Autism and "inside out" rather than "outside in" thinking

Michelle Garcia Winner

"That has nothing to do with me!" is a common thought, if not an expressed concern, of many of our students. Students with social learning challenges have unique weaknesses in perspective taking when compared to their like IQ peer group.

Perspective taking weaknesses come in many different sizes (see my article, "The Perspective Taking Spectrum"), but one common trait I have noticed is that for all of our students they need to explore lessons that are directly related to their own experiences. I call this "Inside Out Teaching."

There are many canned social skills products that market preconstructed role-plays and problem solving situations for teachers to explore with their students. From my observation, students will engage in these tasks of role-plays and problem solving, but this information doesn't "transfer" or "generalize" into doing something differently in their own lives because the situations they review are not about them.

When you have a perspective taking problem, you don't learn efficiently from talking about someone else's situation. According to our student's minds, "This doesn't relate to me, therefore it's not about me, therefore it doesn't teach me about me." I call this type of teaching approach "Outside In Teaching." We adults assume our students can make the connections of the outside world's experience and how it should relate to them, but they don't.

When the information we teach relates directly to our students experiences, I call this "Inside Out Teaching." Parents and classroom teachers have a wealth of examples of "social situations gone wrong" about any student who is in a social thinking/social skills session. Or, if a student is seen as part of a social thinking group with his or her peers, the group experience yields countless ideas of what a student needs to work on given his or her exhibited challenges as part of being in that group.

For example, when students in a middle school group were inattentive when the others students were talking (but were very alert when they were talking) we did lessons on how it feels to have people pay attention to you when you speak and how it feels when people don't pay attention to you when you are speaking. To do this, the four students in the group were told to monitor how other people were paying attention to them when they were speaking. They then imitated the "attentive" or "inattentive" behaviors of the others students when it was their turn to talk. For example, when Todd was speaking he noticed that Pete and Roy were paying attention, but that Scott wasn't. So when Pete and Roy spoke, Todd had to model the same attentive behavior, but when Scott spoke in the group, then Todd modeled the same inattentive behavior. The connection made in the group was wonderful! The kids started to feel more directly what it was like when you don't pay attention to others. They started to self-monitor their own attentive behavior more actively, at times doing the "social fake" to look like they were interested even if they weren't (which many of us do more often then we want to admit). An example of how an Outside In approach might address the same concern would be for the teacher to have the students role-play what it feels like to the teacher and other students in an imaginary class when a student looks like they are not paying attention.

While the difference may sound subtle, if you stop to really think about it, you realize that to help our students with perspective taking issues, they need to be actively involved in relating to the situations we pose for them to participate in, rather than depend on them to make abstract connections about other persons' experiences. They would if they could. But the fact is a person with a perspective taking problem just doesn't make these connections, no matter how high their IQ and sophisticated their vocabulary.

Inside Out teaching needs to be used all the way through adulthood: this is not just child's play.

Courtesy Social Thinking

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