Social Thinking Philosophy and Framework

Written by Denys Collins

This Article Will Discuss:

  • Core Philosophies of Social Thinking
  • The Four Steps of Perspective Taking
  • The Four Steps of Communication
  • ILAUGH Model
  • Social Thinking in the Academic World

In October of 2017, the Autism Society of Alaska is proud to present their Second Annual Autism Conference. The keynote speaker will be Michelle Garcia Winner, the pioneer behind Social Thinking. Social Thinking is a framework for teaching students that experience social challenges. Previously, we looked at a quick overview of Social Thinking. Now, we are going to look at the core philosophies of Social Thinking and the main framework used.

 Philosophy of Social Thinking

Let’s begin with the core philosophies. First, Social Thinking is something we do all day even when alone. We have thoughts about people and situations. These thoughts have an effect on how we feel and act, and how we act has an effect on how those around us think and feel. This thought process usually begins with our eyes. As Michelle Garcia Winner says, “we think with our eyes.” We use our eyes to gauge how our interactions are going. Gauging interactions is important because a major part of socializing is trying to make those around us comfortable while they are doing the same to us. This occurs even when we have no intention of interacting. We are very conscious of the perceptions others have of us, and we want them to be generally pleasant instead of “weird” or “uncomfortable.” Those with social learning challenges may struggle with this. The last main philosophy is there is not one way we “should” act in social situations or one way we want to be seen. These constantly evolve and change depending on age, situation, and culture.

Social Thinking can be difficult to teach and explain because it is something a large portion of the population do without even realizing. If you want to teach someone to be a better social thinker you cannot just have them memorize social skills because socializing involves nuance. They must be taught about the presence of other people’s minds, thoughts, and feelings. A great strategy offered by Social Thinking is The Four Steps of Perspective Taking. These are the four steps we all engage in for any social interaction.


The Four Steps of Perspective Taking

  1. As two people enter a space, they each have a thought about the other.
  2. They each will monitor what they think each other’s intentions and motivations are.
  3. Each will consider what the other is thinking about them and whether it is positive, negative, or neutral. Any previous encounters will be taken into consideration as well.
  4. They each monitor and possibly change their behavior to influence the other to think about them the way they would prefer.

When we are teaching those with social challenges, we need to remember communication is more than offering a script. It is an entire body and mind effort. This is where the Four Steps of Communication come into play.

The Four Steps of Communication

  1. Think about other people’s thoughts and feelings as well as your own. For communication to happen successfully, we must consider our partner’s perspective. We should be on the same topic and our thoughts should stay connected throughout.
  2. Establish physical presence, enter with your body attuned to the group. For a positive communicative act, we should stand about an arm’s length from those we speak to, and we should have a physical posture that conveys we want to participate. We should appear relaxed yet engaged during communication.
  3. We think with our eyes. If students learn this they learn to monitor how others are feeling or make an educated guess as to what they may be thinking about. We do not just blankly stare either because this could make people uncomfortable.
  4. Use your words to relate to others. We share our thoughts through language. We must teach students to stay on topic as to not appear self centered or unfriendly. They must learn to ask questions, add a thought, and show interest.

The final important framework for understanding and teaching Social Thinking is ILAUGH.  Michelle Garcia Winner developed it in order to help professionals and parents understand and think about the struggles faced by those with social learning challenges. It is completely research-based.


I=Initiation of Language to Ask For Help:

Initiation of communication is the ability to use one’s language skills (verbal and nonverbal) to initiate something that is not routine.  This can be in the form of difficulty asking for help, seeking clarification, executing a new task, and entering and exiting a peer group.

L= Listening with Eyes and Brain:

Listening requires not only receiving auditory information, but also the integration of visual information with auditory information within the context  to understand the full meaning of the message being conveyed. This is also referred to as “active listening” or whole body listening.

 A = Abstract and Inferential Thinking: 

Most of the language we use is not intended for literal interpretation. Our communication is peppered with idioms, metaphors, sarcasm and inferences. Each generation adds its own, mostly abstract, slang.

U = Understanding Perspective:

To understand the differing perspectives of others requires that one’s Theory of Mind (perspective taking) work quickly and efficiently. Perspective taking is not one thing, it represents many things happening all at once as previously described.

G = Getting the Big Picture (Gestalt Processing):

Due to the fact that information is conveyed through concepts and not just facts, it is important that one is able to tie individual pieces of information into the greater concept. For example, when engaged in a conversation, the participants should be able to intuitively determine the underlying concept(s) being discussed, as well as identify the specific details that are shared.

H = Humor and Human Relatedness:

Human relatedness is at the heart of social interaction. Most of us desire some form of social interaction, but the struggle is having the ability to relate to other’s minds, emotions and needs. Establishing the concept of human relatedness is essential.

Social Thinking Social Learning Tree Poster

Social Thinking and Academia

Unbeknownst to many, Social Thinking is vital in the academic world. For example, individuals who struggle to interpret the abstract/inferential meaning of language also routinely struggle with academic tasks such as reading comprehension of literature. Also, perspective taking is central to group participation in school or when interpreting information that requires understanding of other’s minds such as history and social studies. Another reason Social Thinking is important is because classrooms depend heavily on having all students attend non-verbally to the expectations in the classroom and some may struggle to comprehend information presented via the dual challenges of social visual information (reading nonverbal cues) and auditory processing. When reading, one has to follow the overall meaning rather than just collect a series of seemingly unrelated facts. As with many elements of social cognition, this ability relies heavily on strong executive function skills. As a result, difficulty with organizational strategies often stems from problems with conceptual processing. Weaknesses in the development of this skill can greatly impact one’s ability to formulate written expression, summarize reading passages, and manage one’s homework load, as well as obtain the intended meaning from a social conversation.  With all of the issues, if they are not dealt with, they will follow students into the employment world.

It is clear, social skills are an important part of everyone’s life. We need to ensure that what we are teaching our students is setting them up for the most success in life. Students need to learn how others think and to see their point of view. They also need to understand the “why” behind the social and communication skills required in different situations. They must not just memorize. They have to be flexible and change depending on the situation. This will help them generalize a concept to many different scenarios. It is imperative that we teach our students with compassion and humor. Many of the clients with whom we work with have a very good sense of humor, but they often feel anxious because they miss many of the subtle cues that help them to understand how to use their humor successfully with others. We need to help minimize the anxiety the individual may experience. Everyone must realize, Social Thinking is about more than relationships with family and friends. This is about setting students up for success in school and employment.


Social Thinking Core Philosophies

Four Steps of Perspective Taking

Four Steps of Communication



(Kranz & McClannahan, 1993; Rao, Beidel, & Murray, 2008; Whalen, Schreibman, & Ingersoll 2006)

(Jones & Carr, 2004; Klin, Jones, Schultz, & Volkmar, 2003; Kunce & Mesibov, 1998; MacDonald et al., 2006; Marshall & Fox, 2006; Mundy & Crowson, 1997; Saulnier & Klin, 2007)

(Adams, Green, Gilchrist, & Cox, 2002; Happe’, 1995; Kerbel & Grunwell, 1998; Minshew, Goldstein, Muenz & Payton, 1992; Norbury & Bishop, 2002; Rapin & Dunn, 2003; Simmons-Mackie & Damico, 2003)

(Baron-Cohen, 1995; Baron-Cohen, 2000; Baron-Cohen & Jolliffe, 1997; Flavell, 2004; Frith, & Frith, 2010; Hale & Tager-Flusberg, 2005; Kaland, Callesen, Moller-Nielsen, Mortensen, & Smith, 2007; Spek, Scholte, & Van Berckelaer-Omnes, 2010)

(Fullerton, Stratton, Coyne & Gray, 1996; Happe’ & Frith, 2006; Hume, Loftin, & Lantz, 2009; Pelicano, 2010; Plaisted, 2001; Shah & Frith, 1993; van Lang, Bouma, Sytema, Kraijer, & Minderaa 2006)


(Gutstein, 2001; Greenspan, & Wieder, 2003; Losh & Capps, 2006; Loukusa et al., 2007; Ozonoff, & Miller, 1996; Prizant, Wetherby, Rubin, & Laurent, 2003; Prizant, Wetherby, Rubin, Laurent & Rydell, 2006; Williams & Happe’, 2010)