgency to finish tasks. Their parents often state that they are not accidental learners in that they don’t absorb new learning from simply being exposed to new experiences. Instead, parents have reported (and we have noted ourselves from years of clinical experience) that these individuals had to be explicitly taught concepts related to social learning and social skills.

  • With an extreme focus on details without understanding how those details connect to form a concept or complete a task, employment can be challenging. If asked to do the same task in a new environment, they must relearn all the steps of the task since they haven’t conceptualized the task to begin with. However, once employed in a predictable/routine job, these individuals tend to keep it. This group tends to feel most comfortable adhering to a schedule. Once they are taught how to use a system of transportation to move around their community, they are usually punctual and do tend to learn (with direct instruction) to be more and more efficient in productivity over time.

  • May have very limited awareness of the passing of time. Time-related projects or activities may require visual supports and verbal cues throughout their lives.

Strengths: This social communication learning style represents a wide range of cognition. Most individuals in this group are described as having “splinter skills” in specific academic areas such as decoding and remembering factual information. Many also have visual learning strengths over auditory processing but not universally. Individuals tend to be concrete thinkers and crave/need structure for their best performance. Because this group finds comfort in routine and predictability, they may do very well in jobs based in redundancy and routines. Because the PESC’s social learning differences are immediately apparent to their peer group, they tend to receive positive support and coaching from same-age peers.

Assessment: Most standardized tests will reveal significant delays in social language, problem solving, adaptive functioning, and expressive and receptive language. Qualifying individuals in who have this social communication style for IEPs or other supports is usually not a problem. The challenge is finding the right supports and teaching to help them function as independently as possible. Placing PESCs in a full-inclusion program with a sole emphasis on grade level curriculum neglects the functional and adaptive support they need for navigating adulthood.

Areas of concern: Because these learners tend to over-focus on facts and struggle with conceptual and critical thinking, teaching and supports must be tailored to their strengths rather than the grade level curriculum. These learners need tasks and concepts to be broken down into understandable pieces and this can be a challenge to even the most seasoned classroom teachers. These social learners need very implicit, direct teaching not only in school but in the community because transferring knowledge learned in the classroom can be very difficult. For example, counting money in the classroom may not be an obvious connection to using money in the community. There is usually a need for ongoing support throughout school by paraprofessionals and job coaches for later life.

Teaching and supports: This group of learners is not a good fit for most components of the Social Thinking Methodology. Some parts of the STM can be used for teaching but the work should not be applied broadly. PESCs require extensive and intensive therapies are important for establishing a shared intentional communication system, including: joint attention skills, sharing enjoyment with others, helping to establish sensory regulation, and constant focus on expressive and receptive language. These learners benefit from many different types of support but tend to be placed in ABA programs exclusively. While some behavioral teaching may be beneficial to this group, it should not be the only type of support given. Emphasis on sensory, expressive/receptive language, relationship development and adaptive skills should also be part of the supports under consideration.

Highly structured programs that teach toward independence and problem solving, such as structured TEACCH (, can be tremendously helpful. Teaching should be selected by exploring the unique strengths and challenges to tap into eclectic teaching regimes. Additionally, relationship-based interventions such as Floortime/DIR can be helpful and the SCERTS model is ideal for these learners. Vocational training when in high school and transitional post-secondary programs are also excellent for helping to prepare these social learners for adulthood. From a social thinking perspective, it will be very important to only use the components of the ST Methodology that focus on building their awareness and understanding of their own and others’ social thoughts. Social Thinking curriculum packages are not a good fit for this group. Please see this article for a series of lessons and a longer description of how to develop a teaching and support plan for these learners (Crooke & Winner, 2022).

Prognosis: PESCs may require significant guidance throughout their adult years and may live at home or in a supported living environment. When given routines that match their interests and needs, living as independently as possible is an option. Employment and relationships require support and highly structured and routine-based jobs are good choices for these individuals.

Significantly Challenged Social Communicator (SCSC)

General description: Highly attentive to internal thoughts and sensory input. Often unaware of social situations or people without support. Observable social, emotional, sensory, and academic learning characteristics of the SCSC often include (also explained in further detail throughout this section):

  • Many individuals with this social communication learning style are non-verbal or minimally verbal. Echolalia is common. Benefit from intensive interventions to encourage more functional communication systems, whether based on the use of verbal speech and language, augmentative communication (computer-based visual communication), and/or sign language. The purpose of communication development programs is to help them more effectively get their wants and needs met without experiencing emotional and/or sensory dysregulation.

  • Sensory integration needs may be met through engaging in repetitive patterns related to the sensory world (e.g., flipping a string, flapping their arms, rocking their bodies, pacing back and forth, etc.).

  • While there may not be a sophisticated understanding of the social world, these learners tend to have strong preferences for who they want to be with.

  • Do not tend to be bullied.

  • Auditory processing can be a struggle and sounds, including speech, can be uncomfortable for them.

  • Academics often focus on tools (writing, reading) to express basic wants, needs, or directions.

  • Learn and do best when routines are at the forefront of all parts of the home and school day. Disruptions in routines can cause great distress.

  • Tend to be much better learners in their areas of specific focus or interest and learn best when the activities they engage in are visual, concrete, and have a logical progression they can be taught to follow.

  • Self-soothing routines to minimize physical aggression of self and others can be very helpful.

Strengths: Some, but not all, have strong islands of intelligence (e.g., talented artist, math calculation skills, ability to complete puzzles, digital or computer navigational skills, etc.). This group of learners does best in a highly predictable environment and may learn core rote concepts related to their academic skills (math facts, reading decoding). Some are excellent text decoders and do best when given visual supports like fact-based visual schedules. A small percentage of SCSC may have unusual areas of strengths and are referred to as “savants”. Some savant talents may include music or mathematical or science knowledge that is factually based.

Areas of concern: These learners tend to have a “supported” social radar system where others in their environment help to direct their attention to places, people, and events. They are not naturally attentive to those around them, particularly in a complex environment where many people are doing many different things all at once. Therefore, educational environments where several students are grouped together to learn in the group can be very confusing and difficult. This learning style does their best learning in an uncluttered 1:1 environment with active sensory regulation tools to help their brain and body learn to focus together. There is a tendency to struggle with self-awareness and regulation in a group as their sensory and neurological systems can become overwhelmed.

Assessment: It is difficult to use most formalized tests that require any aspect of back-and-forth social interaction (which is the test paradigm for most social language/language-based testing). The best assessments are those that observe the individual participating in a series of functional tasks and determining what types of information help them to learn, e.g. verbal, visual, physical cues, etc.

Teaching and supports: This group of learners is NOT a fit for most components of the Social Thinking Methodology.

Intensive and early intervention to assist with sensory regulation, joint attention, relationship development, development of functioning communication skills, organizational skills, and adaptive living skills are a must. This is a group that benefits from highly integrated teaching models such as the SCERTS® model or TEACCH model.

Prognosis: Individuals continue to learn throughout their lives and make gains compared to their own rate of learning. There is usually a high level of support needed throughout their lives and a tendency to be legally conserved by a responsible adult as they enter into adulthood.

Self-Protective (resistant) Social Communicator (SP-SC)

Note: While we are quite sure that this is a distinct social communication learning style, we are unclear as to the origin. It is highly likely that temperament is a contributing factor. Certainly, the environment plays a role, but there are many variables that fall under the umbrella of “environment.” Many parents of SP-SCs report having a great deal of difficulty setting effective behavioral boundaries and proactive supports with their children from the very earliest of years. Our clinical experience has shown that these social learners have a base of social knowledge somewhere between the ESC and the NSC – A/EF.

One important point: This is a unique learning style where the individual tends to default to a self-protective mode or what others might define as “resistant.” This can look very similar to the developmental pathway of a teenager, and we expect/assume that most teens pass through a resistant phase as part of their development. This is not the same type of resistance/self-protectiveness found in these social learners. Social communication characteristics of the SP-SC are persistent and found across home, school, and the community. We continue to be highly intrigued by these learners and find that some components of the ST Methodology can be helpful for this learning style.

General description: Often described as insistent and argumentative. May say they are not interested in others but tend to be a class clown or seek people with whom to complain about unfair treatment by others. They are reported to use alarming or outlandish actions or words to get other to attend to them. They can be described as “attention seekers” and often get the reputation of being “classroom disrupters.”

Observable social, emotional, sensory, and academic learning characteristics of the ESC often include (also explained in further detail throughout this section):

  • • It is not uncommon to find this social learning style with a diagnosis of behavioral or emotional disorder. Also, may have a diagnosis of Opposition Defiant Disorder (ODD) or Bipolar.

    • They are frequent visitors to the office and counselor.

    • Some become school phobic as they age into upper middle school or high school.

    • Many have comingled anxieties or depression by high school as they often face peer rejection and have difficult relationships with their parents.

    • Tend to avoid working on establishing, maintaining, or repairing relationships by stating, “I don’t care.”

    • May lash out indiscriminatingly when emotionally overwhelmed.

  • When in groups or classrooms, there is a tendency to attempt to make the group focus on them and their actions. These individuals later report being delighted when receiving the full attention of the group (negative or positive).

  • When encouraged to follow the group rules or work at blending into the group, they argue and resist, sometimes making statements that are offensive to their peers (and adults).

  • Often report, “I don’t care how I make people think or feel.”

    • Yet in a 1:1 therapy session, these social learners show true challenges in social thinking and related social skills. This leads us to hypothesize that attempts to take over the group may be due to a lack of understanding of group dynamics, rather than a willful act. They do acknowledge there should be group norms or boundaries for groups once in a safe 1:1 working relationship is established.

  • This learning style tens to think in black-and-white terms (“that person likes me” or “that person doesn’t like me”) without understanding the subtleties of the mind or the shifting impressions that change.

  • There is often a struggle to understand the concept of social memory. While they may do or say something that is perceived to be very offensive to a peer one day, they also struggle to connect how that will impact how that same peer might respond to them today or tomorrow.

  • There is often a mismatch between how the individual perceives themselves vs. how others perceive them. They tend to report that their intentions are good, so if others don’t see that then, “they are all jerks and idiots.”

  • Many have undiagnosed sensory integration challenges; an OT should be consulted to rule these out as well as any other related issues.

  • There is a tendency to have a solid to good sense of humor but may not understand the impact of using certain humor with certain groups at certain times. Unfortunately, when others laugh out of nervousness or discomfort, it confirms to them that their humor hit the spot. This can perpetuate the use of humor whether or not it’s a good time, place or with certain people.

  • Tend to be more literal in their interpretations of social situations, reading comprehension, and can be very stuck in their thinking, insisting that people follow the rules they believe should be the rules.

    • However, when they don’t follow their own rules, they may simply shrug it off. For example, some may insist in absolute honesty from others but can be quite adept at lying.

  • Many, but not all, have other learning differences or diagnosed disabilities. Most score within the average to superior range on full-scale IQ.

  • From an emotional processing point of view, SP-SCs struggle to interpret their own and other’s emotions.

  • Younger individuals with this learning style are likely to be a little behind in passing basic Theory of Mind tasks (first order thinking, second order false belief testing, etc.) but eventually are able to understand and pass these tasks.

  • In middle school and older, teachers and parents may describe them as “manipulative”. The irony is that they struggle to understand when others lie to them.

  • They can be naïve without realizing it and are easily taken advantage of by their peers. They may do things their peers ask them to do to try to fit into a group without realizing they are being used.

  • There are often struggles with time-management and time estimation. This may impact daily routines, sleep routines, and waking strategies.

  • Friendships are very difficult for these social learners to establish and keep. They tend to insult even family friends and relatives who eventually wear out. Even online friendships are difficult for them to maintain.

Strengths: Strong measured verbal intelligence and often average to above average scores on academic tests. Solid fact-based learner who also may have talents in the arts, computers, or sports (not usually team sports). Can be clever, witty, and very entertaining.

Areas of concern: While some may have a diagnosis related to language learning, most are good language users and especially skilled at debating, coercing, and arguing. However, they may not perceive themselves as argumentative and describe their actions as just trying to convince the other person as to what is correct.

From a mental health perspective, they can become depressed, which can manifest itself in lashing out at others in a blaming and condescending manner. This group tends to wear out not only their teachers but their parents and siblings. Most don’t appear to have a lot of social anxiety because they are not aware of how their words and actions might impact others. They can face serious mental due to rejection.

Assessment: Most of us love to work with students who make us feel good about our work and our efforts as parents and professionals. This is usually not the case with the SP-SC learning style. Assessments can be difficult in that the student might be feeling anxiety or sensory overwhelm and may simply shut down or lash out rather than participate in any of the tasks. Sometimes professionals are embarrassed or offended and then may decide (incorrectly) these students just have behavioral or emotional disorders. There is a tendency to offend or hurt the feelings of people who are attempting to help, whether intentional or not.

Teaching and supports: This group benefits most from intensive individual therapy with a person they trust and who understands their social communication learning style. Even with a relationship, there are always challenges with testing the boundaries of the relationship. Given their propensity to seek honest discussions, this learning style tends to prefer people who give them clear information about what they are doing well and why it matters.

While inside-out teachingis important for all social communication learning styles, it is critical for the SP-SC. This means we start by teaching through the lens and perspective of the person first. This allows them to anchor concepts through their own social value system. By studying who they like, don’t like, and why, they realize they are forming their own social impressions and reacting to what they think and feel based on what others do and say. It will take some time (at times years) to help them to appreciate that if they require people to act and respond emotionally in certain ways to them, it eventually makes some sense that others might have those same social expectations.

Unfortunately, these social learners get a lot of attention for how they participate or when they struggle to participate in groups. Professionals often and erroneously insist on them “behaving” to blend into the group, but they often don’t understand group dynamics or the value of group norms. If we start by teaching that others have social expectations for them, then they usually push back or shut down. If we start by discussing their expectations for groups and their insights into groups, there is usually more buy-in and learning can begin.

This group is confusing to professionals and parents because there is an assumption that the child’s academic or measured intelligence should extend to social information and learning. But social learning is not as intuitive to this group and they do need clear and explicit social thinking, metacognitive, and/or social cognitive strategies and tools. ABA and reward-based systems typically are not effective for this group as they are clever enough to figure out how to get around the system or the people who have created the system. Many have reported in their teen years have reported to us that the “love making a game” of trying to find the holes in the behavior plans.

Prognosis: This particular social learning style, if not given deep and extensive teaching supports as children and adolescents, can become very dysfunctional adults filled with anger and blame. There is a tendency for some to end up on the doorstep of the psychiatric community who may not know what to do because medication alone is not the answer. Many adult SP-SCs are unemployed and can be rejected from their families. Some seek drugs as a way to cope. However, when supports and teaching are used in childhood and they eventually acknowledge they can benefit from strategies, then their prognosis is similar to all of the other social communication learning styles.

Final Thoughts

Social communication is incredibly complex. It is multifaceted and at the core of so much of what we, as humans, do on a daily basis and throughout our lives. It involves, among other things, emotional processing and responding to others as well as integrate and interpret academic information. So, a person’s social communication learning style has an impact on home, school, and community.

One complicating variable is how mental health setbacks impact both learning and outcomes. Anxieties of all types are very reals and social anxiety can be a roadblock for many. Ultimately, we need to look closely at the social learning styles of our clients, students, and children to build individualized supports that help the individual make progress towards their own social goals. We need to be mindful of co-occurring social learning, academic learning/executive functioning, and mental health challenges. In short, our students are complex and examining the effectiveness of supporting multiple social, academic, and mental health needs at once is equally complicated. The unfortunate reality is that therapists and parents are faced with finding tools and strategies that encapsulate the “whole” individual and it is at this juncture that we hope this learning style summary will help.

We have examined the Social Thinking-Social Communication Styles (ST-SCS), in its many iterations, in our own clinical setting for several years. Our pilot data show strong levels of reliability in coding learning styles among and between clinicians. The ST-SCS has also been an important and crucial part of how we find the right social learning group. We never put students together based on diagnosis (or no diagnosis) but rather consider their learning styles, social thinking needs, and goals and then match students based on that information.

Resources/References mentioned

American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., Text revision). Washington DC: American Psychiatric Association.

American Speech Language and Hearing Association (2005). Evidence-based practice in communication disorders (position paper). Available at:

Crooke, P.J., Olswang, L., & Winner, M.G. (2016). Thinking socially: Teaching social knowledge to foster social behavioral change. Topics in Language Disorders, 36(3), 284-298.

Crooke, P. J., & Winner, M. G. (2022). Social thinking metacognitive strategies to support self-determined social goals in autistic youth. Seminars in Speech and Language,43(4), 277-298.

DIRFloortime®. (2023). Retrieved May 2023 from

Prizant, B., Wetherby, A., Rubin, E., Laurent, A., & Rydell, P. (2006). The SCERTS™ Model: A Comprehensive Educational Approach for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders: Volume II Program Planning and Intervention. Brookes Publishing Company.

Reaven, J., Blakeley-Smith, A., Nichols, S., Dasari, M., Flanigan, E., & Hepburn, S. (2009). Cognitive behavioral group teaching for anxiety symptoms in children with high functioning autism spectrum disorders: A pilot study. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disorders, 24(1), 27‐37.

The SCERTS® Model. (2022). Retrieved August 2022 from

TEACCH® Autism Program. (2022, May 3). Retrieved August 2022 from

Winner, M., & Crooke, P. (2017). The expanded Social Thinking–Social Competency Model (ST-SCM). Social Thinking.

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