What is Social Thinking?

Social Thinking® is a practice devised by Michelle Garcia Winner to help people understand how our thinking affects our social behaviours and skills.

The practice is aimed at people who have strong academic capabilities, but who struggle with social processing and social emotional learning – something often experienced by people diagnosed with a learning disability or Autism Spectrum Disorder.

What exactly is Social Thinking?

Social Thinking is the ability to understand that we each have thoughts and feelings that may be the same or different from other people’s. Our thoughts affect our emotions, which are tied to our behaviours and the way we act or react to other people.

When we do what is “expected” in a certain social situation, people around us feel comfortable. When we do what is “unexpected” in a social situation, people may feel anxious or uncomfortable. Both expected and unexpected behaviours affect how people think about us and, in turn, act toward us.

How is Social Thinking taught?

Teaching Social Thinking is different from teaching social skills. It focuses on teaching an individual how to think about a particular social situation, and the expectations of the people in that situation, and adapt their social skills based upon their interpretations.

For example, Social Thinking can help an individual figure out what greeting to use in different social situations:
“Hey, what’s up?” – For an interaction with a peer.
“Hello, nice to meet you.” – For a more formal encounter.

This same thinking helps individuals:

  • Decide when and how to initiate a conversation
  • Understand what people may be thinking based on what they are looking at
  • Make predictions
  • Understand motives and intention

By using Social Thinking we are able to be flexible in our interactions based on the expected/unexpected behaviours and “hidden rules” of the situations and people around us.  Well-developed Social Thinking involves understanding other people’s point of view, and the ability to interpret the obvious and not-so-obvious social clues and cues.

child sits at table with therapist

How is Social Thinking used in everyday situations?

Social Thinking happens 24/7. Even when we are not around others, we are still using Social Thinking to interpret storylines and characters in a book or television program, think about past or future social encounters, or to problem solve a social dilemma we are involved in.

For this reason, social-emotional skills should be nurtured and developed across all areas of our life, at home, school, work and in the community. Some examples might include:

  • Sitting next to someone in class or on the bus and being aware that we are sharing the space with them
  • Children interacting in the playground responding to others’ behaviours;
  • Being able to effectively work as part of a group in a classroom, on a sports team, or with colleagues
  • Having a conversation with our friends and being aware of their points of view and their feelings, and being flexible in how we respond to them
  • Reading a book or watching a movie and being able to understand the perspective of the characters
  • Interpreting literature, creating written narratives, comparing and contrasting motives and intentions as part of academic work

Our Social Thinking matures over time as we continue to use and get better at these skills. Our Social Thinking and related social skills help us to be able to form and maintain friendships, join in and participate in the community, and understand academic learning – which is integral to our overall quality of life.

If you have questions or would like more information, please visit socialthinking.com. If you are receiving support from Therapy Focus and wish to learn more, contact your therapy team.


® Michelle Garcia Winner; socialthinking.com