That statement made everyone perk up two Fridays ago as well, when Michelle Garcia Winner spoke at a day-long conference presented by Seattle Children’s Autism Guild, “Thinking About YOU, Thinking About ME.”  Michelle went on to point out that obviously Little Red wasn’t a very good observer, unable to make the distinction between her grandma and a vicious wolf.  All the while, noticing the details (e.g. “my, what big teeth you have.”), but not the bigger picture (i.e. she might want to run away to avoid the same fate as her grandma).  But the conference was much more than a social commentary on fairy tales.

Michelle is a renowned authority on social development and has experience working with kids across the Autism Spectrum.  Over the last decade or two, she has focused her work on “Social Thinking” and developing strategies to help people structure the social communication and interaction that many of us take for granted.

She defines Social Thinking as what we do when we interact with people: we think about them. And how we think about people affects how we behave, which in turn affects how others respond to us, which in turn affects our own emotions.

The ability to perceive what others might be thinking and the subsequent ability to then shape our own behavior based on those perceptions comprise a kind of “Social Radar System,” in Michelle’s terms. She then went on to explain that this “Social Radar System” works to varying degrees in people with an autism spectrum disorder, depending on how strong an individual’s “signal strength” is. Michelle’s examples were that a person who is “neurotypical” (does not have autism) may have the full 5 bars of service, whereas a person who is “classically autistic” (more significantly affected by autism – nonverbal or with limited communication) gets the signal strength of only 1 bar (or fluctuation between 1 and no service like my cell phone).

It may be useful for parents of a child with autism to determine where their child falls on a social thinking/social communication profile, rather than focusing on a diagnostic label which tends to lump all children together.  I think that trying to classify your child who has autism on this type of scale is generally more helpful and is hopefully what therapy providers of all types try to do in their initial evaluations with your children.

I encourage you to take a look at Michelle’s “Social Communication Profile” if you’re interested in learning more.  Social Communication is such an incredibly complex web of skills; Michelle’s most powerful quote of the day (besides the Little Red one, of course) came in the form of “if you try to pull apart one part of social to teach it, you actually destroy the social.”

Because of this social complexity, Michelle is clear that Social Thinking is really geared towards those with diagnoses of Asperger’s Syndrome and high functioning autism.  On her scale, it’s for those with 3 or 4 bars of social signal strength.  There are plenty of books out there that go into lots of detail about Social Communication in general, but to at least give you a blog-worthy starting point, Michelle breaks it down into 4 Steps:

  1. Thinking about the person you are near or talking to
  2. Establishing physical presence
  3. Thinking with your eyes
  4. Using language to relate to others (dependent on the first three)

Thanks to Michelle Garcia Winner for her talk on August 3rd and thank you to the Seattle Children’s Autism Guild for organizing this great event.  Be sure to check out the Guild’s website for information about events, volunteering and the upcoming Auction!