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Some people are great at learning their chosen craft, and even putting their own spin on it.

When a child struggles to make friends at school, in the neighborhood, and elsewhere, he needs help building "social smarts." Here's how to do that.

Then, there are individuals who take their work to an entirely different level. They don’t just apply the knowledge and skills they’ve learned; they realize when there’s more to discover.

That perhaps there’s a knowledge gap no one has even noticed.

So, they take a step back, evaluate the situation objectively, and allow themselves to be open to whatever they see – even if it contradicts widely-accepted assumptions.

Michelle Garcia Winner, founder of Social Thinking®, is one of those next-level professionals. The first time I listened to her speak, I realized she understood my son on a deep level. In ways that never occurred to me, but that I’d been trying to wrap my head around for years!

The catalyst

Winner, a speech-language pathologist, realized one day that helping one of her patients was going to require treating much more than she, and other clinicians, had been taught.

For example, “improve eye contact” had been one of his IEP goals for years, yet no one had been able to help him “fix” it.

She says she realized that getting him to look at her was too simple of a goal for what was a much more complicated language-based process. After watching him, she became cognizant that not looking – or “paying attention” – was partially because of information overload. He wasn’t able to distinguish which environmental details to try to tune out, and which social one to make a higher priority. In addition, she started to become aware that social engagement felt uncomfortable to him.

Strengthening the foundation

The insights Winner gained over time, led her to create the Social Thinking® Methodology and, later, what she calls the Social Thinking® Social Learning Tree.

The tree is a way to show how complex “social knowledge” really is; that many areas, once viewed in isolation, actually are connected – and imperative to social:

  • attention
  • interpretation
  • problem-solving
  • responses

Winner says that when treating patients with social-learning deficits, it’s essential to ensure the root system (e.g., joint attention, executive function) is intact before trying to tackle any problem areas that stem from it, such as eye contact, the ability to predict future events, or even “be friendly.”

And if anxiety or depression are factors, that adds another layer of complexity – one that will make progress extremely difficult, if not impossible.

When adults focus on improving deficits that stem from a child’s weak social-cognitive foundation, Winner and her team call it “teaching in the leaves.” (That’s a big no-no.) You should only go there after making sure the child has some proficiency in the root skills.

The bigger landscape

In addition to intensities and asynchronous development, it’s another big reason why my high-intellect kid has a deficit in “social smarts” – and why trying to improve his eye contact and pay better attention to social cues isn’t working. It’s all intertwined!

I have a lot more to learn about all of this, but after watching additional webinars and listening to Winner give example after example about how social-cognitive deficits can play out, I know that this gets to the core of my son’s social struggles.

Whether you’re a parent, educator or clinician, if this resonates with you as well, I encourage you to follow me on this social-smarts journey.

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