Social Behavior in Autism Spectrum Disorders

by Stephen M Edelson, Ph.D.

Theory of Mind

Many persons with attention deficits (ADD & ADHD), learning disabilities (LD), and pervasive developmental disorders (PDD) have deficits in social cognition, the ability to think in ways necessary for appropriate social interaction. Recent research has shown that these individuals do not realize that other people have their own thoughts, plans, and points of view. They also appear to have difficulty understanding other people‘s beliefs, attitudes and emotions. As a result, they may not be able to anticipate what others will say or do in various social situations. This has been termed as a lack of "theory of mind," or the ability to take the perspective of another person.

Social Stories

An interesting technique, developed by Carol Gray, a consultant to students with autism in Michigan, helps individuals with autism "read" and understand social situations better. This approach presents appropriate social behaviors in the form of a story, which answer the "who," "what," "where," "when," and "why" questions necessary to interact appropriately.

Sentence Types

There are four types of sentences used in social stories, each with a specific purpose.

Using Social Stories

There are a number of ways social stories can be implemented. For non-readers, the author reads the story on an audiotape with interspersed cues for turning the page. Readers can open a story independently. Stories are listened to once a day. When the individual with autism successfully incorporates the skills or appropriately responds in the social situation depicted, the story is faded out. This can be done by reducing the number of times a story is read per week or by reviewing the story once a month. Fading can also be accomplished by rewriting a story, gradually removing directive sentences from it.

Social stories are useful for helping individuals on the autism spectrum learn appropriate ways to interact in social situations. They can be individualized to incorporate the specific needs of the person for whom the story is written. They can teach routines, how to do an activity, how to ask for help, and how to respond appropriately to feelings like anger and frustration. While studies are currently assessing the effectiveness of social stories, they appear to be a promising method for improving the social behaviors of individuals with autism.

For more information about social stories, read Carol Gray‘s books, available from Future Horizons at 800-489-0727. Another book focusing on social development Thinking in Pictures, Expanded Edition: My Life with AutismThinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin

Stephen M Edelson is the Director of the Center for the Study of Autism and a DDR Professional Advisory Board Member

[Initially published in New Developments: Volume 5, Number 2 - Fall, 1999]

All material in this web site is given for information purposes only and is not to be substituted for advice from your health care provider.

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