social thinking

Pro vs. Noob

With nearly all of my kids, we talk so much about “smart guesses” vs. “wacky guesses” – a concept that applies in social situations as well as academics. For example, if someone tells you, “You’d better bring your umbrella today,” a smart guess about why they said that, is, It’s probably going to rain today. A wacky guess would be, It’s going to be a beautiful sunny day. If a history book says, “By the end of the war, the population was down 20,000 people,” a smart guess about why would be, People died from the fighting in the war, where a wacky guess would be, All of those people moved away to Antarctica.

Essentially, we’re talking about inferences. Situations where information is not explicitly stated, but you use your prior knowledge plus situational information to make a guess about what’s going on. We do this all the time and don’t think twice about it. Our kids have a much harder time with it step-by-step, let alone automatically.

In my sessions with Nellie, we talk about this constantly. So, when we do reading comprehension practice, we talk about making smart guesses by looking back to the text. When we do social inferencing activities, we talk about making smart guesses to figure out what someone is thinking. We’ve been talking about this for years.

Nellie is obsessed with Minecraft – and she’s good at it. She has her own server, she has responsibility within the game, she is successful and happy when playing it; it’s something that makes her shine. Given the option, she would talk about it for our entire session. She has explained to me that in Minecraft there are rankings, and terms for the levels of players. She is considered a “Pro” – professional. Players who have just started playing, and don’t really know what they’re doing, are considered “Noobs” in Minecraft (“newbies”). Sometimes the “noobs” are spotted easily because they do things that others wouldn’t do – like make a house out of dirt (a very weak material), whereas the “pros” are noticed for using stronger materials and better strategies. She explained how a Noob is someone who just doesn’t know how to do it yet, and a Pro knows the techniques and strategies.

So one day, I forget the context, but we were talking about something unexpected, and I was trying to explain why it’s a wacky thing to do, and Nellie just looked at me and said, “That’s such a NOOB thing to do.”

Boom. Lightbulb. It clicked.

From then on, I switched my language, and she took to it immediately. Everything we did, we talked about the Pro way to do it and the Noob way to do it. Nellie is someone who continues to work on matching reaction size to the size of the problem. She’s a kid who might get grumpy about not going first, despite the fact that she’s almost in high school. She might have a huge reaction if someone bumps into her in the hall. She’s LOVES the silly 911 script. We added to it by saying that having a huge reaction to a small problem (like when our printer didn’t work the other day) would be a Noob thing to do, and a Pro reaction would be to just say, oh, well.

When we do our reading comprehension work now, Nellie makes Pro guesses, not Noob guesses.

When we work with another student, we talk about how making unexpected/odd comments in the middle of the conversation is a Noob thing to do, and a Pro thing to do is hold those thoughts in her thought bubble.

More often than not, she’s the one bringing it up, not me.

She laughs and laughs each time she gets to say, “That’s a NOOB thing to do!” And it’s working. She’ll sometimes see me in the hall and quickly tell me something Noob or Pro that happened.

Our kids always, ALWAYS have a way of learning, a way of making sense of what’s going on. Sometimes they’re the ones that teach us the best way to do it. I never would’ve thought of using Pro vs. Noob terminology – and honestly, if it had been my idea, it probably wouldn’t have worked. This is why following their lead is the way to go. This is why we use their special interests. This is why we build on their scripts. This is why we meet them halfway. This.

“That’s private!”

The concept of “privacy” is a hard one to teach. It’s a very abstract concept, that has many exceptions, and no one hard-and-fast rule. Most of our special needs cherubs, especially those on the spectrum, thrive on hard-and-fast rules, and exceptions are tricky. Abstract concepts, like privacy, are hard for our kids to understand and generalize. They may act in ways that seem disrespectful or rude, but really, they just don’t understand. This may look like a kid who picks his nose in front of his classmates; a kid who scratches himself in private areas in the middle of the lunchroom; a kid who shares exactly what he did in the bathroom; a teenager who announces to the class that she has her period. This is a kid who might have heard, many times, from many adults: “That’s rude,” “Don’t say that,” “That’s inappropriate.” The problem is – those terms are equally as abstract and confusing, and have just as many exceptions to the rule. If a child is picking his nose during class, and hears, “Don’t do that,” it may be unclear to the child exactly what you’re saying. Should he not pick his nose in this specific class? Should he not pick his nose right now but he could in a few minutes? Is nose-picking in its entirety something he should never do? These are answers that you or I might have figured out on our own when we were kids, but neurologically, his brain doesn’t make those conclusions. Can you imagine how stressful and anxiety-provoking that would be, to just not understand?

Sometimes, when we start to really teach and explain the concept of privacy, the pendulum swings to the other extreme. Instead of sharing every single bodily function, nothing gets shared. Everything is overgeneralized to being “private.” This is when you ask the kid what he had for dinner last night and he said, “I don’t want to talk about it, that’s private.” Or when a parent asks his son what he has for homework, and the response is, “That’s personal.” It’s when the student tells you, multiple times throughout the week, “I need to talk to you in the hall” and what he needed to say was either, “Max is absent today,” or “I have P.E. next,” – none of which are actually private. But the drastic shift shows that he’s working on it, trying to get his brain to understand.

As with so many of the concepts that we try to teach our kids, perspective-taking is an underlying necessity. If you think about how you act in your own day-to-day life, the reason you don’t walk into a meeting and announce your bathroom habits is because it’s rude and inappropriate, sure, but ultimately it’s because others would have weird thoughts about you. And those weird thoughts may lead to a short-term and/or long-term consequence about how your colleagues view you. Without even realizing it, in a split second you evaluate what you want to say, then evaluate the situation, realize that in this specific situation, saying what you want to say would result in others having weird thoughts, and you decide not to say it. And you do this automatically.

But our kids don’t. So we talk them through it. We say to them, “Hey Noelle? When you keep tapping Sam on the shoulder, he might have a frustrated thought. He is trying to work, and it is very distracting to him to keep being tapped.” We say, “Noah, when you pick your nose at the lunch table it makes the other kids have grossed-out thoughts. They might feel they don’t want to sit with you if you’re picking your nose.” We label various settings. We say, “Sarah – this is an unexpected time to be making people laugh, because we are trying to work. You can save your joke for lunch time; that would be a more expected time to make people laugh.”

We teach our kids that actually, everything is expected and unexpected at one point, which is why curricula like Social Thinking® are so helpful, because they don’t tie our kids down to a set of rules that in reality have a million exceptions. Instead of teaching them what to do, we teach them how to think so that they can figure out what to do. We teach our kiddo that if he runs into my therapy room and announces to the group that he just had an accident in the bathroom, the other students will have uncomfortable thoughts, because having an accident is private, since it’s about his own body and bathroom-related issues, and other kids don’t want or need to hear about that. And we don’t teach him that punitively, we teach it factually, in a calm voice. We then give him the flip side, which is to label what he could do, and how he could think about it. We explain that announcing that he had an accident to a teacher, after she is in the hall away from other people, is completely expected in that situation, and would not make the teacher have any uncomfortable thoughts; the teacher would have happy thoughts and proud thoughts and the teacher would help him solve this problem (i.e., call the nurse). So it is not as though telling someone he had an accident is always unexpected or never “okay”. It just depends on where, with whom, etc. And that’s what we teach. And our kids need help, and they need to be talked through it time and time again. But they get it. They can get it. And they learn how to think and consequently how to act and then they are more independent, and more successful. And that’s, well, just awesome.

I put on my Superflex cape

One of our littlest guys came into camp very anxious today. 
“I do not have my bathing suit!” He exclaimed, as he hopped from one foot to the other, shaking his arms out as he did. 

We already knew this, as his mom had already called us, told us that he didn’t have his bathing suit, told us that she had previewed with him that it would be okay for him to get his clothes wet during Water Games, and that she had packed another set of clothes for him to change into after. There had been panic and tears from him in the morning and she said to reassure him that she would not be upset if he got his clothes wet.

Several hours and a lot of processing later, I found his group in line for the bathrooms. I stood back so I could listen to what he was telling his little friend. 
“Guess what happened!” He exclaimed to her, hopping again. “Mom did not have my bathing suit! So I do not have it! But I was brave! And I put on my Superflex cape and I can get wet in my clothes!”

He then looked up and saw me standing there, with a grin on my face. He jumped up and down, gave me a toothless grin, and said, “And….Jen K. feels PROUD of me!!!” I went over and gave him a high-five and told him yes, I sure was proud of him.

Each staff member that he came across, he relayed the story to. And I never got tired of hearing it. “I did not have my bathing suit! I was upset this morning! But I did not let Glassman into my brain and I did not have too big of a reaction! And I did not let Rockbrain into my brain either! I put on my Superflex cape to be flexible and now you are PROUD of me!”

And we were. So, so proud. 

Little snippits

Snippits of thoughts that I have tried to turn into blog posts but can’t, yet:

–Being a middle school or high school girl is hard. I so remember. It’s hard enough for a neurotypical girl, and when you add an autism or other social-communication diagnosis, it makes it that much harder.

–Endings, transitions, change are so hard. We as staff dread the end of the summer – and it’s that much harder on our kids. Who don’t necessarily have a happy transition back to school coming, who might not even know if they’ll make it through this year at school, who don’t have friends to look forward to seeing, who are dreading leaving camp, a place where they have safely been nurtured and gently pushed forward, and observed in a non-judgmental way, and supported no matter what they said or did. And so the transition behaviors we see…well, they just make sense. It makes sense that kids revert to old behaviors that had been extinguished. It makes sense that there is more stimming, more scripting, more tears, more anger, more hitting. It makes sense that there is yelling at friends and staff, trying to burn bridges that were made, because isn’t it easier to leave if you convince yourself there’s nothing behind to miss? We see it every year and it breaks my heart every year because I know that however hard it is for me, it’s a million times harder for them.

–I keep replaying a conversation that we had with one of our 10-year-olds the other day as she struggled through a meltdown. “What do I do when I’m not mad, I’m just sad?!?!” she screamed, as she sobbed and lunged herself at us, trying to find relief. “You have no idea how this feels!!! I’ve never been so mad and it’s all in my body!!” she screamed, as she shook and her teeth chattered. You could see the anger and sadness and despair swirling throughout her body. While we sat with her through it, we took turns calmly empathizing with her. “I do know how that feels,” I softly and slowly told her. “No you don’t!!!!!” I waited. “I do,” I said. “I hate that mad feeling. I know what it’s like to be so mad that the best solution seems to be to use my body to calm myself down.” She stopped screaming and looked at me. My co-worker and I spent the next hour or so empathizing and sharing bits and pieces from our own life, just tidbits that might be helpful, but all the while….my heart was breaking. Because we weren’t lying, we DID know how this girl felt. It’s just that we are able to internalize it. Keep it inside of us. And who knows, who’s to say that’s better? Who’s to say that walking around with panic and anger and despair inside of us is better than screaming and crying and hitting until it all comes out? 

Collaborative Problem Solving works. Like, really, really works. Think back to when you were a kid, or a teen, or even now at work in a meeting. Are you more likely to do something when you are told to do it? Or do you feel better, and are you more likely to agree and compromise when you’ve been able to share your thoughts and feelings, to a non-judging listener, and when you’ve been able to be a part of the solution? Our kids are brilliant. BRILLIANT. And sometimes they just need to be heard. And usually they’re right. Try to compromise with them, let them be heard, and you’ll be astounded at the difference it makes.

–And, a related, reminder: kids are doing the best they can. They really are. They might annoy you, push your buttons, frustrate you beyond belief, but if you see it through the lens of, “They are doing the best they can with what they have,” it helps. (And, as always, a connection to us: we are doing the best we can, with what we have, too.) Compassion, empathy, understanding. 


A Social Thinking Lesson

Disclaimer: As per usual, this post is completely unedited. And I’m tired. So it is likely hard to follow and doesn’t make sense. And I realize that I say that all the time but this time it REALLY is a mess. Like, for real. And it’s hard topic and post to write about coherently because it involves so much dialogue and inner thoughts. So, apologies in advance. But, hopefully the content and the ideas behind it come through. 


One (of about a billion) things I LOVE about my job is that we deal with anything and everything. When situations arise, as they do with the kids we work with, we problem solve, and address immediately. And we’re lucky to be able to do that, in an environment that solely focuses on stress management, social competency, and self-awareness, without the academic demands. But more on that another time.

So when it came to my attention that staff members had overheard their pre-teen male (ASD) campers making jokes about rape and sex, we acted quick. That day I spoke to my boss, who is a clinician, who spoke to several other colleagues of ours, she got back to me, and I created a Social Thinking lesson based on another lesson from a colleague to do with the groups. The very next day, conversations were had with all of the participants and I did two groups on that topic. 

I don’t tend to talk about specific things I do with clients/students/campers in therapy or groups, but I felt really proud of this lesson and got a lot of good feedback from parents, staff, and most importantly, the campers themselves. So, I will share. 

I’ve done the lesson so far with two groups. To frame this: Both groups are five or six pre-teen or teenagers, one group is all boys and one group is all girls. All of the campers have social cognitive/competency deficits, and most of them have an Aspergers, ASD, or related diagnosis. 

We began with a discussion about what humor is. That was easy for them. I then took out my whiteboard and drew two columns, “Positive” and “Negative”. I explained that there can be positive and negative effects of humor, based on how it’s used, what the topic is, and who the joke is shared with. I was SO impressed at how quickly they thought of things. “Positive” effects that they thought of included: people will like you; make friends; get out of an awkward situation; avoid dealing with something hard; and “Negative” effects included: people think you’re a bully, people not wanting to be around you, getting in trouble with the law, getting suspended or expelled, getting a bad reputation. This was with pretty much no prompting. They had SO much to say. 

After we had flushed out that discussion, I introduced the idea of “deadly jokes.” The concept being, that there are certain topics that if joked about, almost always can have negative effects with friends, family members, teachers, colleagues, etc. I told them there were at least 7, and challenged them to come up with them. The boys group immediately came up with race/religion/nationality and sexual orientation. The girls instantly talked about disorder/disability, mental health, and sex. Overall, between both groups, our list included:race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, sex, disorder/disability, mental health conditions, coworkers/colleagues/teachers/students, physical looks, violent crimes. Again – this was with almost no prompting. 

During the boys group, one of the guys said, “I know those are jokes that certain people would find offensive. But I would never joke about the topic that the person found offensive.” So we had a big conversation about perspective taking and theory of mind – that you can’t KNOW what a person is dealing with, you can’t KNOW that offends a person unless you know them inside and out – and even then, you can’t be sure. I got some rigidity and push-back, so we went through each category. “Can you ALWAYS know someone’s religion based on looking at them? Can you ALWAYS know someone’s sexual orientation by looking at them?” (by the way – that answer that I got was ‘yes, sometimes’ so we had a conversation about stereotypes and how they are often based in fact but can’t be our sole piece of information). We talked about things you can know by looking at a person and things that might offend them that are “invisible,” that you would never know otherwise. They were very interested in the idea that jokes could ultimately involve the police or authorities, and one of them brought up what would happen if you joked about a bomb at an airport. Another boy responded, “But you’d be joking!” So – another conversation about perspective taking, how a bystander or official wouldn’t KNOW you were joking, and there are protocols they must follow.

And then I brought up rape. Because that’s where this all stemmed from. The interesting thing? When I asked, “What about joking about rape?” they ALL vehemently shook their heads and said, “No no no! You can’t joke about that!!” but when I then follow up with, “Okay. Who knows what rape is?” not a single one of them knew. 

And that’s why we do these lessons. The things our kids say – it’s not that we let them get away with it, or make excuses, but so often they just don’t know. Some of the boys admitted they thought rape and sex were the same thing. Some said they heard of it and knew it was bad but didn’t know what it was. So we talked about it. We talked about why you can’t joke about it. And they all left with an understanding.

The girls group was different. One girl brought up how friends joke with each other about things that others couldn’t joke about – like girls saying to each other, “Omg, you’re such a bitch” can be joking and harmless or harmful depending on the relationship. Another girl referenced “Mean Girls” and how they call each other “sluts.” A third girl said that she would be really upset if anyone made a joke about mental health conditions. And a fourth girl shook her head and said she wouldn’t care about that, but if anyone joked about learning disabilities she would rip their head off. Again, a conversation about differences, how one size does not fit all, how each person is different. The girls role-played what they could do if they overheard jokes like those, if they bothered them, or if they didn’t. We talked about how it’s okay to not laugh at a joke, even if everyone else is.

These are things our kids don’t know. These are things that if they aren’t taught, they won’t learn. And saying to them, “We don’t say that!” or “That’s inappropriate!” isn’t enough – because they don’t know WHY. It’s meaningless and unclear to them. We have to clarify. Even if it’s uncomfortable, even if we want to maintain innocence. We have to. For their sake. 


A hypothetical note to parents

[Ed note: I started to write this using “I” instead of “We”, but it didn’t feel right. We do everything as a team, we have been a team for years, and despite not having asked everyone if they share these thoughts, I am nearly certain that they do.]

We are in Week 3 of our 7 week program. We see it every summer – Week 3 is when things shift. Kids are getting to know their peers better, the novelty has worn off, group leaders are getting into the nitty-gritty of social thinking development, kids are feeling more comfortable around us and in our setting, and, as we always say each year, “The honeymoon period is over.”

So we start seeing behaviors that we might not have seen the first two weeks. Refusal, noncompliance, anger, meltdowns. And we aren’t bothered by that. We expect it. We know that in a lot of ways, it demonstrates the kids’ comfort with us and our program. They are being themselves, allowing for vulnerability, and letting us step in and guide them through it. 

Sometimes a meltdown turns physical. We know that. Please know: you do not, ever have to apologize for your child’s meltdown or physical aggression. We know the difference between a tantrum and an autistic meltdown. We know this is a meltdown. A neurological storm, a complete inability to do anything except ride it out. Please know that we don’t think your child is being purposely defiant or difficult. We get it. We don’t think any different about you or your child post-meltdown. We aren’t upset if papers got torn up, if the walls were colored with markers, if water was purposely spilled. We are okay if we get scratched or pushed. Please know that in those moments, our focus is in no way anger or hatred toward what is going on. It is purely compassion. 

There is something powerful and beautiful about every single moment we spend with your kids. In the midst of a full-blown meltdown, complete neurological storm, a level 5 on the “volcano,” the powerful part is that we are able to be there for your child. To help them stay safe and regulate. To let them know, usually nonverbally, that they are not alone. That we are there, that they are okay, that we understand. It is powerful and beautiful to be with your child at his most vulnerable moment, when he has lost complete control of his words and body – and to know that we are entrusted to be his compass and guide him through the storm.

The moments we hold onto are not the aggressive ones. It’s the moments when we see him take that first deep breath, after an hour of shallow ones. When we can see the tension leave his face and body. When we see his core, true self, start to emerge again. When words return to him. When he calmly asks for a drink of water. When he looks right at us and asks us to please help him put his shoes back on. We don’t hold onto when he was screaming at us, telling us how much he hates us. Instead, our radar is on the moment when he is calm again, and happily asks us if we want to join him for ice cream. 

Please know that. We love what we do. We don’t judge. We adore your children. We are honored that you have entrusted them to us. 

To the mom I met last weekend

Hi. I’m so glad that Charlie* is coming to our summer program this year. I’m so glad you brought him to the meet and greet a few days ago.

I know you were worried. When I sat down next to you, while Charlie was with his summer group and summer counselors, you gave me a tense smile and said, “I’m so embarrassed. He keeps saying bathroom words.” You went on to explain how awful he was behaving. That no other kids were saying poop or fart in response to questions. That during the year he had worked with his speech-language therapist who had provided him with social stories that were effective, and the bathroom talk had been extinguished. That you were petrified that it had returned.

When I gave you a smile and told you that this was SO common, that I had seen it a million times, I wasn’t trying to make light of your fears. I really was telling the truth. When I told you that potty talk doesn’t make any of us bat an eye, I was telling the truth. When I told you that it makes perfect sense that he’d resort to potty talk today, I was telling the truth. Charlie is 5 years old. Five year olds love potty talk. It’s silly and goofy and it’s a fun way for them to make each other laugh and connect. Charlie also happens to have an autism spectrum diagnosis. He has language, but anxiety and fear prevail over language. He was put into a new environment, with new kids, and new staff, for the first time all year. That would make ME nervous! So Charlie turned to the words that are easy for him, that he knows, that he could easily access. And those happened to be “poop” and “fart.” I promise you, this is the truth. I promise you, not a single one of us ever thought, or even will think, that he is “poorly behaved,” “trouble-causing,” or “disrespectful.”

When you left and told me, “Charlie said he loves this place!” I was thrilled. That was our goal for the meet-and-greet. To get each and every kiddo feeling like, yes, this is a place they will be safe and have fun this summer. You then followed it up with your disclaimer and fears, “But, he didn’t listen to a word anyone said.” My reply: “But he sat with the other kids. He kept his body in the group. He kept his body safe. He shared some laughs and some words. So from our point of view? It was a huge success.”

I was telling the truth.

We will work with Charlie all summer. We will help him find and access his language. We will teach him the “expected” and “unexpected” times to use potty talk. We will provide him with words and visuals to help him share his thoughts even if verbal expression isn’t accessible.

We are thrilled Charlie is here. We are thrilled you are here. You are in the right place.

I am telling you the truth.



*not his real name

%d bloggers like this: