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Improving Social Thinking in Children with Autism

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Updated November 07, 2007

A child walks into the lunchroom. He goes through the lunch line appropriately, thanks 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 Asperger syndrome -- or 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, are 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."

How do you teach a child to "read" social cues such as body language, eye gaze, 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. 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 several new video products do just that.
  • Social thinking curricula, such as Winner's "Think Social," include specific lessons in how to watch people's eyes, shoulders, and movements for clues to what's really going on socially.
  • 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.

Resources:

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

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