Social Cognition: What Is It and What Does It Tell Us About How to Teach?

By — Autism Society
Updated on Apr 3, 2009

Understanding how a person learns is essential to understanding how to teach. If a math teacher asks a student to “show me your work,” she is checking to see if the student understands the process used in solving the problem . We , as educators or parents, might ask ourselves the same question regarding how we are able to function in a social situation or within a casual conversation. How do we do it ?

What is the process we go through to determine whether another person is interested in what we have to say? How do we know that someone enjoys our company? How do we make social decisions regarding how closely we stand to another person or how long we maintain eye contact? The answer is that we do not know how we make these decisions. Somewhere in our early development we figured it out and over time, through experience and practice, it became second nature. This is called social cognition, and in order to teach it effectively to children and youth with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), it would make sense for us to learn the cognitive process we use for addressing social situations.

Social cognition involves how we think about all things social, how we interpret other people’s actions and how we adjust our own actions based on the reactions of others. There are not many conditions more social than the school environment. In order to feel competent and comfortable, students need to understand the global expectations of school, accept the authority of teachers and restrain their own desires for the good of the group. If students are not successful in these very basic social cognitive feats, they risk social failure and anxiety that can lead to social confusion or challenging behaviors.

Science is discovering new information about how the brain works; neuropsychology, in particular, can provide tremendous insight into how social cognitive challenges can impact learning. Several new theories can help educators, families and individuals on the spectrum better understand the complexities associated with social cognition.

Theory of Mind

The first of these theories, and unquestionably the most well known, is Theory of Mind (ToM; Baron-Cohen, Leslie & Frith, 1985): the ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of other people. According to this theory, people with ASD tend to lack the ability to effectively understand or interpret the actions of others. ToM impacts a person’s ability to understand that someone else may want a turn or that one’s behavior matters to another person. ToM challenges can cause great confusion in people with ASD as they attempt to determine social expectations. Why would I choose to share my toy if I don’t understand that another person might want it?

Many years ago, a 5-year-old student with ASD who was having great difficulties understanding how to function within a group told me that he thought everything would be all right if he could just have all the turns. In retrospect, I think he was right. I look back at that statement and am in awe of that child’s ability to figure out what I was unable to see at the time. How can we teach someone about sharing if the concept remains elusive due to how that person’s brain is functioning? How can we teach abstract social concepts to someone whose brain is likely processing information in a different way? Part of the answer might lie in how the person does learn. How does the person with ASD learn best and most efficiently?

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