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)



Social Thinking, It is Everywhere

An Introduction to Social Thinking

By Denys Collins

July 14, 2017

Quick Look

  • Social thinking (lower case) is what we do when we share a space with others.
  • Social Thinking (capitalized) is a framework that breaks down complex social situations into easy to understand and easy to teach concepts.
  • It is best for ages 4 to adult that have  social learning challenges with or without a diagnostic label.


What is social thinking?

People  spend their whole life learning social skills without ever realizing it. As babies, people begin to observe others, and then they begin to communicate and interact.  The more people socialize, the more they are able to understand people and situations in order to act accordingly. Social thinking is our innate ability  to think through a social situation by “interpreting thoughts, beliefs, intentions, emotions, knowledge and actions of another person along with the context of the situation to understand that person’s experience.” We then apply this information and respond. Our response affects how the other person will respond which then affects our emotions. Everyone does this all day long:

  • At home: Your spouse gives you the silent treatment, you have to figure out why
  • At work: Your boss calls you into their office. While you walk over, you try to discover her intentions.
  • Reading a book: You look at the connection between the characters and their influence on each other.
  • Texting: You need to detect sarcasm before you respond.
  • Flirting: You try to pick up on hints of interest that aren’t being directly stated.
  • School: Your best friend is playing with someone else, and you try to determine why they aren’t playing with you.

Those that  have social learning challenges may find the practice of social thinking to be confusing and complicated. This has nothing to do with intelligence. Some people born with developmental disabilities do not soak up social information as intuitively  as others. They will need to learn social skills and actively think through social situations. This can be done much easier with someone to help them through different scenarios. This brings us to Michelle Garcia Winner.

Who is Michelle Garcia Winner?

Michelle Garcia Winner is a speech language pathologist (SLP). She focuses on helping individuals with social learning challenges.


In the mid 1990s she became a SLP for a public high school district. She began to see a trend with many of the students she worked with. They had strong intelligence and language, but their social communication skills were lacking. Social Thinking was born. A few years later she opened her own private practice for Social Thinking. She started a company under the same name and began public speaking on the topic, publishing books, and creating products.  She has won many awards including:

  • Congressional Recognition Award, 2008
  • Lifetime Achievement Award, the Prentice School, 2012
  • Outstanding Achievement Award, California Speech-Language-Hearing Association (CSHA), 2012
  • Community Partner Award, Massachusetts Association for the Blind (MAB) Community Services, 2016

What is Social Thinking?

Social Thinking is a framework  created by Michelle Garcia Winner. It is targeted at helping those with social learning and communication challenges. People are taught to think about their thoughts and emotions and of those around them. Social Thinking takes the complex steps of social skills and breaks them down into steps. Ideas are stated in an easy to understand way. For example, instead of being told to “make eye contact, they are taught to think with their eyes.”  Social Thinking is a three-part process:

  1. Learn to closely observe the social world we live in.
  2. Learn to adapt social skills to meet social goals by becoming self-aware, self-monitoring, and having self-control.
  3. Become more aware of your emotions and better predict and relate to the emotions of others.

Who is it for?

The concepts and strategies can be helpful for anyone. One can find them being  used in:

  • Homes
  • Schools: Public, Private, Charter (Special Education, Mainstream)
  • Private Programs
  • Clinics
  • Community Programs (Sports, Clubs)
  • Therapy Offices
  • Places of Employment
  • Universities

The most common target audience is:

  • Those with social learning challenges
  • Ages four to adulthood
  • Average to above average language and cognitive skills
  • With or without a diagnostic label
  • Some of the many diagnostic labels:
    • Aperger’s Syndrome
    • Autism Spectrum Disorder
    • Social communication Disorder
    • Non-verbal learning disability
    • Specific Language Impairment
    • Learning disabilities
    • TBI-Traumatic
    • Down Syndrome
    • Brain Injury
    • Velocardial Facial Syndrome
    • Social Anxiety
    • And many more

Wrap It Up

As you can see, social thinking is a major part of our life. It is practiced every time we enter a space where other people are. Even with all the intellect in the world, a lack of social skills can lead to struggling through many daily activities. This is not just about having friends and relationships; this is also about succeeding at work and school.

If you or your child is struggling with social skills or you are a teacher or therapist and  would like more information, please go to where this information was found. You can also attend the 2nd Autism Alaska Conference. It is October 5th and 6th, 2017 with keynote speaker, Michelle Garcia Winner. This is an event you won’t want to miss.