Social Thinking is a term coined by Michelle Winner to wrap our heads around the mysterious way that human beings communicate with each other. People who have a high “emotional quotient” or E.Q. (Check out Daniel Goleman’s popular book, Emotional Intelligence) don’t have “social skills,” they just intuitively read other people accurately and respond in a way that makes others feel comfortable around them. Simple? Heck no! Not for many individuals with neurodevelopmental delays (primarily those on the autism spectrum), or who are anxious, or who for unknown reasons have trouble understanding what others want from them without being explicitly told. Learning a set of skills to be socially successful doesn’t work because, unless an individual is very low developmentally (where ABA is most useful), we don’t relate by a set of skills. We relate by comprehending nuance. The more our students at JRA learn how to pick up on nuance in different situations with different personalities, how to read the thoughts, feelings and body language of their teachers and friends to make what Winner calls “smart guesses” about intention, the more they are able to respond in ways that make others want to be around them. They find they are becoming successful in the classroom (e.g., can do group work); or they are being sought out by possible friends (e.g., do you want to play this game with me?). No doubt, this reading of social “hidden rules” also makes a better student, one who can comprehend motives and overarching themes in literature and in the social sciences.
What gets in the way of being able to silently listen to another person’s ideas without interrupting? What interferes with knowing when to be quiet when no one is interested in your topic? How do you know when not to tell THAT joke again? How do you know when you’re getting on that teacher’s or classmate’s last nerve? How do you know when you are the brunt of a joke? etc., etc. Social interaction is complex and elusive and it requires a kind of perception about the other as well as a perception about yourself. That’s what we try to imbue into the cultural fabric at JRA. This takes time, intense curiosity, mapping out the social genome with handouts, films, improvisation, fun and most of all, patience with ourselves and each other. Because what comes intuitively, in the blinking of an eye, for most neurotypical folks, is a painstaking journey into an encrypted world for many of our students.
Sensory and emotional regulation give individuals a fighting chance at discerning social nuance. Am I hungry? Am I tired? Can I stop that video game from replaying over and over in my mind? Am I feeling calm or am I about to blow? Do I notice that I am revved but my classmates are not? Am I stuck on thinking a classmate is mad at me so I can’t write even a sentence? Am I looking long enough at my teacher’s face to get a clue? Feeling calm and in control of our bodies work hand in glove with realistically reading people and behaving in an expected manner.
If you have a friend, you have resilience. But you can’t just get a friend any more than you can get a loving spouse, or get a boss who listens to your ideas, or get a clerk to give you a refund. You have to learn how to read others as well as yourself, then make appropriate decisions about how to respond. With joy and humor, we adults can walk this walk with our children, AND learn a thing or two about how to be better social citizens ourselves.
Katie Reily, SLP