On the Road to Adulthood: You've Gotta Be a Social Thinker
By now you are an older teen or young adult and you’ve started to consider what you want to do with the rest of your life. You probably also realize some of your many strengths as well as your weaknesses and, if you are like most of us, you will want a job or career that focuses on your strengths.
If you are reading this article, you may have also experienced some very real challenges with social learning and have probably grown frustrated by the complexities of the social world and questioned whether you should bother learning any more about it. But you are also aware that no matter what job you choose, you will most likely have to deal with people on a daily basis. Therefore, continuing to learn about social information is pretty important.
This article is about teaching you to become a better “social thinker” so you can understand how to apply related social skills. Our work is connected with the work of Brenda Smith Myles (The Hidden Curriculum), Carol Gray (Social Stories and Comic Strip Conversations) and Tony Attwood (Exploring Feelings). You have likely already learned some good information, but as you get older social learning continues to evolve and change. The cool thing about growing older is that you can think more clearly about stuff that was more confusing when you were younger. We see people your age that continue to make some really terrific gains when we teach them more about “thinking about what people are thinking.” Now that you are older, we think you can learn more to help yourself. Here are some brief thoughts to introduce a really big concept to motivate you to keep on learning even if it is hard.
What do you mean by “social thinking?” Social thinking just means thinking about social stuff… right?
Here’s social thinking in a nutshell: I have a brain and you have a brain. My brain has thoughts and yours does too. Sometimes we are thinking the same thing, but most of the time we have our own separate thoughts. In other words, when I share space with you (which means when I am physically near you or in the same room with you, even if we are not talking to each other), I have thoughts in my head about you and you have thoughts in your head about me. The cool thing about this concept is that I have some control over the types of thoughts you have about me. I can make you have weird thoughts or I can make you have good or normal thoughts about me. An important part of social thinking is figuring out how to keep you thinking about me the way I want you to think about me.
This idea of “weird thoughts” or “normal thoughts” is one of the easiest concepts to wrap your head around (or understand) because you have these thoughts on a daily basis. When people do what is “expected” (e.g., follow the hidden rules), you have pretty normal thoughts about them; when others do what is “unexpected,” you may have weird thoughts about them. The clincher here is that thoughts lead immediately to feelings or emotions. Weird thoughts almost always lead to uncomfortable feelings, while normal thoughts usually lead to calm or comfortable feelings. People have thoughts but they react to their feelings. Realize that you have memories about how people make you feel. So, if you already do all this “social thinking” about people around you, imagine how much social thinking people do about you as well. The word “social” implies we are all thinking about each other.
The hardest part of this is figuring out what are expected and unexpected behaviors in different situations. This isn’t always obvious since most people don’t tell you what is expected and just assume you should know. For this reason, we call expected behaviors the “hidden rules” (Smith Myles  calls this “the hidden curriculum”). They are “hidden rules” because most teachers or parents never really teach these—we are just supposed to figure them out. People who have to work harder at social thinking also have to work harder at figuring out the hidden rules. In fact, they might need to ask others for a deeper explanation of the “hidden rules” because they are not posted in writing on any wall.
Reprinted with the permission of the Autism Society.
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