Social thinking, or social cognition, refers to what we do any time we are interacting with someone, sharing space with someone, or basically engaging in any activity that requires our social interpretation of and reaction to the situations. We read and use the context of a situation through considering the thoughts, emotions, and intentions of people and a number of other social cues. All of this information determines how we interact and respond in each individual situation. It becomes a continuing cycle of interactions that determines how we respond to others, they respond to us, and then we again respond to them. The positive and negative outcomes of these interactions then have significant effect on our own emotional state and responses to others not involved in specific interactions. Which is all a complicated way of saying, social thinking involves all of the internal and external thought processes that are involved in determining how we respond and interact with people socially.
The ability to read social cues and use social thinking is actually developed prior to developing social skills. Almost from birth, a child is able to begin to read social cues. An infant is often intune with their parent’s mood cues and can tell if they are tense or afraid based off of very basic information such as tone of voice, body tenseness, heart beat, etc. As children grow, they become able to read and consider the thoughts and opinions of others, or gain a skill called perspective taking.These skills and other social thinking skills are used everywhere and all the time, from simple situations like walking down the street to more complex situations like being at a party or school. These skills are even used in social media, reading books, watching movies and are used when we form opinions about what we are seeing. All of this information we take in then forms the basis for how we respond. People use a whole other set of skills in order to form appropriate responses, sometimes immediately. Social thinking then becomes more than just thinking, but the skills that create and are used in all social interactions.
In most cases, this process comes naturally and develops as we grow, mature, and have more varied and frequent interactions or social involvement. Unfortunately, there are many people where this is not a natural process. In some cases, these individuals fall somewhere on the spectrum of diagnosis that involve social learning deficits or challenges, others may just have limited appropriate social models or exposure, and others may have no specific reason at all why social thinking is difficult to learn for them. When these challenges are present, it becomes very difficult to read social cues and consider what others are thinking, which then makes it difficult to use that information to respond appropriately. These skills are most often difficult for kids and adults on the Autism Spectrum.
A treatment approach called Social Thinking was created by Michelle Garcia Winner and has become very widely used to help learn these social thinking skills and improve the ability to have appropriate and successful social interactions. Other programs have been developed as well, but they all focus on teaching the same basic thing, how to think in social situations, through observing, thinking about their own and others thoughts and feelings, and learning the connection between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. They use the core principle that you have to learn how to think socially before you can learn social skills or a way of helping kids or even adults to learn social thinking before they have to learn the specific social skills, in order to help them use those social skills more effectively when the time comes. Social thinking programs are used in schools and in many private therapy settings. Many social workers, teachers, and therapists are trained in and have success in using these techniques to teach social thinking.
Social thinking programs are generally used for anyone age four and up. There does not have to be a specific diagnosis for it to work; however, most commonly kids on the Autism Spectrum, with ADHD, or with nonverbal learning disabilities have the most need for it. Anyone who struggles to pick up on social cues, or has difficulty listening or interacting in groups can also benefit from social thinking programs. Social thinking programs work by breaking down social concepts so that they make sense to those who struggle with them and even explaining why they matter so that they can understand. These programs also often include practice and are done in a group setting so that there are people who are available to practice with. There are a multitude of tools that can be used to teach these concepts and skills, including books, games, puzzles, and even cartoons. While the world of social thinking is complex, the programs serve to break it down so that people can learn the thinking processes and skills that did not come natural to them, and still live a healthy and successful life with many appropriate social interactions.