On today ‘s podcast, host Lori Boll speaks with Michelle Garcia Winner, the creator and founder of Social Thinking and a globally recognized thought leader, author, speaker, and social-cognitive therapist. She is dedicated to helping people of all ages develop social-emotional learning, including those with social competency challenges. Across her 35+ year career she has created numerous evidence-based strategies, treatment frameworks, and curricula to help interventionists foster social competencies in those they support. Michelle’s work also teaches how these competencies impact a person’s broader life, including their ability to maintain relationships and their success in school and career.

Today we discuss the concept of Social Thinking, who benefits from it, some strategies to try, and why there ‘s no such thing as a mild social skill deficit. Michelle is one of SENIA ‘s keynote speakers at our upcoming conference, and Michelle gives us a sneak peek into her topic in this podcast. We (SENIA) hope you ‘ll join us for our conference, and hope you enjoy today ‘s conversation. 

Resources Mentioned in Today ‘s Show:


Michelle Garcia Winner, MA, CCC-SLP, is the founder of Social Thinking and a globally recognized thought leader, author, speaker, and social-cognitive therapist. She is dedicated to helping people of all ages develop social-emotional learning, including those with social competency challenges. Across her 35+ year career she has created numerous evidence-based strategies, treatment frameworks, and curricula to help interventionists foster social competencies in those they support. Michelle’s work also teaches how these competencies impact a person’s broader life, including their ability to maintain relationships and their success in school and career.


Connect with Michelle:

Transcribed by Kanako Suwa

[ Introduction music plays ]

Welcome to the SENIA Happy Hour, where you get 1 hour of learning in less than thirty minutes.

Lori: Hello everyone, it’s Lori Boll, your host of the SENIA Happy Hour Podcast and today, I get to speak with Michelle Garcia Winner who is the creator and founder of Social Thinking and a globally recognized leader, author, speaker, and social cognitive therapist. She’s dedicated to helping people of all ages develop social emotional learning including those with social competency challenges. Across her 35 + year career, she has created numerous evidence-based strategies, treatment frameworks, and curricula to help interventionists foster social competencies in those they support. Michelle ‘s work also teaches how these competencies impact a person’s life including their ability to maintain relationships and their success in school and career. Today we discuss the concept of social thinking, who benefits from it, some strategies to try, and why there’s no such thing as a mild social skill deficit. Michelle is one of SENIA ‘s keynote speakers at our upcoming conference and she gives us a sneak peek today into her topic in this podcast. We hope you’ll join us for the upcoming conference and hope you will really enjoy today’s conversation. 

And now onto the show! Hi, Michelle! Welcome to the SENIA Happy Hour podcast!

Michelle: Thanks for inviting me! 

Lori:  Well thank you so much for joining me today to explore social thinking. I’ve had the privilege of seeing you speak in person on several occasions and each time I watch you present, I go home and back to my own classroom feeling pumped up, excited to implement your very practical strategies into my own classroom setting.  So one of the most impactful statements you made at one of your presentations is “there is no such thing as a mild social skills problem”. I may be paraphrasing that incorrectly so you can correct me on that. But for me, that was one of the most mind-blowing moments. So can you explain what you mean by that statement? 

Michelle: Yeah, So I’m very familiar with the spectrum of autism and the spectrum and then I started talking about the spectrum of social cognition because who gets what diagnosis when is really not predictable. So when”¦ I began my career working with those who, in the old days, were called classic autism and now they are autism spectrum level 3, and worked a lot with functional adaptive behavioural strategies where you identify skills and you teach a skill. 

And then when I ended up many years later moving back towards my hometown, I was in California, I started working with students who have what I call more subtle or emerging social abilities. And they had a lot of language, and what I was noticing was the more subtle your social issues, the more profoundly bad you were treated,  not only by beers but by teachers. That if we could see, it was if it was obvious that you had social issues that were outside of your brain ‘s control, there was what I call a forgiveness factor. 

But as soon as we expect you to walk amongst us amongst us and and be able to do this really refined set of social abilities, if you mess it up, we’re really quick to condemn, bully, reject. And so, the reason I started saying this idea that you know mild social skills problems are significant, is because it’s really hard to qualify students for services if we don’t think they’re severe enough. But there is, there’s different treatments for different levels of severity but anyone who’s considered by their peers to be socially awkward or off faces a pretty hard road and I feel like that is severe enough to be able to qualify and serve a person.

Lori: Yeah and I’ve heard, I’m not sure on the exact statistic, but I believe it’s like 12% of people on the Autism Spectrum are gainfully employed in the States and I imagine that has something to do with it.

Michelle: That has a lot to do with it. You know and I think when you”¦ because if I was to define all this, if someone asked me to to figure out how to put this social cognitive system in place, I would have a dividing line between those individuals who do not have social self-awareness, that they’re really not actively tuning in as part of their normal process to what’s going on around them, the intentions of other people, what’s expected of them”¦ Those who don’t have social self-awareness and those who do have social self-awareness, because when you get to the folks who have more this, what we tend to call emerging or subtle but significant abilities,  meaning they’re sitting in the mainstream classroom and they’re doing a lot of the work, if not all of the work for themselves, they can have some incredible areas of strong intelligence there, they may be easily qualified as gifted and talented, and yet if they’re not working in groups well or you know, acting in a way that makes people uncomfortable without intention, that not only do they have social issues but if they have social self-awareness, I can guarantee you, they are now walking down the path of gaining major anxieties. 

Because social anxiety, anxiety about what I’m supposed to do or not do, how I’m doing it, is all part of our awareness system. If you’re not aware, you’re not going to have anxiety about what they’re not aware of, right, and so that gets us into what we call the ASD perhaps level 1, to some extent ASD level 2 as that group is gaining awareness, what we call them the emerging group, but it also opens the door to a whole lot of people diagnosed with mental health problems that are not seen as having social issues only because whoever’s diagnosing them thinks they look too typical to be what they think of as on the autism spectrum. So in my world I just see tons of confusion and not clarity. The diagnostic system does not provide a lot of clarity. It’s all based on the bias of the people who are diagnosing to begin with. 

Lori: You’re absolutely right. Well, that is so interesting. Well, let’s talk social thinking. It’s a huge topic to try to cover in our 30 minute podcast, so can you give us that Cliff Notes version or definition of social thinking? 

Michelle: Sure. So there’s two different things. One is our actual ability to socially think and the second one is our social thinking methodology. So as I was working with students in a high school district, and I came from a background of working with folks with classical autism who were coming out of institutions and were nonverbal or minimally verbal, and being part of a 24-hour team that help them to learn adaptive skills to be able to live in the community, largely in group homes, and try to establish some level of employment and recreation. It was awesome and I ‘m  really proud of my work and the work I did with my team back in the early 80s, and then I ended up in a high school district when I moved back home to my home state of California, and in the high school district there were a lot of like”¦  “who’s on the caseload of a high school speech language pathologist”? Well, it turns out, largely a lot of people would settle with social issues but what also, there was a subgroup of my caseload that really resented therapy like they hated it. I hate you, I hate social skills, and I really had to think about that because to be an effective professionals to be able to work with people and so that was the dawning of the social thinking methodology, but it was also the dawning of me thinking about, wait, this is more than behavior. Like treating a behavior was effective for my folks who did not have language and had weak intelligence, weak measured intelligence,  doesn’t mean all intelligence is weak, it’s what we measured is weak, so treating a behavior was effective if we were consistent and we had a humane environment wrapped around that person. 

Now my high school students were like, no no way, like I’m not doing one more social skills group where someone tells me how to behave and then punishes me for not behaving. And that began with me stepping back and just talking about and me even thinking about for the first time, you know what, our brain thinks socially. It is aware of who’s around us, we read intentions of people we will never talk to, that’s called driving a car, walking down the street, riding your bike, and that we take perspective those people will never engage in, that’s called reading comprehension of literature, that’s called studying social studies and history and that our social mind is this amazing meaning maker in our lives. And yet, when we have kids with social skills problems, what we are attempting to do was tell them what  and how they should behave rather than engage them in this thinking process. 

So for me, it was like, I remember to this day, my excitement of like getting this challenge to figure this out to get these kids interested and engaged and what I found was it was not by telling them what to do. It was getting them to study how their own brain was already on the journey of thinking about other people, and to get them to value what they were already doing so that I could help them expand that awareness to add more strategies to what they were already doing, increase some level of awareness, and then also tied to that, when they became more aware of, for example I created social thinking vocabulary. Is your body in the group?  There’s a group plan. Think with your eyes, it’s not about eye contact. We shouldn’t be telling kids, give me eye contact. That’s a nothing but if we tell them hey, let’s figure out who knows people, who doesn’t know people in this room, how do you know that somebody knows someone? And getting them to figure out their thinking, then was a natural connection to helping them adapt their behavior and learn how you relate socially based on their own goals. Does that make sense or”¦? 

Lori: Yeah absolutely! I’m just thinking back to a student I had in middle school who, no diagnosis, nothing, but you know, we sit in our advisory class and he would pull his chair away from the circle where we were all sitting and then he wondered why it seems that none of his classmates liked him. 

And after going to see one of your presentations, I talked to him about it and I said, you know, you sit outside of the group. How do you think that makes the people in the group feel? What are they thinking in their thought bubbles? What are they thinking about you when you’re sitting outside of that circle? And he was like “huh, well, maybe they think I don’t”¦ I don’t like them. They think that what they’re saying is not important”¦” So it just kind of got him to think more on that social level, what you ‘re talking about. 

Michelle: Right. I think that ‘s what I really tried to do was to be able to help my student see the world that we all take for granted. Right, beginning at 3 years old,  we put kids in the preschool and we already expect 3 year olds to be able to kind of read the room to some extent, realize somebody standing there or sitting there,  where your friend is, and then we never really explicitly teach it. So I started deconstructing aspects of the social world. I will never fully deconstruct the social world, it is way too complicated, but give people some kind of paradigm. 

So I created something called the 4 steps of communication, which is first, we think about people around us. Second, we use our eyes, like first of all, we ‘re just in a thinking mode. We’re in this space, we use our eyes to kind of figure out what’s going on around us, if we want to be part of something, we have to use our body to get into the group. And then fourth is we use language to relate. Some of my students were using language without thinking with their eyes or their body in the group. And so then, people were seeing them as incredibly rude because they’re hollering out comments or they’re hearing a group of kids who are socially relating and they are talking to that group as if they’re in that group. Which set you up, it’s people don’t understand what’s happening, they just think that, you know, that person becomes possibly in harm ‘s way, so the more I could dissect it, and open it up, and give people some guide post for just figuring out how the social world works because we literally don’t teach it, we just expect it, the more I could also help my students be part of it. 

Now, I would take your your student you just talked about is sitting outside the group. One is there ‘s a lack of awareness about really where the boundaries of those groups are. So in my treatment, we always start with observation. We never start with changing a behavior so if I had you know a student like that, and I like the way you talked about it to him because what you did was you got him to start observing, where is this group? Where am I in this group? And that’s like, even when I’m working with mature adults, one of the first things I have them do is going out to, you know, not during the COVID years, now maybe a little bit we’re letting up, I just start go noticing what’s happening in a restaurant. Qhat’s happening there? Like where are the groups? How do you know this or that about people? Because that’s what our brain is figuring out and then we work on strategies based on their own goals. So if that kid wants to be in the group, like that would be another question, do you want kids to see you as a part of the group? The logical thing is “Okay, pull your chair in the group.” 

Except kids who have underlying anxiety feel so uncomfortable doing that. That just feels so strange to them, so now you have to practice. One, what is the competency of oh like when groups we kind of sit in a ring with our shoulders, but now we’ve got to figure out ways to manage our anxiety to assure us that we’re doing the right thing even if it feels uncomfortable at first.  

Lori: Yeah, that ‘s definitely. Well I will follow up with that, that’s exactly what we did and he ended up joining our group. We also talked about”¦ One time, he was walking by and I said “hey is something upsetting you?” and he’s like “why do you ask that?” and I said “well your face is showing me that you’re upset or angry”, and he goes “oh, my face just always like that” so I pulled out that trick of the mirror and just told him what I thought, what my thought bubble was saying, when I see that face and it was really great and an authentic teaching experience for both of us. 

Michelle: What ‘s interesting for so many of our clients or students, children, whatever we’re calling them is they may not be able to do things in a way that their peers do so they’re not keeping up socially, but they are still strong social interpreter. So if somebody else looked at them with that face, they may be offended. They don’t have what I call this circle of perspective-taking where actually we check in with ourselves to see how we’re presenting ourselves, which is part of why we pop on this somewhat fake you know, you know a little bit of a smile even if we don’t, you know why the smile all the time just to keep people comfortable when we meet them even if we’re uncomfortable. Right, because social is more than ourselves. It’s ourselves with others, and if our goal is to be with the others, how do we understand that process of.. 

Lori: I think another point, important point you made earlier was about reading literature. And that was another thing. One important thing I learned at one of your presentations is, how can we expect our students who don’t understand the social world to infer text? How is the character feeling right now? We ask that all the time, and so that… that just opened up a whole new world with me, for me, when working with our students and just different questions to ask them.

Michelle: Yeah, the kind of the trick on that one for people who are like thinking about this for the first time, is across, if we’re specifically talk about the autism spectrum, across the autism spectrum, part of what defines different levels of the spectrum, but this is not written in the DSM, but it should be”¦ they just need to consult with me”¦ is level of literalness. How literal one is when one interprets because as many of you guys are very familiar, with some of your students who are science bright are very literal when it comes to social interpretations. 

Science doesn’t really require.. It requires an abstraction based on fact, so all advances in science are making a leap based on a fact system, right? You always know a fact and then you can extend that and develop more abstractions. But social is never based on facts. Lori, how I see you today and how I see 10 minutes from now doesn’t mean you’re going to feel the same. I can’t say Lori is always this,  therefore”¦ and so in this journey we’re trying to look at how literal. So when you have someone who’s persistently literal, persistently unable to really make significant social inferences, I will”¦ I’m going to say, I can guarantee reading comprehension of literature issues. 

Because literature all in inference and that’s I think that was one of my messages or one of my ah-ha ‘s because I had this incredible group of kids in high school that I was learning like crazy from, and reading the literature was that in the academic world we see reading comprehension of literature as completely separate from our social functioning. So one is a social skills problem, one is a reading problem and here’s the other one we see,  we see written expression as completely different from reading comprehension and social. But if you go back and you look at the seeds of that, it is the social mind at work that’s being able to take information about people in text and now use our knowledge whether we know we have this knowledge of feelings and thought and start to apply them both in narrative. does your paragraphs make sense is not for you to decide its you stepping away from your work and trying to read it to someone else ‘s eyes to decide if it makes sense. Because we always make sense to ourselves. 

Lori: That ‘s what I meant! 

Michelle: So that was what was fascinating to me was, who’s talking about this? There were some people, but they weren ‘t loud, loud voices and you know I’m still a minor voice in the world but I scream loudly about, let ‘s look at the social mind, rather than our social skills. Step back, look at the mind, start to see what it’s doing and that how we apply that mind, and how the way we apply that is through social behavior other parts are through our academic performance. And when we see the social mind is formed that it doesn ‘t naturally infer, let ‘s stop expecting that we ‘re gonna have growth in academics, because the kid is smart because all the tests are based on facts. Right, and really understand who this person is so that we can treat them humanely and also treat ourselves humanely. 

Lori: Yep. No follow up to that. Beautiful. Who benefits from social thinking work? 

Michelle: Good question. Because it’s not designed for everybody. Because I did so much work with those who I called classically autism, those with minimal language and measured limited academic intelligence, when I started social thinking because it uses our metacognition, which is thinking about one ‘s thinking and feelings and thinking about others ‘ thinking and feelings, that’s what metacognition means. 

It’s for students starting at about 4 years olds who have solid development of language and so they don’t have to be completely at age level with language, but their primary source of communication is through a language system. If that language system is augmentative, that ‘s language. So it doesn’t have to be a spoken language system because language, just the production of language is a thinking process. Right, if you don’t think,  and it’s amazing how quickly does this but to allow us to speak is organise our thoughts, to think about how to convey something to someone else, and when I work with folks who don’t have that type of language, they are using language but in very literal ways just to talk about wants and needs, not to explain their thinking or anyone else ‘s. 

So once a kids can start to understand how to think through someone else’s for at least be able to start having you know I work with folks who are not great at this is what I’ll call all are solid emerging or even our challenge social communicate a word with him I’m just trying to engage that thinking system because they have solid language skills who our work is best served are those who really are able to talk about their and others ‘ thinking and feelings. 

Lori: I think what ‘s essential for people to know too, is although. I mean probably the focus was maybe originally on autism spectrum disorder, there’s many people out in the world that have some social skill deficits. 

Michelle: that are not diagnosed! 

Lori: Yeah,  and a lot of the strategies that will be talking about in a moment really can be used in like a general education setting, with all the students in the classroom.

Michelle: Sure so because of my early interest in autism in the late 70 ‘s, and I worked with Dr.Koegel at Santa Barbara you know, some of you know his name, well, Pivotal Response Therapy, but that was my early training. And then once I get started working in the high school, I’m like “whose deciding who’s got social issues?” Right, based on… I’m a speech pathologist and so we do measure social pragmatics as independent of autism but all of our tests are pretty pretty limited in what they look at. And, it really, because I knew so much about autism and then I watch the spectrum evolve, it was like well, it doesn’t really make sense that we think social is limited to the autism spectrum because we’ve got you know 68% of people with ADHD have some level of social challenges, and now you start looking at who’s getting the primary diagnosis of anxiety, depression”¦ 

I have an employee here, I have a company and I get to hire some of my clients, so I have a couple of clients who have been with us for many years who were unemployable out there but I saw all their talents in the treatment room and put them to work here and it was great. You know everyone it’s amazing how far they’ve come but, this idea of really understanding”¦ What I was mentioning  was one of mine is diagnosed with primarily ADHD. And I ‘m like.. she is on the spectrum, she is fully on the spectrum! But she would go in and even when she went into a doctor’s appointments, nobody would believe she had a problem because she looks pretty. And I ‘m like”¦ “?????” So then, I start going to her doctor’s appointments because she, when early on, had serious mental health problems that were putting her in very risky situations, just even trying to get her doctors understand because she could not explain her needs. That requires a lot of self-awareness and so you know that’s where I was like, hey let’s talk about the spectrum of social cognition and stop talking about mental health diagnosis because babe do not capture this intelligent typical looking folk. And especially the new DSM tries to eliminate some of that, and it’s just like you know, what what a mistake for people to think that the only problem they could have is a mental health problem. 

Lori:  Well when the DSM comes to speak with you can you have them call me too?! 

Michelle: I know! 

Lori: There ‘s a lot of us out there that could help them.

Michelle: And, and I think for  and parents in the world up by autism need to focus sometimes less on the autism and more on the social emotional learning because sometimes diagnostic labels are traps. And they ‘re self fulfilling prophecies in the sense that if we want someone to learn and cope and adapt, then we can’t just look at autism treatments. We have to look at treatment that’s relevant to their learning needs and that’s where I start social thinking and I started applying it broadly and now I’m really good at having debates a psychologist about the term narcissism… What is it, like if you look at it as a set of behaviors, but how many people with narcissism have some compelling social emotional learning components that they’re really not understanding how they’re showing up in the world to others? 

Lori: Well yeah, that makes complete sense. Well, switching back to your strategies”¦ I ‘ve used so many in my classroom that you mentioned some earlier. Body in the group, brain in the group, there ‘s the super flex programme, the size-of-my-problem, and my reaction size to that, our eyes tell us what you ‘re thinking about, social fate, social fortune”¦ there’s so many unexpected expected behaviors so can you speak to one or two of these strategies for audience. 

Michelle: So something I evolved kind of early on in my treatment was my awareness, because I had this incredible group of kids who had nowhere else to be on campus so they were always in my office after school, during lunch, and I just got to observe and talk to them and one of the things that became really apparent was that they really weren’t thinking through what I call a social emotional chain reaction. That in any situation, there are things we expect from each other, behaviors and when we do something unexpected, we process that as well. 

If you do something expected or unexpected we have feelings about what’s going on, we have actions and reactions we may take, possibly, based on how we feel. And how we treat someone based on how we feel or actions and reactions affects how that person feels. So I tied that together, it’s”¦ you know, we call it the social emotional chain reaction, the tool we developed to kind of map this out is called social behavior mapping, and that’s the genesis of the book, Social Fortune Fate, where we give a whole bunch of explanations of any one of us can affect those around us positively or negatively and how to be accountable for what we do, and how it contributes to what’s how people might be interpreting us. You know, so that person who really wants to be a part of the group but is standing outside of the group vomiting their thoughts in, that person actually wants to be part of that scene but they don’t actually understand that that’s an unexpected behavior, and is leading to an uncomfortable feeling, which may lead to people treating them in a way that they were not desiring by throwing their thoughts on it. They didn’t know it was thought bomb. 

So I started breaking this open and then having my students go through this and start studying situations because you can’t self-regulate in a situation if you don’t understand the situation. And so many of our folks on the higher end of the autism spectrum well, all through the autism spectrum, but we assume those on the higher-end already have figured this stuff out. And when I start to share these concepts, even you know I work a lot with mature adults who nobody would think was a client of mine, and it’s fascinating when they see this because it just helps them to put together that social is a wraparound of each other’s thoughts. emotions, expectations, and reacting and responding and then feelings about how each other is treating each other. So that ‘s kind of”¦

Lori: I love that book. It ‘s kind of shown in a graphic novel format and um, so that ‘s great for our middle school students and some in high school as well. 

Michelle: Yeah, and you know, and I ‘ll say that that gives you a framework, many things happening at once, to teach that framework, you have to start by pulling out the parts first. 

Lori: Right, so that ‘s social mapping. 

Michelle: Yea, so the think with your eyes, the expectations about our body, and different aspects with in that. We have to use flexible thinking, we need to make smart guesses”¦ so we built, we have strategies to pull it apart to understand moving parts, and then we bring in frameworks together like the social emotional chain reaction, to see how all these parts go together. 

Lori: Well yeah, it ‘s really effective, and your website will be put on our show notes page for everyone so they can go and find all those resources on there. 

Michelle: Great. We also”¦ I have a goal with my business to not have people have to access our information through something they have to pay for it to get them going with understanding it. So they will find over 100 free articles and over 20 hours of free webinar. We have a lot of free to just give people a sense of who we are and what we’re about, to see if this is something that makes sense to them. It is interesting because pre-COVID, we got to travel the world and we were in almost every continent in the world right now. and how this information is transcend the specific culture because these are the the actual kind of instruments that culture than that was some cultural twist on so that ‘s interesting. 

Lori: Well, whenever administrators or someone comes to me and as you know what should we train our teachers on at school, my first answer is always social thinking and executive functioning. If every single teacher had a background in these areas, I think, all of our students would have so much more success in school. 

Michelle: Right, so it ‘s no surprise that executive functioning and social thinking are actually part of the same.. You know, you use your executive functioning toolkit, not only for homework but in your social mind. 

Lori: Yeah, exactly. Cool. Finally, at our upcoming SENIA conference, you will be one of our keynote speakers! We are so excited to have you. 

Michelle: Thank you! 

Lori: I can ‘t tell you how excited we are. But first of all, thanks for joining us, and we have had so many people write to tell us how they ‘re so excited to see you. Your keynote is entitled “Self Regulation, a journey towards developing social emotional competencies”. So can you give us a sneak peak into what you ‘ll be discussing? 

Michelle: Well, actually, a number of things we discussed during this podcast but giving some, defining more of the tools, showing the visuals related, and just, I think people think of self-regulation as you need to behave, and social skills as you need to be socially appropriate, they ‘re all part of the same thing. Self regulation is dependent on us understanding the social scene. We can self regulate by ourselves, like having to do our homework, but even homework in a home requires us to be social, right? Screaming at your parents because you ‘re furious about your homework. So it ‘s really just helping people, giving some core information about social thinking but also getting them to re-think some of the divides they have in their minds about “social regulation is a behaviour problem, social skills is a social problem” and it ‘s like, “actually, social and behavioral are all part of the same core. 

Lori: Great! Well, Michelle, thank you so much for your time today! 

Michelle: You ‘re welcome! And I ‘m honoured to be a part of this. Looking forward to the conference.

Thanks for stopping in to SENIA Happy Hour, don ‘t forget to head over to SENIAinternational.org/podcasts and check out our show notes from the discussion today. We at SENIA hope you ‘re enjoying these podcasts. There ‘s so much to explore and we ‘re at the very beginning. So feel free to drop us a note and let us know what you ‘d like to hear more about during your next SENIA Happy Hour. Until then”¦ Cheers!