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Autism and Asperger Syndrome: Social Thinking and its Impact on Academics

Posted by in Special Needs | Comments

ScottCounseling friend and author, Michelle Winner, shares her personal and professional experience and insights regarding children with Autism and Aspergers  Syndrome and the effects of “Social Thinking” as it impacts academics. As a speech language pathologist, Ms. Winner is qualified to shared her expertise on the topic of social thinking as it relates autism spectrum.

Social Thinking and its Impact on Academics

autism-kidAs a teacher and parent of children with Autism and Asperger Syndrome I have begun to notice a pattern in the academic development of the higher functioning children. They seem to start out well then fairly quickly fall behind as they progress through the primary grades. As I have watched this pattern of academic development I have seen that it coincides with the children’s pattern of social development, a pattern with increasing deficit as the child ages. It has become apparent that the children’s academic development is tied to their social development and I have found that by focusing on the development of social thinking these children can be helped to achieve far more than with a focus on academics alone.



The development pattern looks something like this:


· Children in the spectrum do fairly well as the curriculum is concrete and easily understood.

· They learn to read easily and some appear to be avid readers as they read everything in sight.

· They learn to write their letters but they look a little sloppy.

· They catch onto math quickly and enjoy the patterns in numbers.

· They love science, as it is hands on and engaging.

· They participate in parallel play but do not engage other students. Other students occasionally attempt to engage them in cooperative play.

First Grade

· Children in the spectrum are generally working at grade level while the curriculum remains concrete.autism-ribbon1

· It soon becomes clear that even though they can read big words, they do not understand a lot of what they are reading.

· Writing becomes a tiresome chore as they struggle with the mechanics of properly forming their letters and giving them the correct spatial orientation on the line.

· When they are expected to begin writing short stories they tend to focus repeatedly on the same topic and write stories that make little sense to other readers.

· Their math skills remain strong but they often need help understanding the directions and are easily frustrated when they are not allowed to do the worksheet their way.

· They still like science and social studies and tend to enjoy opportunities to make drawings based on their findings. Inappropriate behaviors are starting to show up more frequently and there is a lot more resistance to complete work or comply with the teacher’s requests.

· They continue to participate in parallel play without engaging other students. Other students make fewer attempts to engage them in cooperative play.

Second Grade

· Children in the spectrum begin to perform below grade level in some areas.

· As they fall farther behind on reading comprehension they start to lose interest in reading because they cannot understand what they have read.

· They begin to slip farther behind in their writing and often exhibit behavior issues when asked to write. Many will refuse to even make an attempt at writing.

· Math skills are still strong but they find it increasingly more difficult to understand the language of math causing them become confused and upset.

· Science and social studies can be fun still, but now they are expected to write their findings and may start to resist doing the work.

· They begin to be loners as other children have given up on engaging them in cooperative play.

Third Grade

autism-day-bostonChildren in the spectrum often fall a full grade behind as the curriculum becomes increasingly abstract. School becomes a lot of work and more negative behaviors erupt.

They have fallen significantly behind in reading and cannot get important information from most grade level texts.

They are unable to organize their writing and are still struggling with forming their letters.

Every subject requires them to write including math where they are now required to write what they were thinking when solving the problem.

They have the added challenge of understanding math story problems, which is particularly difficult since their reading comprehension is so far behind.

They still enjoy the hands on activities in science and social stories but refuse to do the work as it involves a significant amount of writing.

They start wanting to play with other children but are often rejected and teased because they are viewed as quirky and strange.

As the grades progress they become more and more frustrated and anxiety increases as their academics steadily fall farther behind. They don’t understand why they are struggling so much academically and they begin feeling lonely because they don’t fit in socially.

What is causing this pattern that seems so similar with children within the autism spectrum? According to the DSM-IV (Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition these children have the following diagnoses criterion:

   1.  marked impairment in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction;

   2.  failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level;

   3.  a lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests or achievement with other people;

   4.  lack of social or emotional reciprocity.

In other words they have significant lack in social abilities. These social deficits reach well beyond forgetting to say autism1hello to someone or use please and thank you. They reflect a difference in the way these children think about and view the world around them. They don’t know how to think socially and this lack in social thinking can have a serious affect on their academic skills.
We can use Michelle G. Winner’s ILAUGH model of social thinking to better understand how these children think and the impact their deficit in social cognition can have on their academics:

 I = Initiation. This is the ability to ask for help in the classroom, ask to play with friends or initiate help from family members at home. For many years my son would become upset because he was thirsty but nobody was getting him a drink. He would be throwing a fit and when asked what was wrong he would say, “I thirsty.” He never thought to ask for help getting a drink of water. In the classroom a child may not understand how to do an assignment and he will sit there never thinking to ask the teacher for help.

L = Listening With Eyes and Brain. Most children within the autism spectrum have auditory input difficulties. They don’t fully understand what is being said. Listening is also more than just hearing information through our ears. It is using the whole body to understand the verbal and non-verbal cues of the person who is talking. It is using the eyes to look for the clues and piecing the information together. Without looking at the speaker the child will most likely not understand what he is suppose to do or notice when taking a crayon off a desk that the owner of the crayon is visibly upset by the action.

A = Abstract and Inferential Language/communication: Children within the spectrum tend to not understand that language is complex and is not always meant for literal interpretation. Our school district has recently adopted a new math curriculum, which is very heavy in math language. It also uses some language that can be confusing to the literal thinker. I have had several of my students and my daughter become very upset because the instructions say to “ring” the right answer. To them a ring is an object you wear on your finger. This simple direction has caused much chaos as the children refuse to do the work because they don’t understand the directions. Often, even after I explain it is the same as saying “circle,” their minds refuse to accept it. As academics progress from grade to grade the concepts taught become more abstract. Students have to be able to make guesses about the meanings of words and ideas and this is very hard for these children. Math problems become harder to understand and reading comprehension becomes more difficult as language used to relate ideas and thoughts becomes more abstract.

U = Understanding Perspective: According to Michelle G. Winner “This is the ability to understand the emotions, thoughts, beliefs, prior knowledge, motives and intentions of yourself as well as others. We generally acquire this skill in our preschool years intuitively.” This is one of the biggest factors impacting a child’s academic success. In order to understand what you have read, you need to be able to put yourself in the character’s place and understand how the character is feeling and thinking. Children within the autism spectrum tend to struggle with this. They struggle to understand how others may feel or react in different situations. They are unable to read between the lines. So when they read a story about a girl who lost a race and they are asked, “How did the girl feel when she lost the race?” they are confused wondering how they should know. None of the words in the story said how she felt. The story only said that she walked home slowly. They lack the ability to make text connections to experiences they have had in life. For writing you need to be able to understand what information the reader will need. A child’s writing might end up reading as, “I had a fun time there. I liked my ice cream. I played the game.” They are then upset that you have no idea where they went, what flavor ice cream they had and what game they played. They can see the pictures in their head and they don’t understand why you don’t see the pictures too.

G=Gestalt Processing/Getting The Big Picture: Information comes in bits and pieces that have to be put together like a puzzle in order to see the whole picture. These children struggle to put the puzzle together and focus instead on individual pieces. Recently I was working on reading comprehension with a student and I asked him to tell me what the story was about. He told me all about the dog in the pictures and what the dog did throughout the book. However, the story had been about a boy whose mom would go out of town and the good things he would get to do and the things he missed while she was gone. This student focused on the dog and missed the whole meaning of the story. The dog had never been mentioned; it was just in the pictures. This is also where organizational skills become involved. You have to be able to collect information and organize it into a whole. Children within the autism spectrum find it very difficult to organizing their writing. They will write a sentence, then think of a new fact or idea and write it down, and continue on to create a written piece that makes no sense. For example I had one student who, when asked to write a story wrote, “I like basketball. I love my mom. My sister goes, Ahhh! I love my dad. Pizza is good.”

H= Humor and Human Relatedness: This can be represented in several ways. Some are so anxious about schoolwork and social interactions that they require perfection of themselves. They are very serious, they do not laugh and when they make even a small mistake they have a melt down. Others really want to fit in and will try to use humor at school but are unsuccessful. My daughter was once told a joke that went like this. “Why is 6 afraid of 7? Because 7 8 (ate) 9.” She laughed hysterically and it was obvious that her laugh was forced. I later talked to her to see if she understood the joke and she hadn’t. She just wanted to fit in so she laughed because she knew that is what you do when someone tells a joke. Most of my students have a great sense of humor (even if sometimes I don’t understand them) and allow others to make mistakes. They enjoy pointing out my errors and have humor with me as I laugh it off and fix the issue. However, the humor stops when they make the mistake in their own schoolwork. All of a sudden they become agitated and refuse to believe that I might be right when I mention that they forgot to add a period at the end of a sentence. Which then leads to a refusal to do their work.


As we have seen, an understanding of the ILAUGH model helps us to understand why children within the autism spectrum struggle so much with academic challenges. Social interaction is not just important when they play with others, but in varying degrees it impacts every moment of the day and is a key factor in the academic success of a child.

I have found that the best way to help children in the autism spectrum achieve academic success is to focus on the development of social thinking skills. There are many things that can be done both at home and in a classroom setting. When reading a story talk about how the characters are feeling, make predictions as to what will happen next, point out the direction of the eyes to help the child make “smart” guesses about what is going on and who is thinking of who. Work on sequencing skills to help them learn to organize the information they got from reading. For writing graphic organizers are key. Model writing and create interactive writing pieces together so the child can start to learn what information is needed. Work on specific social-cognitive skills such as learning what emotions are, what it means to think of others, learning to make “smart” guesses and create structured learning social environments. These techniques and many others can help the children learn social thinking.

Most of the content on this website has been designed specifically for teaching social thinking skills to children with Autism and Asperger syndrome and all have been used successfully with both my own children and my students. I have seen great improvement in the children’s social capabilities as well as in their academic success. It should be noted however, that none of these materials are intended to provide a quick fix. Improvements can be dramatic but it often starts slowly with a lot of resistance from the children. The greatest successes have been seen in children who have had a year or more of consistent social training in both group and individual settings. The task is not an easy one but with patience and perseverance it can be extremely rewarding for both the child and the teacher.

For more information on the link between social thinking and academics you can read Michelle G. Winner’s articles on her website.

Michelle G. Winner is a speech language pathologist in private practice in San Jose, California. She has written two books: Inside Out: What Makes The Person With Social Cognitive Deficits Tick? (2000) And Thinking About You Thinking About Me (2002).

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