Autism and the "expected-unexpected" social thinking vocabulary?

Michelle Garcia Winner

Question sent to me: I was wondering if you help me with explaining some of the language you support. I am having some trouble with the teachers I am working with wanting to use the language “expected and unexpected.” I have utilized many consultation tactics and they still are using the language “appropriate and inappropriate.” I am trying to think outside the box a little and thought maybe if the explanation came from you, they would understand the terminology better.

In response to the question:

Historically there is a tendency to think we can teach students to learn social behavior by setting behavioral expectations and then simply telling them what we expect from them or telling them when we are disappointed in their behavior. To this end, professionals and parents, upon noticing a student doing an undesired behavior, will tell the student, “That’s inappropriate.” Rarely do you hear teachers telling students their behaviors are “appropriate.” When we interpret the meaning behind the use of the phrase “That’s inappropriate,” we usually find it is used in a manner that reflects the speaker is disappointed in the student if not upset with him or her. Therefore it is used to scold and redirect rather than to teach.

In Social Thinking we developed Social Thinking Vocabulary terms with the purpose of directing students to think more deeply about the social situation in which they are involved. We believe that students who frequently demonstrate “inappropriate” behavior often have social learning challenges and require more direct teaching in lieu of reprimands for their undesired social behavior and recognition of attempts at desired social behavior. As Ross Greene says, “Students would if they could.” We also believe that social competencies do not result from a set of memorized social skills, but instead are a result of social awareness and the ability to adapt to the social requirements of the situation and the specific people in the situation.

The social thinking concepts “expected” and “unexpected” behaviors have generated a lot of interest from our growing community. While we find many people using these concepts well, we also find many people using these concepts in the same way they use “appropriate/inappropriate” behavior: to scold or redirect behavior. A number of events have happened recently which have made me realize that some people are missing the message provided by the teachings of Social Thinking and taking some of our core information and trying to use it to get students to simply behave. We don’t believe this will lead to any better outcomes than treatment strategy designed to simply extinguish “bad behavior.”

So allow me to share how best to use these concepts as they were designed to teach students more awareness of the social situation and the expectations people have within those situations, which leads to more awareness of one’s own behavior within and across specific situations.

a. Following the practice of cognitive behavior therapy, we believe that a student’s ability to think through a situation can help to change their behavior in that situation.

b. Students with social learning challenges (Asperger Syndrome, ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders, EF dysfunction, etc.) are generally poor observers of social information. While there is no research available specifically on social attention spans, from our years of observation, our students have poor social attention spans! Therefore, as part of our treatment we have to encourage our students to be better observers of social information. To begin with, students need to observe:

c. The situation and the people in the situation. A situation is a specific event happening within a more general environment. If the environment is a classroom, a situation may be “when the students are expected to work independently” or “when they are having a full class discussion” or “when they are preparing to leave the classroom,” etc. There are many situations within any larger environment.

d. Within each situation, students are expected to figure out the “hidden social rules”; this is also called the “hidden curriculum.” To determine the hidden social rules we have to figure out what is happening in the situation and what is expected of people as they relate or share space in the situation.

e. As we figure out the hidden social rules, we can lump social behaviors into those that are “expected” and “unexpected.”

f. Ideally we work with students to increase their own observational powers to notice the situation and discern which behaviors are those that would be “expected” versus those that are “unexpected.”

g. What makes a behavior “expected” is that it encourages others to feel calm or possibly even pleased upon the production of the social behavior.

h. What makes a behavior “unexpected” is that it encourages those who witness the behavior to feel stress or possibly become upset by the production of that behavior.

i. This language is best taught as part of the larger social thinking concept, Social Behavior Mapping, which provides a visual tool for mapping out the following connections:

i. We need to explore situational expectations rather than those of the broader environment.
ii. There are expected and unexpected behaviors associated with each situation.
iii. If you do “expected” behaviors they tend to make observers feel more positively.
iv. When people feel positively, they tend to treat the person who produced the behavior more calmly and possibly positively.
v. When the person who did the behavior feels people are treating them pretty well, they tend to feel better about themselves and those around them.
vi. The flip happens for those who produce a lot of unexpected behaviors, as unexpected behaviors tend to make people who observe the behaviors feel more negatively towards that person (stressed, annoyed, irritated, etc.).
vii. How people feel affects how they treat someone, so if the observers feel annoyed, they will likely treat the person producing the behaviors more harshly (unhappy face, annoyed tone of voice, nag the person, fail to include him or her in other activities).
viii. When the person who produced the unexpected behaviors experiences these negative reactions, it tends to make them feel upset with others and possibly more discouraged about their own situation.
ix. Social Behavior Mapping has been written up in fuller detail in both the book Thinking About You Thinking About Me, 2nd edition and Social Behavior Mapping (a book by that name, which provides instructions and many directions).

j. Even in the absence of a social behavior map, it is best to use the Expected and Unexpected vocabulary in the larger emotional context. “I like your ______ behavior. It is expected for this situation and it makes me feel ______.” The speaker can even go on to explain, “When I feel this way I am calm and enjoy working with you [or other specific relevant information].”

k. It is always best, when working with any student, to spend more time telling them about what they are doing right than what they are doing wrong. Any type of attention given to another person helps to validate them, therefore a teacher scolding a student at least recognizes that student as a member of the class and therefore can be interpreted by the student to be a positive thing given that he or she is rarely spoken to in a positive light. This means that negative attention can be sought by those needing attention! Unfortunately for those seeking negative attention, it means they have to continue to do unexpected or inappropriate behaviors to get that attention. If a parent or professional is careful to spend a significant amount of time noticing the expected behaviors of our students with social learning challenges and commenting on them as described above, it is then appropriate at times to also notice the unexpected by saying, “In this situation that behavior [label the behavior] is unexpected, when you do that it makes me feel ____, and when I feel this way I treat you in this way: _________ [describe what the parent or professional is doing].”

The goal in all of this is to help our students learn to observe social situations more carefully and understand that behaviors are linked to others’ emotions, and how each of us feels about another’s behavior affects how we treat each other. At the end of the day, when we do expected behaviors it makes us feel better about ourselves.

As teachers and parents begin the new school year sharing experiences with their students (children), the more that the positive (expected) behaviors in situations are noted and accounted for, the more positively students are likely to behave while learning about their own social emotional learning system, which is critical for success not only during the school years, but also in adulthood!

Have a good year!

Courtesy of

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