Social thinking: Teaching the "why" of social skills

Building on traditional social skills teaching, therapists are incorporating Michelle Garcia Winner's Social Thinking programs in their strategies for teaching social competence to kids with autism.

SILVER SPRING, Md., August 19, 2011 — For a long time in the autism community, teaching social skills has been a crucial component of therapy. This often rote learning of scripts and strategies aimed at helping kids interact with their peers is a standard—and valuable—way to enhance a child’s chance of success in the world.

However, in recent years, more and more speech-language pathologists (SLPs) have turned to social thinking, a new way of teaching social competence espoused by Michelle Garcia Winner, the founder of this new school of thought and its associated methodology.

Rockville, Maryland-based SLP Susan Abrams has been teaching social thinking in individual, group and camp settings for the past five years. She also conducts parent coaching to help parents learn how to encourage social thinking full time at home. According to Abrams, “Social thinking is the ‘why’ behind the social skills.”

For example, instead of teaching a child to look at a peer’s face or eyes when having a conversation, an SLP using social thinking techniques would tell that child why doing so is important. “The ‘why’ is because you gain a lot of information: you’re interested in them, you’re trying to read their social cues, you’re gaining information about them,” explains Abrams. “Eye contact is not just the behavior of looking at me.”

While typical children may instinctively pick up on the reasons behind social rules and mores—saying thank you shows you appreciate a gift, showing interest in an activity is a good way to instigate a play session, looking at someone’s face shows you are interested in what they are saying—children with autism may not. Sometimes these children will get stuck on choosing between scripts they have been taught rather than understanding the reasons behind the script.

The goal of social thinking thus becomes not just socially appropriate behavior, but thoughtful understanding of these socially appropriate behaviors, as well as fostering social curiosity about others. Furthermore, social thinking therapists teach children how to read nonverbal cues and respond to them.

Social thinking can help kids with autism learn to successfully interact with their peers.

Social thinking can help kids with autism learn to successfully interact with their peers.

Chicago-based SLP Jordan Sadler has been using social thinking strategies with her clients for the past 9 years. She tells of a 5-year-old she worked with who had many imaginative ideas, but would disengage from his peers to act them out on his own. Sadler says that she gave the child some examples of what to say to a group of kids when he had a new play idea, but what really mattered to him was when she explained why he should say those things—namely, if you just walk away and start playing another game without saying anything, the other kids will probably think that you don’t like them very much.

“That was an aha moment for this child,” says Sadler. “He was completely shocked. Since that day, he has done a much better job of staying with other kids in his pretend play and in our summer social group. In fact, he has referenced that conversation with me a few times, in the moment, letting me know that he understands why it’s so important that he should stay connected with the other kids.”

It’s not just therapists that are seeing results with social thinking. Cree Costello, a 5-year-old with autism, has been working with Susan Abrams for about a year. His mother, Melanie, says that when he started social thinking therapy he couldn’t form questions, had difficulty recognizing nonverbal gestures and had difficulty initiating play with peers.

However, in the past year, she has noticed many changes in her son. She describes new behaviors, such as tracking other people’s eye gaze for clues and asking “I wonder” questions to explore his world. She reports that Cree’s flexibility has increased and that he is more aware that other people have likes and dislikes different from his own.

Melanie Costello believes that social thinking has changed her son’s life. “It has helped our son change from being inward and egocentric to a more outward and empathetic young boy,” she says. “It’s made him happier and more socially accepted.”

Social thinking creator Winner first began teaching with her method in 1995 and has since gone on to create whole programs offering books, workshops, clinics and concrete methods of teaching her system. Social thinking has become fairly mainstream in small pockets of the country, but is still largely underutilized.

“I feel like even in a huge city like Chicago, I’m in the minority with my focus on social thinking concepts and social thinking in general,” says Sadler. “I am pretty sure lots of old school social skills groups are still going on here and probably in many areas around the country.” In these groups, Sadler says that often kids are unable to deviate from the scripts they are taught “because they were told what to say, but not why they should say it.”

Abrams concurs, saying that she is the only professional in the state of Maryland who has trained at Winner’s institute, but adds that she has seen attendance at Winner’s annual social thinking conferences multiply in the past three years.

Abrams sees social thinking as a crucial skill. “Social thinking is dynamic, social skills is limited,” she says, adding that “Social thinking is happening everywhere. It’s not a school issue, it’s not a home issue. We’re constantly trying to find ways to include parents. They are a very important part of the process.”

“To me, it’s a ‘drop everything else and teach this first’ concept,” says Sadler. “This stuff is so critical and life-changing for the kids. Social communication underlies everything else—academics are only going to take a person so far if he doesn’t have the skills to communicate well with others, think flexibly and manage his emotional reactions.”

Cree Costello’s mother agrees, having attempted, with some success, to have social thinking concepts written into his school goals. “Of course it’s changed his life,” she says. “It’s a whole new world for him.”

Jordan Sadler, M.S. CCC-SLP, practices in Chicago at Communication Therapy, which you can find online at www.communicationtherapy.net. Susan Abrams, M.A. CCC-SLP, practices in Rockville, Maryland and runs workshops on social thinking as well as many other subjects at Parent University. She also facilitates a social thinking listserve called Be Social Kids.

Jean writes a personal blog at Stimeyland and an autism-events website for Montgomery County, Maryland, at AutMont. You can find her on Twitter as @Stimey. Read more of Jean’s work at Autism Unexpected in the Communities at the Washington Times.


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Jean Winegardner

When Jean had her first child in 2001, "autism" was about the scariest word she could think of. Six years later when her second child was diagnosed with PDD-NOS, a form of autism, she was just happy to have a word to help him get the services he needed. Her autism journey has been full of tears, laughter, love and at least one attorney.

Jean blogs about her life with her autistic son, Jack, on her blog, Stimeyland. Her two neurotypical children, Sam and Quinn (one older, one younger than Jack), make frequent appearances there as well. Also at Stimeyland? Jean's quirky sense of humor.

She also runs AutMont, an events calendar listing autism-related events in Montgomery County, Maryland.

Raising a child with special needs is hard for so many reasons, but after living with Jack, Jean wouldn't trade him for anything in the world. Come along with Jean as she experiences the joys that come with parenting a special kid.

You can email Jean anytime at stimeyland at gmail dot com or follow her on Twitter, where, as "Stimey," she offers her world view in snippets of 140 characters or less.

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