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4 Cornerstones of Social Awareness

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by Temple Grandin, PhD
Autism Asperger’s Digest
 | July/August 2007

Achieving social success is dependent upon certain core attributes of the person with ASD. In our book, The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships, my co-author Sean Barron and I introduced four aspects of thinking and functioning we think contribute the most to successful social awareness and social interactions. These 4 Cornerstones of Social Awareness are:

  1. Perspective-taking: the ability to “put ourselves in another person’s shoes” – to understand that people can have similar or      different viewpoints, emotions, and responses from our own. At an even more basic level is acknowledging that people exist and that they are sources of information to help us make sense of the world.
  2. Flexible thinking: the ability to accept change and be responsive to changing conditions and the environment; the mental ability to notice and process alternatives in both thought and actions; the ability to compare, contrast, evaluate.
  3. Positive self-esteem: a ‘can-do’ attitude that develops through experiencing prior success and forms the basis for risk-taking in the child or adult. Self-esteem is built upon repeated achievements that start small and are concrete and become less tangible and more complex.
  4. Motivation: a sustained interest in exploring the world and working towards internal and external goals despite set-backs and delays. Often motivation needs to be encouraged in kids with ASD, especially within the social arena. Let the child feel the benefits of      motivation first through using the child’s favorite topics or special interests and then slowly broadening out into other activities. If the      child loves trains, teach reading, math and writing with train-centered books, examples and activities. Play train-themed games to motivate social interaction.

Based on the social understanding Sean and I have achieved in our lives, we emphatically agree that perspective-taking, being able to look beyond oneself and into the mind of another person, is the single most important aspect of functioning that determines the level of social success to be achieved by a child or adult with ASD. Through it we learn that what we do affects others – in positive and negative ways. It’s the link that allows us to feel connected to others. It gives us the ability to consider our own thoughts in relation to information we process about a social situation, and then develop a response that contributes to, rather than detracts from, the social experience.

In our book, Sean describes how “talk therapy”, as he called it, helped him develop better social thinking skills and appreciate the varied perspectives of other people in his life. During his middle and high school years, he and his parents would sit for hours, sometimes until 1 or 2 a.m., discussing the most basic concepts of how relationships worked. For instance, Sean explains that even in his late teens, he still didn’t understand why it wasn’t OK to “absorb” people who took a genuine interest in him and showed they cared about him – that is, why it wasn’t acceptable to spend all the time he wanted with someone who was much older and had family and other personal obligations. He couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t make him the centerpiece of their lives, as did his parents.

For me, social thinking skills largely developed over time and through repeated experiences. The more “social data” I put on my hard drive, the better able I was to see the connections between my own thoughts and actions and those of others. For me, these “social equations” were born from my logical mind: “If I do X, then the majority of people will respond with Y.” As I acquired more and more data through direct experience, I formed categories and subcategories and even more refined subcategories in my social thinking. That’s why it’s so important for parents to engage children in all sorts of different activities and experiences. Without that direct learning – and lots of it – children don’t have the information they need to makes these social connections in their thinking.

Perspective-taking works hand-in-hand with flexible thinking; it provides opportunities for experiencing success in social interactions, which in turn fosters positive self-esteem. It can also act as a source of internal motivation, especially as children grow into adults and the type and quality of social interaction expands.

“Social thinking” skills must be directly taught to children and adults with ASD. Parents, teachers and service providers are slowly starting to realize the importance of incorporating such lessons into the child’s overall education plan. Doing so opens doors of social understanding in all arenas of life.

Temple Grandin is an internationally respected specialist in designing livestock handling systems. She is the most noted high-functioning person with autism in the world today.


Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2007. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.


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