What Is Social Thinking, and Why Is It Hard for People with Autism?

Social thinking requires awareness of and interpretation of subtle cues.

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Happy women chat. Getty Images

Social thinking is a single term used to describe the many elements that go into navigating social situations. It includes awareness of and correct interpretation of non-verbal cues, tone of voice, context, and social politics. It also involves the ability to respond appropriately based on all the social cues available. For people with autism (especially high functioning autism), social thinking skills are hard to acquire and use.

What Is Social Thinking for "Neurotypical" People?

You stop for coffee on the way to work and notice that the barista is looking particularly tired. You ask "Are you ok?" and he smiles as he explains that his new baby kept him up all night.

At work, you pick up on the fact that several co-workers are gathered in a little knot speaking quietly.  As you walk by, the group looks up and stops talking.  You wait a moment to get a handle on the mood of the group, and feel relief when the knot opens up, the group members smile, and the office administrator beckons you in.  "We're planning a baby shower for Kim," she says. "Come join us!"  You smile back and spend a few minutes helping to plan the event.

You make a point of stopping by your boss's office to say good morning, because you know she appreciates the personal connection.  You chat for a few minutes before you head to your desk.

At each step along your path to work, you've used social skills and social thinking to observe, make sense of, and respond to situations involving other human beings -- thus setting a positive course for the day.

Social Thinking Challenges with Autism

But what if you saw but didn't make social sense of the people around you?  For example, what if you saw the barista looking frazzled, but instead of seeing a tired dad you saw someone actively attempting to avoid looking at you?  What if you saw the knot of people, but walked by them because they had nothing to do with your progress toward your desk?  What if you never took the extra social step of stopping by your boss's office because you had no clue that she appreciated a personal hello?

Your mood, your sense of community, and your collegial relations with your boss would all suffer.

As you step through your day, if you have typical social thinking skills, you engage without even noticing it in two key activities: "mind reading" and perspective taking. 

Mind reading, in this context, means picking up on physical and vocal clues that tell you how another person is feeling or, in some cases, what he is thinking.  For example, you knew the moment you saw the barista that something was wrong, that that something didn't relate to you, and that a carefully worded question about his body language might be appropriate.  Tomorrow, if you see that he's even more tired, you'll be able to "read his mind," and know that his baby is having a tough time sleeping.

Perspective taking involves seeing the world from another's point of view.  You know that your boss, for example, is a naturally social person who is separated from her peers as a result of her position and the location of her office.  Imagining yourself in her position, you are aware that she feels isolated and appreciates a casual moment of social interaction.  So you provide it.

People with autism see what you see and hear what you hear, but without specific training, they may not associate their observations with others' feelings or needs.  If the other person is speaking directly to them, or if others' actions don't directly affect them, people with autism are more likely to simply ignore them.  Alternatively, in some cases (particularly with people on the very high end of the autism spectrum) they may misinterpret vocal tone or body language.

As a result, people with autism may be completely unaware of others' feelings or actions, or they may misinterpret others' feelings and intentions.  Naturally, this leads to a variety of unwelcome outcomes, ranging from marginalization (they aren't invited to Kim's shower because they didn't take part in planning it) to bullying to serious misunderstandings relative to sexual cues and other issues.

Helping Autistic People Build Social Thinking Skills

While social thinking itself has been around forever, the concept that social thinking is a skill that can and should be taught is relatively new.  Michele Garcia Winner coined the phrase "social thinking," and created curricula to teach the skills through direct instruction and practice.  Winner's curricula are intended for children with autism who are starting almost from scratch with their social thinking skills. 

Social thinking is challenging, however, for most of us.  And while Winner's social thinking curriculum is by far the most direct and intentional approach to building mind reading and perspective taking skills, she is in good company.  Dale Carnegie, Anne Landers, and many others have helped to lead individuals with social thinking difficulties down the path of positive social engagement.

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