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Being Social Begins with Thinking Social

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Ellen Notbohm
Autism Asperger’s Digest
| September/October 2012

Excerpt from Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, updated and expanded edition, condensed from Chapter 8, by Ellen Notbohm (Future Horizons, 2012). For more information, visit www.ellennotbohm.com. To order this title, visit FHAutism.com.

Help me with social interactions.
We can be blunt with each other here. Kids with autism or Asperger’s frequently stand out as social oddballs. The heartbreak it causes, to child and to the parent, stirs in many parents an intense need to fix that facet of their child. If social competence was a physiological function, we could throw medication, nutrition, exercise or physical therapy at it and make it happen. If kids with autism were curious, outgoing, motivated learners, we could cultivate social intelligence curriculum-style.

Too often, our kids aren’t like that, and social awareness isn’t a set of concrete, itemized skills. Basic manners (please and thank you, use tissue, wait your turn) can and should be taught, regardless of the child’s level of function, but learning to be at ease among others in the bustle and nuances of daily life is infinitely more complex. Social skills are the end product of an intricate organism of developmental elements we call “social thinking.”

Just as we all have to learn to walk before we run, we must teach our children to “think social” before they can act social, with understanding and positive intent, not just by rote repetition or in fear of consequences. Social thinking presents your child with the challenge of factoring context and perspective into his actions—to consider the physical, social and temporal aspects of his surroundings, to take into account the thoughts and viewpoints of others, to use shared imagination to connect with a play partner, and to comprehend that others have favorable or not-so-favorable thoughts and reactions to him based on what he says and does. Social thinking is the source from which our social behaviors spring, and this social-emotional intelligence may be a bigger determinant in a child’s long-term success in life than cognitive intelligence.
Teaching a child with autism to think social begins with chucking any assumptions you may harbor about his ability to absorb social sensibility by simply being around and observing socially adept people, or that he will somehow, someday outgrow his social cluelessness. To date, our education system has based curriculum standards on the flawed supposition that all children enter the world with an intact social processing brain and on a presumed social developmental progression. It makes no sense (and is grossly unfair to the child) to respond to a child’s social snafus based on such assumptions and then blame his autism when our attempts to teach don’t register with him. What our children need is for us to shift perspective and start building their social awareness at its roots.

When we say we want our child to learn social skills, we’re really reaching for something grander. We want him to be able to fit into the world around him, to function independently at school, in the community, at work and within his personal relationships. More than playing by a rule book, being social is a state of confident being that grows with careful nurturing of social thinking skills, starting when a child is very young:

  • Perspective taking: being able to see and experience the world from standpoints other than your own, and to see these different perspectives as opportunities to learn and grow.
  • Flexibility: being able to roll with unforeseen changes in routine and expectation, being able to recognize that mistakes are not an end result but a part of learning and growing, and that disappointments are matters of degree.
  • Curiosity: drawing motivation from thinking about the “why” behind things—why something exists, why its existence is important, why others feel the way they do, and how it reflects back and matters to us.
  • Self-esteem: believing enough in your own abilities to risk trying new things, having enough respect and affection for yourself to be able to deflect the cruel and thoughtless remarks and actions of others as saying more about them than you.
  • Big picture thinking: appreciating that social thinking and social awareness are part of all we do, whether or not we are interacting with others. We read stories, trying to figure out the motives of characters and predict what they will do next. We replay situations in our head, deciding whether or not we acted appropriately. Your child may tell you, “I don’t care about being social; I’m happy by myself.” He may mean it in the moment, and many people do generally prefer solitude to socializing. But it’s also true that some of our kids adopt the I-don’t-care attitude to deflect the pain of caring very much and not having the knowledge, skills and support to overcome their social barriers, and in doing so, be able to achieve their goals and dreams in life.
  • Communication: understanding that we communicate even when we are not talking. Michelle Garcia Winner (2007), who coined the term “Social Thinking” and is considered today to be one of the leading voices in the field, outlines four steps of communication that unfold in linear sequence, within milliseconds and often without conscious thought:

–     We think about other people’s thoughts and feelings as well as our own
–     We establish physical presence so people understand our  intention to communicate
–     We use our eyes to monitor how people are feeling, acting, and reacting to what is happening between us
–     We use language to relate to others

Did you notice that language enters the communication equation only as the last step?

And yet it’s where, as parents and teachers, we typically place emphasis. Teaching only step four in the absence of the other three leaves your child or student inadequately equipped, vulnerable and wide open to the likelihood that she will be less effective, less successful in her social communication.

Mainstreaming a child with her typically-developing peers will not bring forth social thinking skills without direct, concrete teaching of social concepts. Without this direct teaching, your child will still bob along into adulthood in that same sea of social miscommunication. Teaching your child to think social and be social is a mosaic of thousands upon thousands of petite learning opportunities and encounters that, properly channeled, will coalesce into a core of self-confidence. It requires you, as his parent, his teacher, his guide, to be socially aware 110% of the time, break down the web of social intricacies, and clue him into the social nuances that are so difficult for him to perceive.

“To the top of the mountain, one step at a time,” advises the old proverb. One of my son Connor’s favorite books told the story of Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay, the first people to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. Amid controversy over the years that Tenzing arrived at the summit a step or two ahead of the more famous Sir Edmund Hillary, Tenzing’s son Jamling told Forbes magazine in 2001: “I did ask him, and he said, ‘You know, it’s not important, Jamling. We climbed as a team.’” Like Tenzing, you’ve been climbing this mountain for many years. Like Hillary, your child is making his first ascent. Be his Sherpa, knowing and helping him see that the view along the way can be spectacular.

Garcia Winner, M. 2007. Thinking About YOU Thinking About ME, 2nd ed. San Jose, CA: Think Social/Social Thinking.


Ellen Notbohm is the author of one of the autism community’s most beloved books, Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew, and three other award-winning books on autism. Visit her at www.ellennotbohm.com and find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/ellennotbohm. Please contact the author for permission to use in any way, including posting on the Internet.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2012. All Rights Reserved. Any distribution, print or electronic, prohibited without permission of author.

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