“Want a good life? Enrich your social, emotional experience.” A week after attending Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking Conference, her ideas still ring strong in my ears. Her perspective on how we share space with others and help our clients to do so effectively is a powerful message.
Working with children who have social communication difficulties, the discussion is often around improving social ‘skills’: taking turns in a conversation or asking relevant questions. We’re often confronted by the challenge of supporting our children to apply this in everyday life. The conversation skills we practice in our group seem so far removed from the realities of being social.
The Social Thinking approach goes to the heart of the matter: the underlying thoughts, language and behaviour involved in our interactions. Michelle focuses on improving social competency, rather than surface skills. To this end, she has unpacked much of the complex language used to talk about communication (e.g. negotiation, cooperation, compromise) to explore principles of attention, interpretation, problem-solving and response. Her approach prompts us all to be clear about what exactly is involved in interaction and teach children not simply what to do in a social situation, but why they need to do it.
After the two-day conference, my notebook was crammed with ideas and I knew there was much more to explore. It’s understandable that something as fundamental as human connection should be a rich area for discussion. If you’re interested in exploring how we develop social understanding and help others to do the same, I encourage you to read more on Social Thinking. For now, here’s a few of the ideas that that I particularly appreciated:
Language and thought are interlinked
The way that we talk about things affects what we think about them, which then affects how we behave. So, by establishing a core vocabulary to talk about the social experience, we can reframe thinking and help improve a child’s ability to understand and respond to the situation.
Sharing play is shared imagination
Play is to children as conversation is to adults. Children build up their social understanding by being part of a group, creating stories together and contributing to a shared imagination. Children with social communication difficulties don’t lack imagination, but they do struggle to build a shared picture with others. Without the ability to create this imaginative world together, it is difficult to engage in social play.
Social attention is the first step
I am so often reminded of the value of being truly attentive, to pause and take in the scene. People on the autism spectrum are often very good at viewing the tiny specific details in a scene, at the cost of the ‘big picture’. This makes it difficult to notice people around them and interpret the scene. Establishing social attention is a crucial foundation for social understanding.
Everything before language
Communication involves thinking about where we are, establishing a physical presence and using our eyes to think about others. It is important to spend time establishing confidence in these areas of communication before we use language to relate to others.
In the last week I’ve encountered many opportunities to apply social thinking concepts, not only with my social learners but also with other groups. Social communication is rarely taught and yet we all benefit from being able to make positive connections with others.