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A Student's Guide to Social Cognition
Posted 04/30/2011 10:00PM

Social skills, social intelligence, social competence, social cognition…it can be difficult to grasp all these terms and exactly what they look like in practice.

Sometimes, all you know is that your child says inappropriate or random things at odd moments, misinterprets or altogether misses nonverbal cues, or doesn’t understand basic niceties that all the other kids seem to understand.

We know that it can be very confusing, frustrating, and overwhelming for parents, so we wanted to take this opportunity to unravel a bit of this social mystery for you.

The Foundation of Social Thinking
Speech-language pathologist Michelle Garcia Winner, who developed “social thinking” in the early 1990s, says that social cognition can be a difficult concept to explain because, for “neuro-typical” people, social cognition is an intuitive ability that develops naturally as children grow.

For anyone with social cognitive impairments—like those with an Autism Spectrum Disorder or other neurodevelopmental impairments—this natural, intuitive development does not occur. The brains of these individuals literally do not work in the same way as neurotypical peers, resulting in a lack of social cognition—the ability to think about people and their thoughts, intentions, points of view, emotions, etc.

Social cognition is also referred to as “social thinking,” because it is literally how we think—socially. And social cognition is the foundation upon which the teaching of social skills is built – which results in increasing social competence.

The simplest way to explain these ideas is to share with you how we talk about social thinking to our students. We start by describing what social skills are. Social skills are those pesky little things that we all notice first—especially when someone is not using them. These skills are the “doing” part of social interaction:

  • looking others in the eyes
  • sharing toys
  • saying “please” and “thank you”
  • waiting your turn in conversation
  • asking how someone else is doing

All of these little things and more are what we in the world of social cognition therapy call “social skills.” Many times parents and educators approach Anova and ask us to teach a child social skills. We always say yes, and there is more to unraveling this social mystery than meets the eye.

Defining Social Intelligence and Social Competence
So what are “social intelligence” and “social competence”?

The answer is pretty much what it seems. We often refer to social intelligence as “social smarts.” It may seem to be a simple idea, but it becomes very powerful when thinking about how to address behavior.

People have different kinds of smarts: There are “book” or “school” smarts (academics); “body” smarts (physical acuity and functioning); and “social smarts.”

Just like there are some people who can pick up a complicated dance routine right away or for whom playing a musical instrument seems to be second nature, neurotypical people are just naturally better at understanding and interpreting social cues.

Social smarts help us navigate our social world—and help us figure out what to say and do and when to say and do it. We all have each of these smarts in our brains, but we are good at them to varying degrees. Having “social competence” is when we are able to use our social smarts effectively.

Now What Do We Do About It?
The good news is that social cognition can be taught.

By teaching not only what to do in social situations (social skills), we teach our students why and how they are using such skills (social cognition). By teaching the why and how of this “social mystery,” we are giving our students the tools necessary to figure out what is expected of them in various situations.
Most students with social cognitive impairments have difficulty generalizing what they have learned across situations. So we work on how to think, thereby solving (even just a little bit!) the “social mystery” for our students and their families, with the hope that all of our lives will be more connected, more meaningful, and, therefore, more successful.

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