Social Thinking at Work: A book review

Winner, M.G.,& Crooke, P. (2011) Social Thinking at Work. San Jose, CA.: Think Social, Inc., & North River Press.

Part of my motivation for reviewing Social Thinking at Work is that I strongly believe we need to be spreading understanding and acceptance for those who experience and process the world differently. Much of my work is influenced by listening to and supporting the voices of adults with autism/autistic adults. Those of you who follow my blog will also be aware that this is part of the motivation for co producing the film Vectors of Autism: A Documentary about Laura Nagle. The thing is, my child may only be 13, but he is daily gaining skills and maturing in so many ways, and this serves as a constant reminder that he is on a surefire trajectory to adulthood.

As a parent of a child who is not a part of the neuromajority – I am working to prepare my son to be as successful as possible in a predominantly NT (neurotypical) world, and too – I am determined to prepare the world to be better able to support him as he transitions to adulthood.

I was sent this book some time ago, but reading to review has felt like such a responsibility, especially since I have great respect for the authors. I fretted about reading it properly – which slowed me considerably. Finally I had to just stop thinking so much, leave behind my academic note-taking response, and just plain old read it!!

I am a fan of Michelle Garcia Winner and Pamela Crooke. I have heard them both speak at conferences and I have been influenced by Michelle’s strategies such as Superflex and Social Behaviour Mapping (SBM).  I have used these strategies with my son H, my students and their families, and have even introduced them to the teachers with whom I work.

Over the past few years I have been particularly impressed with the response in terms of greater social understanding that is accessible with SBM. In my own work, I have combined this with other approaches to build a series of universally designed literacy strategies that support the development of perspective-taking and emotional understanding for students.

An amazing feature of SBM is that is makes visual the connection between what we do (action)how this makes others feeltheir response (action) ➜ and ultimately how this leaves us feeling. The connections made are context specific and the strategy is built together with the individual – or with an entire class as a universally designed tool! (I love UDL) It is powerful indeed to have a class full of students understanding the expected and unexpected behaviours within the shifting contexts of their day.  In typical Winner style, Michelle reframes the overused and sometimes judgment-laden descriptors of behaviour as positive/negative or appropriate/inappropriate by replacing them with the terms expected/unexpected. As a parent and as a special education teacher – I very much appreciate this differenciation.

You may be wondering about my foray into describing this other material by Winner, but I am taking the time to share this because I think it demonstrates the consistency of her message. The way that she is able to unravel the social world – without the often accompanying shame or blame – is of critical importance. In Social Thinking at Work, the concept of Social Behaviour Mapping is revisited, extended, and well explained.  SBM for adults includes an additional step that encourages the examination of the interpretation or inferences made about the initial expected or unexpected behaviour.

my action ➜ interpretation ➜ other’s feeling ➜ their reaction ➜ my feeling

I appreciate that Social Thinking at Work explicitly unravels and explains the unwritten social rules and expectations in the workplace, and connects these to emotions, emotional responses and perspective-taking. This information is crucial for those struggling with social-cognition challenges: those who may not intuitively read or understand the social complexities that many of us pick up more easily.

I was particularly struck by the idea that the structure of this book is such that it could be read in part or in whole and sections could be revisited as needed. I was also left with the feeling that this book is not blaming or trying to “fix” anyone – rather it uses examples to illustrate the social complexities and expectations of the workplace, and strategies to build social navigation skills if an individual so desires.

My appreciation of much of Social Thinking at Work may be reflective of my own biases and interests. The section on emotions explores the interesting and well explained concepts of emotional expression compression, the social-emotional chain effect, the emotion scale, and a problem solving thermometer tool.

I found that reading this book gave me additional insights into the inner workings and dynamics of my multiples roles within my workplace. I work as a special educator with students and their families, which entails case management, planning and coordinating special education programming, and working closely with other educators and our special education team. Additionally, I am the coordinator of our special education department and thus also work to keep our team operating cohesively, so that all members feel heard, appreciated and respected.

Social Thinking at Work is great… however, I don’t think it is only those with social thinking challenges who should be directed to this book as a valuable learning tool and resource. More than this, I think we need to consider how we might additionally share these insights about the complexities of the social environment at work with administrators, supervisors, human resource personnel and others who might be in the position to support those who are struggling.

The aspects of social thinking that many of us come to understand (relatively) intuitively as we navigate the social world are not so easily explained to others. We may not be particularly good at noticing these things precisely because most of us do not have reason to do so.  Even though my son is just barely a teen, there are skills and knowledge that I have gained by reading this book that I can use to support his development. I will be better able to do this now, because I have a more clear understanding of the explicit understandings he will need in the workplace. Working on this now… is going to help him to be better prepared for his future and his transition to adulthood.

I would feel comfortable recommending Social Thinking at Work to adults I know who are struggling with the hidden social expectations of the workplace, and, because social understanding is a two way street, perhaps with the administrative team of my school as well.

There is a wonderful implication in Social Thinking at Work – and that is that we are all able to learn new things well into adulthood. The explicit social information provided in this book also comes with the implicit message that learning is a life-long journey and that all of us can benefit from gaining more finesse in the area of social understanding.

Disclaimer:  I was provided an advanced copy of Social Thinking at Work for review from the publisher, North River Press. I was not compensated in any other way.

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30 Days of Autism is a project designed to promote social understanding and offer a glimpse into the perspectives of those whose lives are touched by Autism.

© Leah Kelley, Thirty Days of Autism, (2012)

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About Leah Kelley

Leah Kelley, MEd., Educator, Parent, Speaker, Social Justice Activist. Writes blog: 30 Days of Autism. Projects support social understanding & neurodiversity. Co producer of documentary: Vectors of Autism. Twitter: @leah_kelley Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/leahkelley13/ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/30-Days-of-Autism-Leah-Kelley/154311301315814
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