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Worth Repeating: What Are Social Thinking Challenges?

By: Michelle Garcia Winner, MA, CCC-SLP
specializes in the treatment of individuals with social cognitive deficits: those with diagnoses such as autism, Asperger Syndrome and nonverbal learning Disorder.
A classic example of a person with a social thinking challenge is that of my friend Ian who is entering into 4th grade. He has excellent language skills and has amazing abilities to learn information about topics of his interest, such as American History. He enjoys learning topics that are factual in nature and in fact excels in these academic tasks. Regardless of his strong academic abilities in most areas of math and language he struggles considerably focusing his attention in his mainstream classroom, participating as part of a group, explaining his ideas to others in writing and making friends during recess and lunch. He prefers talking to adults, rather than his peers, since adults will discuss with him his areas of interest. When adults are not available to talk to, he goes to the library to read a book. While his teacher enjoys his knowledge, she is mystified by his difficulties at school given that he scores in the fine to superior on academic testing. It is difficult for his teacher to understand that he does not have a behavior problem; instead he has social thinking challenges, which makes it difficult for him to deal with all aspects of the expectations across his school and home day. His mother describes him as “bright but clueless”
Simply put, social thinking is our innate ability to think through and apply information to succeed in situations that require social knowledge. Social thinking is a form of intelligence that is key to learning concepts and integrating information across a variety of settings; academic, social, home and community. Limited abilities for learning and/or applying socially relevant information can be considered a social thinking learning disability.
The great difficulty encountered when trying to determine if a child has social thinking challenges is that standardized tests available through educational, psychological and/or speech and language evaluations fail to reveal problems in this area. Thus a child’s ability to do well on testing in no way proves or disproves the possibility that he or she may have a significant learning disability in the form of social thinking. The reason that standardized tests lack in their ability to illuminate deficits in this area is that testing needs to be highly structured in order to cleanly measure the very specific skills that the test or subtest was designed to evaluate, however social cognition requires the complex integration of multiple skills. Thus, standardized test formats, as we currently know them today, are often counter to the evaluation process for exploring social thinking skills.
Social thinking challenges represent a social executive function problem. The ability to socially process and respond to information requires more than factual knowledge of the rules of social interaction, it also requires the ability to consider the perspective of the person you are talking to. Perspective taking can be defined as considering the emotions, thoughts, beliefs, prior knowledge, motives and intentions of the person with whom one is communicating as well as one’s self. This ability then allows one to not only better determine the actual meaning behind the message being communicated but also how best to respond to that message. Thus applying social knowledge and related social skills successfully during social interactions requires the complex synchronicity of perspective taking along with language processing, visual interpretation and the ability to formulate a related response (verbal or non-verbal) in a very short period of time (1-3 seconds).
Finally, social cognitive deficits do not only reveal themselves during social interactions, but instead they are present during many academic tasks that require highly flexible abstract thinking such as written expression, reading comprehension of literature, organization and planning of assignments and some students have tremendous difficulty learning math skills. Thus persons with significant difficulties relating to others interpersonally often have related academic struggles in the classroom particularly as they get older. Typically, we start to require more creative thinking, flexibility and organizational skills to succeed in the classroom curriculum starting in 3rd/4th grade. Some students begin to show struggles at that time, while others students manage to hold it together until middle school. It is very common for students to develop academic problems only when they got older even when it is determined that this person is “quite bright” according to psycho-educational measures.
Unfortunately, our academic system is set up mostly for the “early intervention” model of specialized education. This means that traditionally we have understood that many students have difficulty getting their structured learning started, thus we have a number of specialists who work with younger children to help them learn the more traditional academic skills of reading and writing. Students with social cognitive deficits often have the reverse problem of learning in that they acquire the more factually based academic skills with relative ease and then only begin to struggle once they are required to use complex critical and social thinking skills to interpret the information presented in the classroom. Given that most educational systems do not account for this type of learning disability, few have developed an educational plan for educating these children with regard to their abstract/social cognitive learning needs as they get older.
It is vitally important that we explore how best to provide social cognitive educational lessons to children across all of their school years!
Article Reprinted with Permission of Michelle Garcia Winner and Social Thinking
Michelle Garcia Winner, over the past decade, has developed these resources for professionals, parents and the broader public. In 2008, Michelle received a Congressional award for her development of social thinking as the basis for curricula in a variety of educational and therapeutic settings around the country. The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders has also published research supporting the social thinking methodologies she’s developed. In addition to writing nine books on the subject, Michelle travels around the world speaking on the issues relating to this approach that has assisted individuals with autism spectrum disorders (particularly higher-functioning autism, Asperger’s, NLD and similar) and she receives praise for her educational, energetic and innovative workshop presentations. She serves on the Panel of Professional Advisors of the Autism Society of America.
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