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Social Cognition, Social Goals, and Speech Therapy Intervention at Lang Using the Social Thinking Methodology

Updated: Jun 4

The social world is extremely complicated to navigate, especially for individuals with social learning differences, difficulties, or disabilities. One thing that is a constant however, is that every person has social goals. For some, their social goal may be to expand their friend circle and meet new people. For others, their social goal may be to fly under the radar and avoid any possible social interactions at all. Some other examples of social goals include: participating with others in a group, standing out as being a unique thinker, being helpful, being friendly, passing a class without having to share out loud, helping myself and others to feel comfortable, etc.

Our social goals reflect our desire or need to attain something where competencies may be lagging. It is also important to note that social goals involve much more than just conversational discourse skills—they come into play any time we share space with others, even if we are not speaking. In order to meet one’s social goals, it is important to possess the meta awareness to allows one to act in a way that moves interactions towards said goals. Social Thinking is a methodology that drives much of our work at The Lang School and is grounded in developing these social meta-cognition skills. The focus of much of our speech intervention at Lang centers around helping our students achieve their social goals while learning about how their behaviors contribute to and impact the people around them and the responses they receive. 

Our social brain is our “meaning maker”; we use it to make sense of information in the social world. Each person’s lens into the social world is uniquely influenced by dynamic internal drivers and external forces. Internal drivers are our personal ideas, thoughts, and passions, which command our internal attention. External forces are what is happening around us. When a person struggles to manage their internal drivers based on the external forces, they may act in a way that is perceived by others as being “unexpected”, or that doesn’t meet the hidden social rules of that situation.

Picture this: Student A is riding the bus to school and is running through their plan for the morning in their head: get to school, hang up coat and backpack on hook, go into the classroom, sit in the blue chair for morning gathering. Student A gets to school, walks upstairs, hangs up their coat and backpack on their hook, but when they enter the classroom, they sees student B put their belongings on the blue chair and then walk over to the teacher to tell them something. Student A is faced with a choice:

  • he can move Student B’s belongings and sit in the blue chair, or

  • he can choose another place to sit for morning gathering.

We know that the hidden social rule in this situation is that when somebody puts their belongings on a seat, it means they are claiming it. We also know the hidden social rule that moving somebody else’s belongings without their permission would make them feel uncomfortable and have confused or negative thoughts. An individual with social-cognitive difficulties may not realize this and may struggle to manage their internal driver (wanting to sit in the blue chair) with the external forces (student B putting their belongings on the chair and the hidden social rules associated with that). 

A core concept of the Social Thinking methodology is the Social Emotional Chain Reaction. Simply put: based on a specific social landscape and the implied or stated social norms within it, what each of us does or says in the presence of others can impact how we are perceived by others, which may impact how we are treated, and which can impact how we are likely to feel about people in that situation and about ourselves.

When thinking about the Social Emotional Chain Reaction, it is also important to always have one’s overarching social goals in mind. The way that we act should support our ultimate social goal. Back to our example above, if Student A’s social goal is to make and keep friends, they should be thinking about that when deciding how to act. 

Being in a group means we balance “me” with the “we”. We think about what we need personally and what others around us need.  In order to balance the “me” with the “we”, executive function skills such as mental flexibility, perspective taking, self-regulation, and problem solving, are required. 

Picture this; You are at a convention attending a session with 500 other participants. The speaker gets up on the stage and begins to introduce herself to the audience. She shares that she is from Minnesota, has 4 kids, and has been speaking at conferences for the last 10 years. You have an aunt who is from Minnesota. Do you raise your hand and share that with the speaker? To many people, the answer would be an “obvious” no. You know the hidden social rule at play here and know that if you raise your hand and share that you have an aunt in Minnesota in front of 500 other participants, in the middle of the speaker’s session, it would make other people around you feel confused and uncomfortable. The other people around you would not care about your aunt. You used self-regulation and problem solving to say “maybe I will keep that in my head for now and come back to it and go chat with the speaker 1:1 during a break”. Now, if you don’t have a social goal of caring about other people, you may not have this thought process and may stop the conference to share that you have an aunt in Minnesota. Why do we inhibit a response or not say something? It is because of a greater social goal.

So how do we develop these executive functioning and social cognitive skills for our students at The Lang School? While development begins in infancy and continues to develop throughout adulthood, according to Karen Young, Psychologist and author, these skills are developed “gradually, with plenty of support; with modeling and coaching”. Think about learning to ride a bike. You don’t teach a child to ride a bike by telling him that he needs to try harder or that he just needs to use his sense of balance. Offering rewards or threatening punishments is not going to change the outcome for a child who is not developmentally ready to ride a bike. Children need scaffolding (trike to training wheels to bike). Think of social cognitive skills and executive functioning skills the same way. And this developmentally aligned scaffolding is at the center of everything that we do at Lang.

The Social Thinking methodology fosters the development of social competencies by teaching implicit social concepts in an explicit manner through metacognitive strategies and tools. The aim of Social Thinking is to take the abstract social world and be able to teach it in an explicit way. Social Thinking does not teach social skills, rather it teaches metacognitive strategies (think about thinking and talk about thinking). We are interested in the skill, but we really focus on the why behind it and what goes underneath. By teaching social competencies in this manner we are teaching social competencies in a neurodiversity affirming manner that helps our students achieve their social goals while learning about how their behaviors contribute to and impact the people around them and the response they receive. 

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