Help Your Autistic Child Improve Social Thinking Skills

Social communication is one of the core deficits (challenges) of autism. Whether a person on the spectrum is young or old, verbal or nonverbal, male or female, he or she will have a difficult time understanding and responding to social language and cues.

For people at the more severe end of the spectrum, social communication is extremely challenging. The use of spoken or written language may be very limited or non-existent. Joint attention, the ability to pay attention to something WITH another person, may also be compromised. For people with greater communication skills, issues include difficulty with body language, sarcasm, small talk, social relationships, and understanding the unwritten rules around when and how to express oneself in specific situations.

Cute little boy, playing with toy cars at home
Tatyana Tomsickova Photography / Moment / Getty Images

Social Thinking Skills

While social communication should be a major focus for every child with autism, "social thinking" is most appropriately taught to children who are verbal and able to engage verbally and socially with typical peers.

So what does a deficit in "social thinking" look like? Imagine this scenario:

A child walks into the lunchroom. He goes through the lunch line appropriately, thank the lunch ladies, pays his money and takes his change. He sits down, starts to eat, and seems perfectly normal until another group of kids sits down near him. Even though they clearly don't intend to include him, he starts talking to them. And talking. And talking. They pointedly turn away, but he ignores them, chatting on and on about baseball stats. Finally, the other kids walk away, rolling their eyes.

This child, probably diagnosed with high functioning autism, has a pretty good grasp of social "skills." He knows how to manage the lunch line, what to say, how to handle money. He can choose a seat and eat his own lunch. But when it comes to managing human relationships, he's completely at sea.

What he's missing, according to expert Michelle Garcia Winner, is social thinking and related social skills. "Autism is a social learning disability. You can [be taught to] produce a skill, but it's not enough," Winner says. "We ... need the social knowledge that underlies the skill."

Teaching Social Cues

How do you teach a child to "read" social cues such as body language, eye gaze, the tone of voice, or physical proximity? There are a number of tools that parents, therapists and teachers can use to help.

  • Social stories are a great tool for helping kids manage specific situations. These are simple illustrated stories that preview a new place or experience, and explain what to expect, how the child should behave, and what options are available for managing anxiety or other issues. If a child already knows what to look for — and what to do in various situations - he's way ahead of the game.
  • Video models are proving to be a useful tool for teaching social thinking skills. Kids with autism seem to learn best when taught directly, and videos can be created specifically for an individual child or bought "off the shelf" for common situations.
  • Social thinking curricula, such as Winner's "Think Social," and "iLaugh" include specific lessons in how to watch people's eyes, shoulders, and movements for clues to what's really going on socially. These are usually taught in a group setting, whether in school or elsewhere.
  • Drama therapy is a new and growing field. Drama therapists offer kids the opportunity to experiment with social interaction in a safe, supportive setting.
  • Therapists and teachers at school can set up opportunities for kids with autism to interact socially with typical peers, providing supports and offering constructive "social autopsies" after difficult interactions.

Social thinking is a very complex topic, and few people, autistic or not, feel they've truly mastered it. By working with therapists and in natural settings, using proven tools, and helping your child to find groups that support him and his particular strengths and interests, however, you can help your child to vastly improve his or her ability to think well in a social situation.

Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Grandin, Temple and Barron, Sean. Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships. Future Horizons: Arlington, TX. C 2005

  • Interview with Michelle Garcia Winner, October 2007.

  • Winner, Michelle G. Think Social! A Social Thinking Curriculum for School-Age Students. Michelle Garcia Winner: California C 2005

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.