Social Thinking : Behavior, Thoughts, and Emotions

social thinking aspergers in adultsThe important thing to remember is this: whenever you are around another person or several people, they are having thoughts about you. You can’t stop them from doing this; it’s just how it goes. Yet it’s easy to forget that even when you’re minding your own business and not even talking to another person, people in your space are having thoughts, and if you’re nearby, they might be having thoughts about you. Michelle Garcia Winner and Pamela Crooke, Socially Curious and Curiously Social.

Social Thinking Unlocked: The Tie Between Behavior, Thoughts, and Emotions

Does it bug you when people engage in small talk? Did you ever get annoyed when the school jock would show off at school? Were you ever infuriated by people who picked on you?

The people engaged in small talk, the school jock showing off, or the bully picking on you were all behaving a certain way.

Their behavior generated thoughts in your mind.

You were engaged in social thinking. You thought, “What a jerk!” or “Why are people so boring with their small talk?” or “He’s such a show-off!” These thoughts then generated feelings: disgusts, annoyance, hurt, anger. In turn, these thoughts and feelings conditioned you to have certain positive or negative memories about small talk, or the school jock, or that bully who picked on you.

Using the illustration above, unexpected behaviors = uncomfortable or weird thoughts, which cause uncomfortable or weird feelings.

On the other hand, think about people who talked to you about your special interest, or teachers/peers who were kind and considerate to you. Their behavior made you think thoughts like, “What an interesting person”, or “They are safe people.” Subsequently, you felt happy and calm. And you had good memories about those people.

In this case, expected behaviors = good/normal/okay thoughts, which cause calm or great feelings.

In both illustrations above, our thoughts result in feelings. Our feelings, in turns, create now thoughts, which we store in memory and remember the next time we meet the person.

The hardest part about social interaction, for adults on the autism spectrum, is figuring out what is expected, and what is unexpected.

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Here are a couple of tips:

Read Temple Grandin’s book, The Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships.

Here’s a helpful summary of the book from Amazon.com:

Helpful sections include:

-Two Perspectives on Social Thinking
-Two Minds: Two Paths
-The Ten Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships, which include:
Rule #1: Rules are Not Absolute. They are Situation-based and People-based
Rule #2: Not Everything is Equally Important in the Grand Scheme of Things
Rule #3: Everyone in the World Makes Mistakes. It Doesn’t Have to Ruin Your Day.
Rule #4: Honesty is Different than Diplomacy
Rule #5: Being Polite is Appropriate in Any Situation
Rule #6: Not Everyone Who is Nice to Me is My Friend
Rule #7: People Act Differently in Public than They Do in Private
Rule #8: Know When You’re Turning People Off
Rule #9: “Fitting In" is Often Tied to Looking and Sounding Like You Fit In
Rule # 10: People are Responsible for Their Own Behaviors

Ask Trusted Neurotypical Friends or Family Members to Explain Social Rules

When a confusing situation comes up, or it seems to you like you have “behaved unexpectedly”, check the situation out with a trusted friend or family member. Think of it as learning another culture. Culture and language learning takes a lifetime. So it will be for you, but your brain is neuroplastic, and you can learn new skills.

Please share your thoughts below!

photo credit: Daniel Wehner

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I'm Steve Borgman. I'm a licensed clinical professional counselor and blogger committed to bringing you hope, understanding, and solutions that you can apply to your life immediately.

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  • Violet2

    I appreciate your example of the view from an aspie’s perspective, actively thinking like a social thinker. Usually the NT is being a social the thinker, and the aspie is being the oblivious, obnoxious aspie. I agree the big challenge is figuring out the expected behaviors :especially why different behaviors are expected in seemingly similar circumstances, or why a behavior is expected from me, but not from someone else in the same situation at the same time.
    Also appreciated you offering some general “global” unwritten rules, as unwritten and unspoken rules are really hard to follow. : )

  • Violet2 Thanks so much for your input. Michelle Garcia Winner’s material is helpful in getting people both on and off of the spectrum to be more self-aware. However, social thinking becomes more difficult when it’s time to actually decode what the other person is actually thinking. And this is where research needs to produce better interventions for people on the autism spectrum. It’s one thing to be aware of another person, but quite another to be able to accurately decode what their motives and intentions are.

  • Violet2

    I have another example you might be able to address. I am aware of when my sensory issues are about to be pushed past my abilities to demonstrate expected behaviors. I am, in a sense feeling weird, but don’t look weird -yet– but people seem uncomfortable if I take a break or leave. When I try to explain myself I am either not believed or accused of being dramatic. This perception by others can be discouraging . I am making an effort to participate in activities I do not enjoy, and losing time and energy for things that energize me. I wonder if ideas of options for acceptable “graceful” exits would help tide us over until the research is published, accepted, and generally available.

  • Violet2: if you don’t mind, I’ll pose your question in a couple of my forums, to see what feedback I get, and then I’ll write those suggestions up in a future article. Is that okay with you?