Research Article

Social Thinking® Methodology: Evidence-Based or Empirically Supported? A Response to Leaf et al. (2016)

Pamela J. Crooke and Michelle Garcia Winner
October 12, 2016


Our peer reviewed article, published in Behavior Analysis in Practice, addresses several misconceptions and inaccuracies in an article by Leaf and colleagues. These misconceptions have provided an excellent opportunity to clarify the well-established distinction between evidence-based practices (EBP) and empirically supported therapies (EST).

Social Thinking® Methodology: Evidence-Based or Empirically Supported? A Response to Leaf et al. (2016)

Pamela J. Crookeand Michelle Garcia Winner1

Published in ©Association for Behavior Analysis International 2016

The purpose of this article is to address several misconceptions and inaccuracies that were advanced in the article "Social Thinking®: Science, Pseudoscience, or Antiscience? (Leaf et al., 2016a; Erratum: Leaf et al., 2016b). These misconceptions have created an opportunity to discuss an issue of great importance to those who treat individuals diagnosed with social communication challenges including, but not limited to, autism spectrum disorders (ASD). That issue is the question of what do we mean by "evidence-based practice" or as Leaf and colleagues have cast it, the science of intervention. Because the Leaf et al. (2016a) article focused entirely on Social Thinking® (ST)1 for their arguments, we will start by defining the methodology, and then offer an alternative viewpoint to this important issue.

Social Thinking is a therapeutic methodology that was designed to complement and add to other approaches or frameworks for working with individuals with social communication challenges. It is not one single approach, nor is it one single set of procedures. Rather, ST is a methodology upon which empirically supported research-based practices (e.g., modeling, naturalistic intervention


We typically refer to the process of thinking socially, and the cognitive acts and related production of social skills (behaviors) that this subsumes, as social thinking (lowercase), whereas the formal methodology based on these concepts is referred to as Social Thinking® (uppercase).


Pamela J. Crooke

TSP/Social Thinking, 404 Saratoga Ave. #200, Santa Clara, CA 95050, USA

Published online: 12 October 2016


reinforcement, visual supports) can aggregate into specific strategies (e.g., establishing reciprocity, initiating social contact, utilizing problem-solving), via lessons, and activities for implementation. For instance, many of the lessons and activities within the methodology utilize thought bubbles for teaching theory of mind, mental states, and understanding thoughts; a strategy well documented in the literature (Kerr & Durkin, 2004; Parsons &Mitchell, 1999; Paynter & Peterson, 2013; Wellman et al., 2002). Another example is the use of structured lessons and activities that emphasize visual attention for teaching gaze direction for joint attention and social problem-solving (Frischen, Bayliss, & Tipper, 2007; Hendrix, Palmer, Tarshis, & Winner, 2013; Kaale, Smith, & Sponheim, 2012; Winner & Crooke, 2008; Wong & Kasari, 2012).

Further, the ST methodology is grounded in what is currently known about individual needs for those with social communication challenges (e.g., joint attention, inferencing, theory of mind) (Baron-Cohen, 2000; Charman et al., 2000; Hughes & Leekam, 2004; Landa, Klin, & Volkmar, 2000; Mundy, Sigman, & Kasari, 1994; Norbury & Bishop, 2002, Tomasello, 1995). And while the various therapeutic protocols and frameworks comprising the methodology were developed and are supported by these and other strong theoretical underpinnings (Crooke & Winner, 2015), many of the implementation strategies share the core tenants of both behavioral and cognitive behavioral theories. For example, the ST methodology teaches that treatment should begin with identification or discrimination of the desired target or concept; however, we utilize the terminology of social observation and thinking with eyes and smart guess (Winner & Crooke, 2008; Hendrix et al., 2013; Zweber-Palmer, Tarshis, Hendrix, & Winner, 2016) to parallel these well-documented behavioral concepts.



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