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What Does the Social World Look Like Through the Eyes of a Social Learner?

Michelle Garcia Winner, MA, CCC-SLP, Belinda, Adult with Social Learning Challenges, and Pamela Crooke, PhD, CCC-SLP

Jan 17, 2020

What Does the Social World Look Like Through the Eyes of a Social Learner?

© 2020 Think Social Publishing, Inc.


The Social Thinking Methodology has evolved over the last 25 years by continually learning from the perspectives and experiences of those we support. We believe meaningful teaching requires focused learning about the individual to help them grow from their current social abilities—not how we assume they function. This story gives you the opportunity to see through the eyes of someone with social learning challenges to better understand how difficult it can be to navigate the complex social world around us. It also demonstrates how easy it can be for us as interventionists to assume our students know more than they do—to the detriment of their learning and well-being. This is the life story of Belinda, a woman with social learning challenges.



The Danger of Making Social Assumptions

On any given day we make thousands of assumptions and have very specific expectations for how we think others should behave in innumerable contexts: the driver will stop at the crosswalk when we make eye contact and not run us over; a stranger’s smile and greeting while passing on the sidewalk is not an invitation for conversation; a casual statement from a friend about getting together soon is not a definite commitment; an invitation to a wedding means we dress specially for the occasion. It’s safe to say that most of us take these assumptions for granted. As humans, it’s expected that we are hard-wired to understand how the social world works. And the more typical people appear to be (regardless of their diagnosis, if they have one), the more we assume their behavior should match our expectations.


Explore what happens to individuals such as Belinda who appear “neurotypical” to others, but whose brains limit their ability to observe and navigate within the social world, resulting in behaviors outside of what is typically expected or tolerated. What inaccurate assumptions do we (the social judges) make about people who behave unexpectedly—and how do we treat them? Who are these social judges? All of us! Mainstream and special education teachers, administrators, clinicians of all types, family members, medical professionals, peers, people with social learning challenges, and more. Can we imagine—what it really feels like—being ignored, rejected, and even actively tormented for an inability to intuitively understand the ever-shifting hidden rules and expectations, being evaluated constantly by others in all different landscapes within the social world? Welcome to Belinda’s world.


Through Clinicians’ Eyes: Assessment Summary Reports for Belinda

November 2018: Psychologist

“Belinda presented as a cooperative woman of 44 years. Belinda could establish eye contact but would look down. She showed little response to praise and often showed no indication of whether she was still thinking of an answer or had finished, due to her lack of non-verbal communication. Belinda needed rule reminders on various tasks. She required longer questions to be repeated and was somewhat literal in her interpretation of language. Belinda displayed an inflexible thinking style and struggled with abstract thinking.”


March 2019: Speech Pathologist

“Belinda presents as a well-groomed, compliant, socially awkward and detached woman with obvious features aligned with her diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When meeting Belinda for the first time, she generally did not speak unless spoken to, and her non-verbal communication behaviors appeared limited, e.g., fleeting eye contact, minimal facial expression, limited gesture, and her body posture and positioning indicated she was ‘closed off’ rather than open. I sensed that Belinda is constantly working internally to process the multi-sensory aspects of her surroundings and human interaction is an activity that does not come naturally to her and is difficult for her to process in conjunction with other environmental stimulation. Belinda appeared occasionally bewildered by and reluctant to engage in ‘small talk’ and general conversation as a means of building rapport. Belinda was observed to mainly interact in response to direct questions from me as part of the assessment interview, and I conducted my interview with Belinda in a way to minimize misunderstanding and anxiety, e.g., task-focused, with clear, direct, literal language.”


March 2019: Vineland Report (explores skills for adaptive functioning)

“The Communication domain measures how well Belinda listens and understands, expresses herself through speech, and reads and writes. Her Communication standard score is 34. This corresponds to a percentile rank of ≤ 1. This means that Belinda scored below at least 99% of the normative sample in the Communication domain. It places her in the lowest category recommended by the test authors when qualitative descriptors are useful, which are: High, Moderately High, Adequate, Moderately Low, Low.”


Belinda’s Age Equivalents in the Vineland:
Receptive: 2 years, 3 months
Expressive: 4 years, 8 months
Written: 11 years, 9 months


Through Belinda’s Eyes: Learning to Live in a Social World

Diagnosed with autism at three years old in the 1970s, Belinda had no useable language until she was eight, was not completely toilet trained until she was nine, and did not learn to read until she was fourteen. One can only imagine the sort of assumptions folks made about her and her prognosis. Yet, after 1,000 hours of speech therapy throughout childhood, Belinda now has superb “surface-level expressive language” skills, what she calls her greatest asset, but what also mask the real difficulties she faces. She is quite literal in her understanding of language and misunderstands much of what is said, but she cannot tell someone she does not understand when she doesn’t know she has misunderstood. Ironically, in a cruel twist of fate, her language skills are simultaneously her greatest challenge.


At age 45, Belinda is well-groomed, well-spoken, and looks professional in her suit. She could be an educator or therapist—and most of us would expect the kind of intuitive social interaction, understanding, and behavior that comes with those assumptions. But what her language skills and appearance fail to reveal is that Belinda was not born with the same capacity for social-emotional learning and social self-regulation. Even as a mature adult she needs to focus hard to figure things out, and many social aspects of the world still remain a mystery. She also continues to struggle with sensory processing, coping with change and noise; crowds can still overwhelm her. Stress can also present a minefield for Belinda if she isn’t ever mindful to avoid or prepare for situations where it might rear its head. As a result, she must discover, study, practice, and learn every social nuance for myriad contexts throughout a day that most neurotypical adults—even children—know intuitively and perform almost effortlessly with minimal active awareness, in the same way people learn to drive cars or ride skateboards and bicycles.


An act as seemingly simple as walking on a sidewalk in an urban setting teems with hazards and unknowns for Belinda. Contrary to what she’s been told, she knows it’s not anxiety that causes her to stop at every driveway to scan for cars or prevents her from crossing the street. It’s sheer bafflement. What if a car is exiting or entering the driveway? How can one possibly know what the drivers are going to do next? Belinda was 30 years old when someone finally showed her that she needn’t look down at her feet while walking to avoid tripping, but could instead look up and see what was ahead of her. It had never once occurred to her that she could predict what might happen next based on what she saw before her.


Belinda Knows but She Doesn’t Know

Belinda, herself, is amazed at what she knows but doesn’t know. For example, she knows she has a physical vision impairment that is not correctable with glasses and has known this all her life. At school she had to be in the front row or, in some cases, sit at a special desk placed in the front of the room to see what the teacher was presenting on the screen or board. What she understood was that her vision differs from others’ sight. But she always wondered why the letters on street signs were so small that no one could read them, or why the menu boards in restaurants were written in such a tiny script that no one could possibly make out what they said. Not until a year ago did she realize that most everyone else can, in fact, read those signs. She is the only one—or among the minority—who cannot. She now has figured out that a typical social expectation would be for her to ask for assistance in reading the signs or menu boards or whatever she cannot see.


What she has also come to understand as an adult is that it would never occur to the neurotypical people around her that she—an intelligent and well-spoken mature adult—would fail to connect the dots between her own vision impairment to the understanding that others do not share her vision impairment to then asking for assistance. Not only does Belinda not perceive that she often needs assistance in myriad ways, but most people around her would never conceive that she does not know how to formulate the words and non-verbal language to ask for help when she does recognize her need. Instead, we the social judges would automatically assume that she did not want or need assistance because of our assumptions based on her appearance.


Throughout her life, Belinda has been told repeatedly, angrily, that she yells at people, yet she never understood why people were angry or put off by her yelling. She assumed that when people didn’t answer or respond to something she said, it was because they didn’t hear her—so, logically, she raised her voice to ensure that they heard. What she was not seeing or understanding were the mysterious and hidden non-verbal cues. Folks all assumed that she knew what a shrug of the shoulders, a wave, raised eyebrows, a facial expression, or even leaving the room meant. No one taught her, yet somehow, seemingly out of thin air, she was expected to know.


What Belinda was taught were rote behaviors: look at people’s eyes when you speak with them, stand near people if you want to be included in the group, write a script for what you want to say on the telephone, dress for the weather. What Belinda wasn’t learning—what her well-meaning interventionists weren’t teaching her—was why these behaviors were only first steps toward developing social competencies. She had yet to learn and internalize that communication and sharing space evolve from an intricate process of socially attending to take perspective within a specific context, which would help her to interpret others’ intentions, as well as how others interpret and feel about her actions or lack thereof. She hadn’t been taught that this process will guide her into social problem solving to help her evaluate and then determine her social responses—and that as soon as she responds, the process doesn’t end but begins all over again as social contexts shift quickly, requiring great cognitive flexibility and emotional regulation to adeptly handle all these shifting social landscapes. Due to her not knowing this process for thinking socially, Belinda has suffered confusion, hurt, rejection, and abuse for decades. Even her interventionists have become frustrated with her “misbehavior,” seeing her more as a behavior problem than a person with social learning challenges who is slowly but surely improving in her social competencies.


Four years ago, Belinda read a passage in Michelle Garcia Winner’s book, Why Teach Social Thinking®?, that was at first incomprehensible to her—then astonishing! After reading “eyeballs move,” Belinda peered into the bathroom mirror and witnessed for the very first time in over 40 years that her eyeballs do indeed move! For the first time in her life she finally understood why the command to “look at people’s eyes” was drilled into her. People actually communicate some of their thoughts, judgments, and intentions through their eyes!


In another watershed moment three years ago, Belinda learned from Dr. Peter Vermeulen—despite a lifetime of pointing to smiley faces and frowny faces in an effort to recognize emotions in others and herself—that it is not the face alone that reveals emotions, but the context in which the face or person exists. A person can cry, not just because she is sad, but can also shed tears of happiness, or cry because she is chopping an onion or has dust in her eyes. Before that moment Belinda had never been taught or understood that one must understand context or, perhaps more importantly, how to use contextual information to interpret social information, a cornerstone of developing social competencies.


Nevertheless, even with this knowledge, there is no guarantee that Belinda and others with subtle but significant social learning challenges will be able to perform as our world expects. Speed is a huge factor when engaged in face-to-face social co-existence and communication. Socially competent persons can socially attend, interpret, and problem solve to decide and produce responses with millisecond timing. People like Belinda struggle, not only because they haven’t been taught, but because their brains struggle to efficiently process and respond to all this information. It’s as if their brains drive on a single-lane road, while everyone else is managing his or her brain on a superhighway. Yet, the more typical they appear, the more adept, the brighter or more skilled they are in certain aspects of their lives (learning information related to their passions or expressing their strong point of view on something of interest to them), the more harshly they are judged when they fall short of how we expect them to behave (given our assumptions) in daily situations in the social world. Simply stated, Belinda and others with social learning challenges often fail to meet others’ social expectations and end up unwittingly offending people left and right with their actions and reactions.


Here’s a case in point. In addition to her language prowess, Belinda has terrific research skills—although by her own admission, has no idea how to organize the details and “heaps” of information in her brain once acquired. Her brain makes it nearly impossible for her to sort through, organize, and summarize what she’s read. Her greatest passion is social policy, particularly around autism and disability, and to a lesser degree, trauma/child protection and homelessness, stemming from her own life experience. And she wants to share her knowledge and passion with others. She gets that others may not be as passionate or knowledgeable about her topics, but doesn’t know how to have conversations with people or how to evaluate what they know, want to know, or when they don’t want to talk about it anymore. So, she feels she ends up talking at them with her wall of information, as opposed to with them. Oftentimes, rather than explaining this to her, people cut her off or talk over her, as though that technique will somehow teach her how to converse. Instead of making a much-desired connection with others, she becomes dispirited by these painful and complicated interactions, so much so that she wonders, “Why even bother?”


What We Learn from Seeing Through the Eyes of a Social Learner

As educators, clinicians, therapists, and other types of interventionists, we constantly make assumptions about our students and clients based on their physical appearances, their ages, their education, their speech, their body language. For individuals like Belinda who struggle to interpret our abstract social world, people can be confounding at best and cruel at their worst. How many Belindas do you know? To navigate in our increasingly complicated social world, they cannot rely on rote behaviors, but need to be taught that social communication and functioning is an ongoing reflective process that we hone and practice every day of our lives.


What Belinda asks of us—for herself and for others with social learning challenges—is that we (the interventionists) take perspective for her weakness in interpreting and responding to socially based information. She asks that we recognize that she is not trying to offend us, and that she is trying harder than anyone may realize to be part of our community. She asks that instead of dismissing her out of our own discomfort, we take the time, make the effort to help her by explaining what she is doing that makes us uncomfortable or confuses us.


Belinda asks us to see the social world through her eyes instead—without assumptions—so that she can see it through ours. It is only then that we can all work together to create a community that respects each other’s differences and learns and benefits from each other’s strengths.


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