My guest this week is Michelle Winner, MA, CCC-SLP who specializes in the treatment of individuals with social learning challenges and is the founder and CEO of Social Thinking®, a company dedicated to helping individuals from four through adulthood develop their social competencies to meet their personal social goals. Michelle coined the term “Social Thinking” in the mid-1990s and since that time has created numerous unique treatment frameworks and curricula that help educators, clinicians, professionals of all types, and parents/family members appreciate that social capabilities are integral to a person’s success in life, socially, academically, and professionally.
In this episode, Michelle and I discuss what social skills actually entail. Most people, including education professionals, believe that social skills can be taught the way other competencies are taught. Michelle has dedicated her entire career to helping school professionals and parents understand that social skills involve so much more. That’s why she created “Social Thinking” courses. Many people have the ability to hear their own thoughts, that inner voice, and observe their thoughts before speaking or taking action. This enables them to engage in a conversation, join a group, meet new people, etc. Michelle noticed early on that there are many people in the world, even high academic achievers, who do not possess this ability innately. So she has designed several programs, developed research, and written many papers on how to help people learn social thinking. Head over to SocialThinking.com for lots of free resources on this topic.
Need help with improving your child’s behavior naturally?
Is your child socially aware of what’s going on around them?
- Are you constantly helping your child adapt or are they adapting on their own?
- They may be bright or academically advanced but have trouble understanding the world around them
- Listening with your eyes and brain
- Understanding and perspective
- Getting the main idea
- Humor in human relatedness
- (add an S) for sensory processing
Helping too much and never being vocal about the challenges can be harmful and not helpful
- Unfortunately in special education, at times, too much of the adult’s work is showing up in what the kid turns in
- Teachers, para pros, parents, other adults – this includes managing the timing of things, the organization, the reminders, getting them up in the morning, making sure they are where they need to be on time, managing all of these other pieces that these kids are struggling to do on their on
- They need to be able to do all of those non-academic, non-specific learning types of things that make a big difference for being able to function
The best age for social thinking treatment?
- 25 years and beyond
- Often middle school to late high school kids struggle to understand some social concepts, and at 25, they really seem to get it
- Older adults do well with these concepts as well
- The human brain continues to grow and change and develop new connections all the way through the lifespan
When individuals become susceptible to anxiety
- When they have the awareness that other people may have thoughts and feelings about them
- Awareness of who is including them and who is not including them and why they aren’t being included
- This sadness and feeling less than can cause depression over time that we have to watch out for
Follow Michelle Winner
Episode Intro … 00:00:30
Social Thinking defined … 000:14:00
What is social-emotional work … 00:17:15
Autism Spectrum and self-awareness… 00:18:20
Is your child socially aware? … 00:20:53
ILAUGH model… 00:24:00
Best age for social learning … 00:38:07
Anxiety … 00:40:00
Episode wrap up … 00:49:00
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Hi everyone, welcome to the show, I am Dr. Nicole, and on today’s episode, we’re talking about social skills and social thinking development in kids, more specifically, we are going to be talking about why social skills aren’t what many people think they are, and the various developmental and cognitive and emotional pieces that need to come together to support the development of what our guest today calls social thinking.
Michelle Winner has been focused on social thinking and social skills development in kids and adults for many years. I was first exposed to her work when I was teaching and consulting in schools, and I found it to make so much more sense than the behavioral approaches to social skills development I had been exposed to prior to that.
The reality is that a child’s social mind and social development is not just about friendships or being able to get along with others or play with kids on the playground. It’s about how they understand themselves, other people, their experiences, their emotions, and even how we understand and make sense of much of the academic curriculum. So to break all of this down, I’m thrilled to have Michelle on the show today.
Let me tell you a little bit about her. She is a Speech-Language Pathologist specializing in the treatment of individuals with social learning challenges. She is the founder and CEO of Social Thinking, a company dedicated to helping individuals from four through adulthood develop their social competencies to meet their personal social goals. Michelle coined the term “Social Thinking” in the mid-1990s and since that time has created numerous unique treatment frameworks and curricula that help educators, clinicians, professionals of all types, and parents and family members appreciate that social capabilities are integral to a person’s success in life, socially, academically, and professionally.
Michelle maintains a private practice called The Center for Social Thinking, in Santa Clara, California. She travels globally, well probably not right now, but under normal circumstances, travels globally, presenting courses on Social Thinking Methodology, and is a prolific writer, has written or co-authored more than 40 books, over 100 articles about this method. Michelle, it’s such an honor to have you here.
Thank you! Thanks for inviting me.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
So there is so much to talk about here and we’ve got a limited time, but I want to dive in and really start with this idea of how most people think of “social skills” and what that means to most people, versus what we’re actually talking about when we’re talking about social thinking and social development for kids and for adults.
So I’ll back up just a little bit and describe that I started working with students with autism in the late 70’s, using very strong behavioral methodologies that were compassionate and humanistic for students with intellectual learning challenges and very limited language or non-verbal language development. And the behavioral approach, focusing on the behaviors, focusing on specific discretely defined social skills, and reinforcing it was the art of treatment and continues to be the art of treatment for kids who are unable to learn by thinking about thinking.
For the students who do have the capacity to use language and then be able to think in language and then think about what they’re thinking about and be able to talk about what they’re thinking about, even if they can’t explain it that clearly, that’s the group I began to use — my work is designed to help, across ages. From four years old, all the way through mature adults are the folks we’re working with.
We are also not a treatment that focuses on a diagnosis.
In my work, I’m sure in your work, Nicole, one of the things that happen is you meet kids and adults who may look very much like another kid in many ways from a diagnostic perspective, but remarkably, they’re not diagnosed the same. So that was something I hit very early, as I had gone from working in autism programs, and then I worked in head injury and stroke-based medical programs and then I ended up in a high school in the mid-1990s.
Asperger Syndrome had just come out, kids who were on the case though I was in a high school. I had no idea what to do with kids who go to public high school as Speech pathologists. I was always working in alternative programs. So I had a big caseload. Who sees a high school Speech Pathologist? It turns out a lot of kids with social pragmatic challenges, and all of the goals they had were behavioral.
Here is the skill, you should do this skill, we’ll reinforce the skill, come to a group, we’ll practice the skills. And the kids I was working with who had some level of self-awareness — because not all students do have social self-awareness, were really upset about this treatment and were really angry.
So they didn’t want to work with me, they hated being in social skills groups, it felt like it demeaned them, it made them feel like “They put me in the group because I’m always the bad kid.” That is not a learning environment.
So while I had already been in the field for about 12 years and was always considered the social specialist, I was a fish out of water here because I had really argumentative kids and I worked with kids who didn’t speak, they didn’t argue. They may have thrown a chair across the room, but we could work on that with a behavioral plan.
So once I started really learning with my kids, I actually got out of the treatment field research phase and I started reading anthropology, cultural linguistics, here was my question:
What is social? How do we learn it? And remarkably, in the field of education speech pathology, behaviorism, there is no discovery of what is social. We all just teach from the assumption, be social. And unfortunately, what that’s drilled down to is this assumption that being social is defined by a set of behavior. We can often write a goal that says “Do this.” “Teach the child to say hi” 90% of the time and I would argue that that is not a reasonable treatment plan for students who have the capacity to think about thinking and figure things out.
So that’s where my discovery took me to, was that the social experience is not defined simply by the behaviors we produce, but by how we navigate in our mind to understand our own and others’ thinking, to summarize the situation in our mind, to understand each others’ intentions, to understand people read our intentions, we read theirs, and to understand that we all perceive each other a little bit differently than we perceive ourselves. How confusing is that?
So now I’ve spent 26 years like this is my obsession. But the one thing, the starting place is to really think about: There is an absolute role for behaviorism. One, for students who do not have this higher level intellectual capacity that we take for granted. We assume every student coming into school who is not in the more severe profound role, has the ability to think about one’s thinking in themselves. And teachers don’t teach that, nor do they even talk about it. So we make a lot of assumptions. So behaviorism can be really helpful for students who aren’t able to do that. Behaviorism can also be super helpful. If you have a real escalation of behavior that just can not be tolerated, bring in a behavior plan to try to navigate that child away from doing that behavior, stop. Behavior plans do not teach, though, how the mind works. Behavior plans do not direct us to understand each others’ thinking. They are not developed to be sophisticated.
Behavior plans are developed to handle something we can define, something that we can see, and something that we can identify a reinforcer for. There is value to them, but behaviorism was never developed to teach something complicated that is parked in our mind rather than exists only in the distance that we see that we can measure from a behavioral point of view.
That being said, that was my impetus for figuring all this out and starting it, because I really wanted to help kids, but you can’t help kids who are arguing with you and telling you that they hate people, they hate social skills, they don’t want to have anything to do with it. So one of my early aha’s as I started to amass this knowledge, working with my students, trying to meet their needs, and trying to be a professional that was helpful. I mean who doesn’t want to be that? A parent who wants to be helpful? So to do that, one of the things I realized was the power of language. So if we call it social skills, social skills are largely thought of as a set of behaviors that are socially oriented, and if you just get the kid to do the behavior, then he is doing fine. And to move us away from that idea to there is way more going on and it’s going on inside of our brains, I had to change the language. So I started calling it Social Thinking and teaching Social Thinking.
For many years, I called it Social Thinking and Related Skills, because we start in our mind, but we produce behaviors. More recently, though, my partner Pam Crooke and I have changed this language. We still call it Social Thinking, but we define this process as teaching social competencies. To be competent is different than behaving in the moment. And our competency model has four steps. So then we break that down and define it, and this is all part of social thinking.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Well, first of all, thank you for sharing your experience of how you came into this because I think that’s always fascinating to know the origins of it. And I’m glad that you spent some time differentiating between behaviors and how so often, these things are approached as If we just teach a child to sit down and take turns with a game, for example, or to go up to another child and say “Hi, my name is ________, will you play with me?”, or these types of things, that that is developing actual relational abilities in relationships, and the fact that has anything to do with being social, and it doesn’t.
Those are rope isolated behaviors that are complete, in most cases disconnected from what it actually means to be in a relationship with another person, to be thinking about ourselves and be thinking about them. And I think that’s why so many parents feel so frustrated, they’re like “My kid’s been in social skills groups for years/My kid’s had this goal on their IEP for years,” and still, they say “My child is now at the middle school or high school age and they’re so lonely and they’re so sad because they don’t have relationships, nobody wants to do things with them”, and it’s because there is this huge disconnect, so I’m really glad that you spent time with that.
Nicole, can I just jump in and say, for the families and professionals listening, so you gave this really good example of, you can write this goal, it is measurable to some extent, which is “Approach a kid and say, ‘Hey, do you want to play?/Hey, will you be my friend?’” The question that people might be asking is “Why is that a problem?”, and the reason that it’s a problem is walking up to somebody, anybody and just saying, “Hey, will you be my friend?” Is fraught with problems because there’s no social investigation of who you’re asking. So for children, we teach them to be social detectives.
What does that mean?
It means to start with, again, change the language. We don’t call it teaching eye contact. Too many kids started being reinforced for staring at eyes with no meaning. We call it “Think with your eyes.” And then it’s a social detective, and then figure out who you want to be with, and try to figure out if that person would also like to be with you, or are they so outside of your peer group or identity that would not be a good choice. And then we also have to figure out, even if you know who you want to say that to, when is the right time to say that? You don’t walk up during math class and say, “Hey, do you want to be my friend?” But a number of our literal kids will do exactly that. So it’s the behavior when taught out of context, when you don’t teach them the situation in which that behavior is relevant, you know to create more behaviors because now it’s awkward, it’s really odd. But it’s easily measurable. So it would be a great one to go and report on and say “Oh, look at how much he’s doing this/she’s doing this”, the problem is qualitative, the kids will go “Yeah, it’s really weird”. Most kids really don’t just walk up and say “Hey, do you want to be my friend?” Unless you’re the new kid in school, you started mid-semester and you don’t know anybody. And there is a time and place for it, but it’s highly contextual, meaning you have to figure out the situation, what do I know about these people, is this the right time to do it? And that’s the thinking part, and that’s why we don’t teach just the behavior, we always back it up and give them what they have to figure out in order to know whether this is the right time, place, person, situation to do that behavior.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
I think that was a beautiful example as you just walked through that of how many things those of us who don’t have these challenges take for granted, that we just do. The thinking that we do about thinking and the thinking that we do about ourselves and other people, we’re not even aware of it, so it can be really difficult for adults, for parents or professionals who don’t have brains that operate in this way to go, “What do you mean they don’t get it?” No, these aren’t all — you just walked through so many of the things that we need to teach and help them understand and explore, and I think this piece about social thinking and relationship and all of these pieces are a big part of why the research so clearly shows that by the time kids with these kinds of challenges reach adolescence and young adulthood, we have such high rates of things like significant anxiety, depression, isolation, because relationships are at the core of who we are and what we want, even for these kids who struggle with it, more than anything, they want that. And when they can’t quite bring it together, and they’re doing all the things, but it’s not working, that becomes really frustrating and really depressing over time. So to me, the work that you do and the things that you’re teaching and talking about are so critical for what I would call quality of life goals for these individuals as they grow.
And even extending quality of life, its employment, it’s getting the next level out of high school. If we had endless hours, I would explain in much more detail than I’m about to, that the public school years, basic kindergarten through 12th grade are success-oriented. The federal law demands that we do something to help this child succeed. The child graduates from high school, success-orientation is gone. It’s only about access. Can this child access a job, can they access a curriculum? Now, you don’t get to access anything you want to access as an adult, you only access what you’re eligible to access. So you only access a job that you have the eligibility for, you only access a university or can stay in a university if you continue to prove you are eligible to stay in that university. So the world changes a lot, and at the heartbeat of our world is social and emotional…
So if I can, Nicole, let me bridge here, where this social-emotional world is not just for wellbeing, although that’s huge, it’s not just for developing relationships or maintaining them. It also is at the heartbeat of academics, because the social mind, literally, is our meaning maker. It helps us to figure out what’s going on, all that stuff I just talked about, the context, the people, what do I know about you? Is this the right time? That’s your brain figuring it out, and I would argue that if you start trying to listen, you will actually understand that you do think about these things, and you can hear the chatter in your mind if you stop to listen for it. Like “Is that the line? Is it okay if I approach?” Right now with the pandemic, it’s been so confusing. Where is the end of the line? We all have these challenges, right?
So I started in autism, and now I’m a specialist at social learning, and it cuts all the way across mental health, it cuts across the spectrum. I work with the autism spectrum that has social self-awareness or is emerging in social self-awareness, emerging in the theory of the mind. They tend to be very literal. If you don’t have great awareness of what’s going on around you, you tend to interpret the world very literally. You are very literal, and we can predict that. But as you move along with this, what we’ve seen — because I’ve worked across the entire spectrum, my first job was deinstitutionalizing students who were put into institutions, children, because their mothers were blamed for autism. It’s just the horrific part of our history, right? So this was the weakest of the weakest functioning with no formal background in education, and I met them at 16-22 and they were behaviorally just through the roof with what we experienced.
Now I work with the highest of high, the most gifted of gifted. I’m working with 60 and 70-year-olds who are still coming, who still really want help, because, towards the last third of our lives, we start to go “Well, there really is nothing more important than social-emotional relationships, and boy, I’ve been successful this way or that way but I have no one in my life and my life is empty.” So I’m working with that.
But from all this experience working with the more classically challenged folks, you really start to see when you’re working with super literal people that they can not access the curriculum because the curriculum demands — not that teachers teach it, we tell you that teachers teach it, they don’t teach it.
They expect the brain to have come in with understanding situations, people, time and place, social norms, how to understand, how to be altruistic in a group, that the brain is supposed to bring that. And then we start teaching on top of it, and then the curriculum takes our daily experiences, like through reading comprehension of novels or storybooks, and we’re supposed to take what we’ve already figured out about how people relate to each other, and then start stretching what we understand by learning about people in books that we haven’t met.
But if your brain never could interpret that, to begin with, it cannot interpret the curriculum. I have kids who — a number of you parents listening, you’re going, “Oh my child is a little on the literal side,” as I ask you to think if he is socially aware of what’s going on around him, some parents would go “Oh, absolutely not” or “Yes” and others would go “What do you mean by that?” Just start noticing. Are you doing everything to help that child adapt or is that child adapting to you? If the child is adapting to you then they are developing that. So the point I’m making though is that the curriculum is so tied to the normal development of the social-emotional mind, meaning that the mind just keeps figuring it out, and as you and I age up, every year of our lives, the social world has gotten more complex, and certainly it races in complexity every year of childhood through high school. So as children build off the curriculum, every year the curriculum gets harder, it also increases based on what we expect, how the social mind matures. So I work with plenty of kids who are scoring gifted on tests because they are really gifted in some areas in science and equally non-gifted in areas of social awareness. So while they could go design and program a computer, they could not understand how to stand in line in a classroom, they don’t understand when to talk in a class, they’re just blurting things out and they don’t understand what they’re reading in a book.
But schools don’t often understand this. So schools will say, “Well it doesn’t make sense, he’s so bright, he has no academic needs. Look at his standardized testing”. But standardized testing removes all complicated — it removes a ton of executive functioning. We give you four multiple-choice questions. If you are a bright person, you can hack through that and figure out the right response, even if we asked you the same question and we didn’t give you choices, that person may not be able to create a response. So with our population, we tend to see some better abilities showing up on standardized tests than show up in real life. So many, many, many parents have described their children to me, around the world, no matter what culture I’m in, they will come up to me and say “My child is smart but clueless.” And even my adults, when they come up to me, will go “I’m smart but clueless”. So I think what’s really important here is, by telling you this, I don’t think you can go to your school and say, “Hey, the social mind is part of the curriculum, so because my kid is having trouble…” You know, it makes sense if the kid is having trouble on the playground, that has something to do with the fact that you’re telling me that he is not doing a good job writing a paragraph of reading a book because most of your teachers reading specials and writing specials actually don’t know this has anything to do with the social mind, that we’ve reserved the social mind for thinking it’s only important on the playground, which drives me nuts!
Parents, teachers! We’ve got to understand the importance of it. I have free articles on my website, I have website, socialthinking.com. Our mission is to educate people, we’re a for-profit with a non-profit heart. We give a lot away for free. We have hundreds of articles. So I’ve written about the ILAUGH Model, it’s an acronym for explaining the different aspects of social cognition, initiation, listening with your eyes and brain, abstracting-inferencing, understanding and perspective, getting the main idea, humor in human relatedness, then you can add an S for sensory processing. But I came up with that ILAUGH, it’s all based on the research, but when I was working in the schools in the ’90s, I was like no one here, principal, administrators, teachers, parents, nobody knows, they don’t understand social.
Everyone thinks it’s a behavior that you reinforce. So I started showing what I was learning from the research. “Hey, here are these different points of social cognition.” So if you are interested, come to our website, socialthinking.com, look at our many free webinars, look at our many free articles and you’ll find a lot of information for getting you started and for sharing.
Parents who are in transition to adulthood, this is a passion for me. I have free articles on transition to adulthood and giving you guys questions to think about like “Is my child really able to go to college or university or should we look at a different route?” And I don’t mean this child is intellectually challenged. I mean this is a child who could be very bright, who has never willingly done homework or turned in a paper. No magic is about to happen when he gets to college. But you get these kids jobs, you help them to find jobs at Target or somewhere like that, and all of a sudden, they have skin in the game and they are developing a different skill set. So I find all this very important.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
It’s very important and very misunderstood and very left out of the picture of how we approach development for these kids and how we think about what’s really important in the big picture of life. When kids are in school, I find — because I work with a lot of older teens and young adults, and what I find is the younger kids, when they’re in the kindergarten or preschool, through even early high school, mid-high school, the focus is so much on “This is what’s important in school.” And I’m saying this is a drop in the bucket of the rest of this person’s life. Let’s look at what’s really going to be important and needed beyond that because when you work with a lot of young adults and adults, you quickly realize that the fact that they had an IEP that somehow got them through the general curriculum and they have a state-endorsed diploma or they even graduated the top of their class or whatever it might be, that doesn’t necessarily mean anything when it comes to the rest of what’s next in their life, which is how to function in, as you said, a situation where things are not necessarily accessible and handed to them, they need to have the skills and abilities and understanding to do that.
I find that parent thinking shifts about that too, as kids get older, it’s like, “Oh. Boy, I spent a whole lot of time worrying about how that homework was getting done or whether those papers were getting turned in, what AP class they were in or what curriculum they were in, and now I’m realizing. Boy, my kid is really struggling with some basics of what it means to manage themselves in the real world.”
So a couple of things about those comments. I know it’s hard for parents to look the disability that their child has directly on and talk about it. It is almost harder for teachers to do that, and even specialists. We all want to make each other feel good, so we have these — if we get to an IEP and we have an IEP meeting, we tend to talk about the kids’ strengths, and in fact some states mandate that that’s a primary discussion, which makes no sense to me because the only reason we are in this expensive meeting is this child has some real learning challenging.
What happens also is there becomes this culture of doing the work for the child to get them through, so you said they graduate — I’m seeing too many kids, for years, that wasn’t writing the paper by themselves. The mom was jumping on saying, “Well, I’ll be the scribe because it’s hard for him to write and think at the same time, but all I do is scribe.” That’s impossible. There isn’t a parent — I’ve been a parent. I can’t do it. You sit there and you listen to your child and you help to write it down and you don’t say “Oh, maybe you might want to say it this way.” So what happens is, unfortunately in special education, at times, too much of the adult’s work is showing up in what the kid turns in and it could be the classroom teacher, I’ve had paraprofessionals, lined up at conferences to confess, as if I was like a priest in a confessional for all the work they’re doing for these kids and I’m like this is so crazy. Where did we get that we can’t actually honor kids’ learning challenges as much as we honor their strengths, and don’t see it as something we have to hide, but as something we need to reveal because we can only really understand who this child is, how we help them from a cognitive perspective, the thinking perspective rather than behavioral, and really understand their strengths and challenges, and then we all can coach each other, parents included, to prepare for a reasonable transition.
A mom ended up writing an essay for me on my website because she had what I see too often, this kid gets into five universities, which should I choose? They think it’s great, he goes off and crashes. And I’ve gotten to know this kid over the years, and he is a kid who tends to be very literal, poor social self-awareness. So to actually get him through all of that work at the level that everyone thought he was doing was actually because people were doing the work for him. And then it never bodes well. After high school — I call high school “Game over”. Like here is real life, and the adult world is so different. So social thinking is not a methodology that wears rose-colored glasses at all. It’s just like “Let me just explain.” And nobody made a mistake by having a child with learning differences and no one made a mistake when the differences proceed. This is why we call so many of these diagnoses pervasive when we really understand them and that we need to move away from “It’s bad to be a different learner” to “It’s okay to be a different learner, but let’s make sure if the curriculum doesn’t align with this kids’ learning, then let’s insist that curriculum meets this kids’ needs.” And that’s what I worry about is that we are so into one curriculum for everybody, one curriculum fits all. It doesn’t work that way. We’ve got kids with learning differences, let’s understand who this child is. But your standardized test is not going to give you a very good view of that. Then start to have honest discussions about how we teach this kid based on who they are. And if it’s in the mainstream, how do you provide some alternatives to that curriculum in a meaning way?
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
I love that. And I think as you were saying, some kids get through school, people have done the work for them. I want to be clear there. For some of you who are listening, who are thinking, well. I don’t do my child’s work or his teachers don’t do the work. We’re not just talking about the answering of the questions. We’re talking about bigger picture things that often get managed for kids with these struggles. And I want to dive into executive functions here as a piece of this, but this is a good example. Teachers, parapros, parents, other adults sort of managing the timing of things, managing the organization, managing the reminders, managing all of these other pieces that these kids are struggling to do on their on, and we can prop them up and manage that stuff for them, but if they don’t learn how to think about and understand and do that thinking for themselves, all of the book knowledge, all of the ability to answer the questions in the world isn’t going to help them as they move forward. They need to be able to do all of those non-academic kinds of, non-specific to the learning types of things that make a big difference for being able to function. So it’s not just about somebody writing your kids’ answers down. It’s about the supporting and the propping up that we do for kids, not just in school, but in life as well. How many parents, meaning really well, are still sort of compensating for a kids’ challenges in this area by getting them up in the morning, making sure that they are where they need to be on time, managing that kind of stuff. We need to be teaching the skills for these individuals to be able to think about and regulate and manage that stuff themselves.
Or, the reality is too that the children just are not there yet, so they need that help, but now let’s acknowledge it. A system that I talk about in conferences is when a kid is turning in their work, if you’ve helped them with the glue, like let me help you find the resources for this or let me help you pull all this content together, whatever that is, that when you are turning in a paper, you give the teacher a note that tells her what percentage help you gave, not because you are trying to get the kid a lower grade, it’s because we all have to figure out what this kid really needs, and we are so much of the glue. Our kids are about, someone said this years ago, I don’t know who to cite for the origin of this, but that our kids with social emotional learning challenges are usually about one-third delayed in maturity, organizational systems, some of them never quite catching up in the organizational. So it’s not that we’re going to go “Oh, bad you for waking this kid up” when they really can’t get up. You have to figure out where the priority of that is. That often does become a priority in their senior year of high school. But it’s also not a punishment that a kid doesn’t have it or that you are doing something wrong. If a child can’t do it, they can’t do it, but let’s talk about it and let’s not cover for him without explaining what we’re doing, because that helps us to really functionally assess this child’s abilities, which is the most important thing: For us to really know this child.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Which is actually healthier and more helpful for the child anyway, because as you start to work with a lot of these individuals in their later teen years, young adult years and adult years, they have an understanding, they’re aware that they’re struggling. When it’s sort of this isn’t something that we talk about, this isn’t something that’s okay, this isn’t something that we recognize, that also can create a lot of anxiety, a lot of distress, so putting it out in the open and recognizing it and saying this isn’t good or bad, this is. Let’s acknowledge it and let’s provide the support that’s needed, let’s work together on this, I think from an emotional, a psychological standpoint, that has such value for these individuals.
Yeah, so you’re talking about kids who have solid self-awareness. Because we have kids who are considered high-functioning autism who don’t have self-awareness but as you go on, we also now throw in the complexity of social media and all these other pieces. The demands on us from a social emotional perspective continue to morph through the teenagers into adulthood into adult life. So the expectations we have of 20 year olds are different from 40 year olds which is different from 60 year olds. Here is some good news for family members out there and professionals to know is that the learning doesn’t stop at high school, in fact, if you were to ask me, I’ll just pretend Nicole just asked me: What do I think the best age for treatment is? For the smart, sophisticated concepts, you could say early learners, catch them young. Why early learners? Because they still believe teachers have something to teach you. Then you get to middle school and high school they’re like “I don’t know. If I don’t like you, you are not teaching me anything.” But truly, some of the best years for teaching, Pam and I have noticed at our clinic, are 25 years and beyond. The social learning keeps going, and so parents don’t get discouraged that their child doesn’t have certain skill sets or concepts or things in their mind because I’ve worked with students who really are struggling to understand some social concepts at 18, and at 25, they’re sailing with them. It’s not uncommon when I work with high school kids or middle school kids that they’re really not grasping in a great way when I’m teaching, but it’s getting in there, and a year later, they’re talking to me about what they learned a year ago because the social mind maps its stuff on. But it does go across our lives and we are seeing some really, really nice outcomes with mature adults. We also see in teenagers all the different years, but don’t think “Oh my gosh, if he doesn’t have this by the end of high school, we’re sunk. because all we are saying is just know accurately where your child is at the end of high school to know what supports he needs through that transition because your team is going away and you will, as a parent, have to carry through. So that’s where you will want to have a very accurate, humanistic view of your child and it won’t be something that’s a set of just simply — test scores will not tell you that.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
I’m so glad you mentioned that because I think there are a lot of times, especially as parents, this pressure, this sense of “Hurry up, if we don’t get this in, it’s not going to happen.” And as you are illustrating so beautifully, the human brain continues to grow and change and develop new connections all the way through the lifespan and so these are things that in some ways, some of these kids who struggle in these areas are just starting to develop into and really grasp and understand at the time that they’re finishing high school and moving into their early and mid-twenties. So I’m so glad that you said that because there really is so much help in there for parents, which I think is so important.
Can we make, as we kind of wrap up, can we talk about anxiety for a minute?
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
I would love to, yes.
It’s this big issue. So we know well, and the research certainly supports the kids who have more solid self-awareness. The research doesn’t say this because it hasn’t really thought about people as having self-awareness or not. They call it “on the autism spectrum” what does that mean? To me, it’s like a throwaway term because it doesn’t mean anything. It’s a spectrum.
So that if you were going to ask me what’s the most meaningful? It would be: Does this person have social self-awareness or not? So when you have awareness of that other people may have thoughts and feelings about you, now you are really susceptible to anxiety. Typically developing people and then for our kids with social learning challenges and adults, it’s really some compelling anxiety, depending on the person. And sadness. A number of the students I work with in this area or all of them, basically, that have awareness, they will be aware of who is including them and who is not including them. What they won’t be aware of is why they aren’t being included if they feel like they’re trying hard or they want to be included. Now there could be a personality thing, but if we are looking at a competency piece, between that gap of really wanting to be included and not being included persistently, in that gap is some massive anxiety, sadness plus sadness plus sadness equals depression over time that we have to watch out for. We have a free article on social competency models and we extended it to include sensory processing, anxiety and depression, and also screen time overwhelm or overload, which right now, we just have to forget about. The screen time because it is…
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
It is what it is.
But after the pandemic, we are going to be dealing with a lot of addictions like we were pre-pandemic. What’s important in this is that you don’t treat — from my perspective when we’ve got kids with social learning challenges, it’s not “Hey Michelle, you go work on this social stuff, and then a mental health counselor by themselves will work on the anxiety,” one does anxiety and the other does the social abilities, because it doesn’t really work this way. Within each of us are competencies, and have to also include competencies for managing anxiety. It just needs to be part of the load of the program. So I certainly work a lot and really encourage mental health therapists, but mental health therapists largely are not trained at all on the social mind and this level of perspective taking where they kind of get it but they kind of don’t get it. So we talk about being able to bring in, being able to help them understand that you need strategies to manage anxiety and sadness, but that that has to also — part of your management of that is actually doing things that help you be more successful in the social world.
So for example, one of the things I’m always very interested in children when I observe them is: Do they find their way into a group? The teacher says, “Come one guys, go pair up, go get in a group,” does this kid know how to get into a group? That’s not the same as assigning to a group, not the same as another kid going “Come to our group”. It’s a kid who just gets up and goes. So many of our students do not have that ability or they bomb into a group which they are not welcome to, depending on the kid. So why is that so important?
Now imagine going off to university, all of a sudden, you are supposed to find yourself in the groups. If you can’t find your way into groups and you have awareness, you notice everyone else has found their way into groups. We now guarantee anxiety and possibly depression. Now go to your job, bypass university, get to a job. You don’t know how to get into a group, now once again, you’re the lone ranger because we humans like to stay comfortable and somebody who is off by themselves doesn’t make us comfortable. So most of us will not approach them and swoop them into the group.
So learning some of these abilities are some of the unmeasurable that you won’t find on these tests that are really critical, but they are also really strong buffers, they are really important for self-advocacy, for relationship development, for feeling that you are part of something. And when you feel like you are part of something and you feel like you know how to manage that, even if you are not doing it brilliantly, that helps to mitigate some of these anxieties. We can not avoid them. They are, unfortunately — it’s not like early intervention is going to avoid them, because the social community just got more complicated, you could teach about that in early intervention, and your sexuality turns on. So now, not only do you want friends, but you want a friend. And that’s a whole other level. So it’s all a journey. Parents, we just have to prioritize where we are. And how do we prioritize? It often starts with what’s your child’s priority? Because if your child’s priority is not in alignment with yours and they have awareness, that could just be a major friction. And if they had a diagnosis for a long time, they may feel picked apart. Sometimes we have to restart, we often have to get programs started based on the child’s goal, even though we really will go “Wait. It’s so important that he gets this score in this test and this grade”, but we’ve got to back up and remember, our kids have been through a lot, just as you have. They’re forming their own identity and whoever they are is who they should be. Let’s keep helping them be the best they can and let’s listen to them about what it is they want because that will motivate them to actually work on learning rather than try to avoid and shut down. And that’s why I started Social Thinking, I found so many kids who were trying to find the holes in behavior plans or trying to manipulate their way out of the social skills group. And I was like, “Alright, let me try to figure out what you want. Let me speak a language that you can understand and let’s be in this together.“
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
I love it. So great, and you’ve got so many wonderful frameworks, models, specific programs and approaches, you’ve mentioned your website, it is just an absolute wealth of information. Parents and professionals and family members listening, please go to the website. You will be amazed at how many free videos and articles. I mean almost every topic you could think of. If you have a question coming into your mind off of what Michelle and I talked about, I almost can guarantee you there is an article or something on the website that delves into that more, including if you are a parent listening and you’re like “I want to look more at these resources and share them with the educational staff or the professionals working with my child”, great resources there. So Michelle, mention that website again, and if there are any particular resources you’d like to highlight for people.
So our website is socialthinking.com. Typically we are running all over the united states and the world giving talks with my 11 members of my training collaborative, but because of the pandemic, we’ve had this unique opportunity to, every month, have a topic. We have a huge range of topics we provide training on, so we just completed a topic on the social academic connection, teenagers, the topics coming up will be on working with mature adults and then we’ve got it for our Superflex Social Detective program and then we’re doing days on just using all of our vocabulary and frameworks and then I’ll be doing a big assessment day. And then every year, we have a seminal provider’s conference in June, which always kind of hits it out of the park. So these are now all available to you, either livestream or on a recorded version and we have parent pricing, which is separate from professional pricing.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Fantastic, and when you go to the website, you will see so many specific standalone programs too like the Superflex, the Social Detective, Zones of Regulation, which I see more schools using now too.
I need to say that’s designed by Leah Kuypers, but we are the publisher of her work.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Yes. So lots of great resources, whether you’ve got younger ones, ages four to the elementary years, or you’ve got preteens and teens or adults, lots of resources there. So please check that out. Michelle, I have about a million more questions I could ask you and things that we could discuss around this, but I feel like we gave people a good understanding of why this is important and how to think about this differently. So thank you so much for that and for spending time with us today, I really appreciate it.
Good luck out there, and I know you are going to get discouraged at times, as we all do. But keep on going, kids keep on learning and they keep on growing.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Absolutely. And thank you to all of you, as always, for being here and listening. We will catch you back here next week for our next episode of The Better Behavior Show.