The need for Social Thinking

It was in the summer of 2012 that I first learned about Social thinking when I attended a Michelle Garcia-Winner conference put on by ACT. I immediately fell in love with Winner’s concepts and have been expanding my knowledge and using her curriculum ever since. Winner coined the term “social thinking“. As described on her website, “social thinking is what we do when we interact with people: we think about them. And how we think about people affects how we behave, which in turn affects how others respond to us, which in turn affects our own emotions.” (

As a parent of children with autism, I am very aware of the social challenges that those on the spectrum face. I have spent the last few years studying social thinking and implementing the strategies and lessons in our home with our 3 boys with ASD. It is remarkable how well the use of the vocabulary and concepts has helped my boys to understand not only how to interact and behave in an ‘expected’ way, but also why it is important for them to do so.

Because I have kids on the spectrum the need for these, usually innate, skills is obvious to me. What I am beginning to see more and more though is that it’s not just kids on the spectrum that are lacking in these skills; there are many kids with diagnosed or undiagnosed social deficits that are struggling through school. I started to wonder, what if social thinking was made a part of the school curriculum for all children.

A Study out of the University of Oregon shows that 80% of the population has social challenges. A majority of the population struggles with social thinking, and yet it is not part of our educational curriculum.

As children go through school, it is assumed that they are equipped with an intuitively learned set of social skills which they can readily access to engage in group discussions, share space, actively listen to the teacher and peers, conceptualize ideas, get organized and predict and infer.

The issue is that more and more children for many different reasons lack these skills and need to have them taught explicitly. Some children who may have social cognitive delays are:

  • ASD
  • NLD
  • ADHD
  • FASD
  • Bipolar
  • ODD
  • Tourette syndrome
  • OCD
  • Fragile X syndrome

Children who have social cognitive deficits struggle with:

  • Organization and initiation
  • Understanding body language and expression
  • Personal space
  • Perspective taking
  • Self-regulation
  • Getting the big picture (detail focused)

These children become easily frustrated and either have behaviors or withdraw which can easily be interpreted as being lazy and unmotivated or strong willed and challenging. Furthermore, when children have social cognitive delays, their academics are affected, they are at a higher risk for bullying due to appearing ‘odd or aloof’, and they are at a higher risk of suffering from anxiety and/or depression.

As I said earlier, it is not just children with disabilities that are lacking in social thinking skills in today’s schools. The increase in screen time that kids are getting also contributes to the absence of social thinking. When toddlers are supposed to be learning joint attention, and gathering information from their caregivers, they are instead focused on iPads and TVs. When they become older, video games take center stage, and as teenagers (or even pre-teens) they are communicating with friends over Facebook and other social media sites instead of face-to-face. This has the potential of creating a generation of young people who can talk about and think about themselves endlessly without having to deal with the social faux pas that we need to be mindful of in real interactions ie. – monopolizing a conversation, multitasking while you are talking to someone, personal space and even hygiene. When social skills are not practiced, like everything else, they are somewhat lost.

(Check out this video by Michelle Garcia Winner as she tries to answer the question, “What are the influencing factors contributing to Social Communication Disorder?”)

Although technology is a big part of today’s society, in order to live together in a community, we still need to know how to interact with each other, we need to think about the people who we are with and we need to understand how others perceive us.

You might be wondering, why should social thinking be taught in school?

There is a lot of support out there for parents of kids with ASD. We have funding in place to get our children the services that they need outside of school, we have opportunities to receive training ourselves to better help our children, and when they are at school they receive the support of a CEA and the Resource Teacher when they need it. Autism receives a ton of support, however there are many children out there that have a different diagnosis or no diagnosis that do not receive the same level of support. For these families it is often not financially possible for them to get the outside support that their children need. For this reason, among others, children are coming to school ill prepared for the tasks that are required of them. I truly feel that if we want children to be successful in school, to graduate ready to face the real world and to keep their mental health intact then they need to be taught how to think socially. Many teachers are doing a fantastic job integrating self-regulation and social thinking into their classrooms already, but how much better would it be if it was a part of the curriculum in all classrooms? If there was a tool to measure the progress of students to see who needs more in depth lessons?

We need to put aside specific diagnoses and understand that there are many children in school who have social cognitive delays. These delays are impacting their ability to learn core academics and to relate and effectively share space with others in the classroom setting and beyond. The sooner we realize that children are entering school without solid social thinking abilities and that this lack of abilities relates to their academics, mental health and enjoyment of school, the sooner we can help these kids get that equal opportunity to learn that we know they deserve!

– Jen