Social Thinking at School

by Michelle Garcia Winner

How can we help children with Asperger Syndrome (AS) or related diagnoses develop the skills they need to communicate effectively and express them selves creatively? The answer appears to be in teaching them more about the "why" behind the social behaviors we are trying to coach. When individuals with AS are taught the reason for the behaviors we seek to promote, they are more likely to generalize those behaviors across a variety of settings.

A Multitierd Approach

Asperger Syndrome (AS) is primarily a deficit of social cognition and social communication, recognizing that "social" means the ability to adapt to people in differing circumstances and not just those related to social interaction or social fun. However, one of the more obvious symptoms of persons with AS is their weakness in the development of social pragmatic skills that make for strained social relations within their peer group or when needing to work collaboratively in a group. Simply put, they just don't "get it" in complex social environments.

Many people perceive that the primary treatment approach for people with AS is to teach them social skills within a social skills group with neurotypical peers serving as role models. While this approach allows for integration with a range of people, persons with AS and those with related social learning challenges truly need a much fuller treatment approach, one that explores social cognitive/communicative skills across a range of functions. They need to learn thinking that supports the skills required for interpreting and producing creative expression through reading, writing and talking, as well as communication skills for personal problem solving.

Thinking Socially

One of the key strengths of persons with AS is that they are generally functioning with near normal to above normal intelligence on more traditional measures of intelligence. This implies they have the ability to learn more abstract concepts, as long as they are introduced in very concrete ways. To gain social understanding of the world, persons with AS have to learn cognitively how to think socially and produce related skills that they did not learn intuitively.

At the Social Thinking Clinic (part of Think Social Publishing, Inc) in San Jose, Ca., we describe this as teaching "social thinking and related skills." This approach provides cognitive lessons in WHY we would employ a variety of social skills, prior to teaching and expecting the production of related skills. It is based on the belief that the weak development of social pragmatics skills emerges from weak supporting social cognitive knowledge.

The social thinking approach was developed through observing the impact of direct clinical intervention with students with AS across the school-aged years and into adulthood. One of the critical concerns of teaching a purely social skills approach is the lack of carryover this teaching has into less structured environments.

Use in the Classroom

An example of the difference between teaching purely "social skills" and teaching "social thinking and related skills" can be explored through how we teach the concept of eye contact. The traditional social skills approach to is to say to the student "look at me" when they are failing to use this skill; various rewards such as praise or tokens are then provided to reinforce the performance of this skill. A social thinking approach views eye-contact as a tool that helps to facilitate recognition of what someone else may be thinking as well as how they may be feeling about the communicative interaction.

We talk to students about "thinking with their eyes" rather than use the words "eye contact." We encourage them to be detectives who have to learn to observe the people and context within which they are communicating to help them make better educated guesses about the nature of the communicative exchange. This is a much deeper approach than simply asking someone to "look at me." This example of a social thinking approach provides a depth of information that helps students generalize the related skills with more consistency according to reports from educators and parents.s

Furthermore, we have created a "social thinking vocabulary" which helps to break down a large range of abstract social concepts into more concrete terms to help students understand the social expectations that surround them. Regular and special education teachers can use the social thinking vocabulary in their classrooms to encourage increased awareness of social thinking for all students. There is not a moment of the academic school day that occurs outside of a social environment.

Dealing with the Blurter

The lack of understanding the purpose of the eyes not only impacts interpersonal relations/social conversations; it also can strongly impact a student's participation within structured group learning environments. Many teachers indicate to whom who they are asking a question to during group instruction by showing intentionality of communication through directed eye-gaze rather than through calling a student's name. When they want to ask a student a question they look right at them and then follow with the question. Most students in the class understand intuitively to whom the teacher is directing her attention; however, students who lack the ability to easily attend to the information provided through other people's eyes may just holler out the answer. The teacher perceives that they are "blurting," but the student may have not recognized who the teacher was addressing since she did not concretely specify the name.

To help teachers educate the blurter about the social cognitive process of non-verbal communication, I encourage teachers to keep their eyes focused on who they were talking to, hold up the palm of their hand in the direction of the blurter and say to them "I was looking at this student (say the student's name), I was talking to this student, I am not talking to you right now." By doing this, the teacher provides cognitive information about the process of communication that helps the student learn how to avoid blurting. This is much more helpful than telling the student "don't blurt." As part of the long term teaching process it is also important to remember to attend to the student with social challenges when he is responding to questions appropriately by complimenting his ability to "think with his eyes".This model can be used at home, too.

Social Cognition Across Settings

In fact, social cognitive information and the related social pragmatic skills are deeply embedded in the requirements for learning across the school and home day. Social cognition is the mortar that binds together the more factual knowledge gained through learning of the language arts curriculum, working as part of the group, etc. Social cognition allows us to abstract, interpret and take perspective of the information required to assist with tasks such as: reading comprehension of socially abstract concepts (literature), math word problems, written expression, interpreting non-literal directions, participation as part of a group in the classroom, participation with peers or family members during unstructured time, organizational skills both within the classroom and during homework assignments and working together with peers on class projects. Social thinking is also required for success as adults on college campuses, holding jobs and maintaining a healthy home environment.

While social cognitive skills are critical for success across the day, these abstract skills are difficult to measure and they are rarely directly taught within the curriculums established for education or when teaching adults job skills. For people who are lacking these skills, it is imperative that we recognize their ability to learn social thinking and related skills so they can function better in our society and lead fuller and more productive lives as a result.

©2012 Social Thinking Publishing - Michelle Garcia Winner  www.socialthinking.com