Social Thinking and Supporting Individualized Development

Social Thinking and Supporting Individualized DevelopmentMisplacing homework, showing up late to appointments, forgetting instructions, and lack of follow through are all behaviors familiar to parents and educators who have worked with young adults who struggle with executive functioning. This familiar pattern can be frustrating and exhausting for everyone involved, especially the young adult. Despite creative organization tactics, empathy, or ultimatums, these challenges continue to permeate young adults’ daily living and self-sufficiency. On top of that, these young adults are often labeled as manipulative, lazy, and defiant which further exacerbates the cycle of disappointment, frustration, and exhaustion.

Primary therapists, Casey Sims, MSW and Nick Wagenseller, MA recently attended a specialized Social Thinking training in Portland, Oregon presented by Michelle Garcia Winner, Pamela Crooke, and Sarah Ward. The Social Thinking methodology encourages parents, educators, and clinicians to move away from simply addressing the “problem” behavior and instead offers a theoretical understanding for which methods will work best for each individual. Take for example the 19-year-old who is consistently 15 minutes late to their college class. As their parents or clinicians, we can target the “problem behavior” of repeatedly being late by suggesting they wake up 15 minutes earlier, set timers for them, or offer them rides to campus.

Social Thinking challenges us to approach this behavior from a different angle by first understanding their “executive age.” Executive age is a person’s age based on how their brain is working.  Individuals with ADHD or on the Autism Spectrum are an average of 30% behind in their executive age.  This includes their ability to regulate their emotions, body, impulses, social awareness, and general maturity.  The executive age gap can be even greater than 30% depending on the individual.  Simply acknowledging our young adults’ executive age helps us support them more compassionately and realistically by setting them up for success so they can grow and develop more fully. Sarah Ward offers strategies aimed at strengthening student’s working memory including the “get ready, do, done” model, moving away from verbal (words) and towards nonverbal (pictures), and helping students increase their visualization skills and flexibility.

So how do we as parents, educators, and clinicians empower students to perform independently while also providing them with support?  The Social Thinking methodology is one that compliments the programmatic structure and individualized treatment approach already being offered at Dragonfly through the use of check sheets, academic/vocational support, and daily education from clinical and program staff. Moving forward Casey and Nick will also be incorporating this information into staff trainings, family calls, and Family Workshop to further support Dragonfly students. After attending this training, they also recommend the following linked resources for further information about thinking socially, executive functioning, and ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders.


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