Social Thinking: Interviews with Michelle Garcia Winner and Pamela Crooke

Interviews with Michelle Garcia Winner and Pamela Crooke of Social Thinking® for the upcoming film, A Sound Paradigm

By Keri Bowers

“Based on how we process the world ~ is how we relate to the world,”  Michelle Garcia Winner

Last May during our Art of Autism Hearts & Arts journey up the California coast, Debra Muzikar and I rediscovered the value of long road trips. Hours on the road are full of exciting surprises and present opportunities to bond with the people we care about. Road trips are a time to connect – or re-reconnect – with our fellow travelers, and to meet amazing people we otherwise would never see and meet beyond phone calls, emails and social media. For me, the driving part of such trips are generally as much a part of the journey as are the destinations.

This proved true this past week when Bob DeMarco and Steve McDonald of Ability Productions and I set out on a road trip up the coast to San Jose to interview Michelle Garcia Winner and Pamela Crooke of Social Thinking for Ability Productions’ new film,  A Sound Paradigm. This trip offered much illumination.

Instead of busying (or burying as it were), our heads in social media, answering emails or talking on cell phones, the three of us spoke with one another for hours upon hours in what was thought-provoking conversation. Intimate conversation in the car set us up for a deeper connection to one another as business collaborators, and for the opportunity to explore a significant part of the “heart” of the film. For two days, it was satisfying to (mostly) put electronics away and converse in a way that social media cannot provide; inter-personally.

And so it is too, that in addition to the practical strategies developed by Winner and Crooke, Social Thinking processes are also significantly rooted in “real time” conversations with one another. That is, face-to-face, sans technology. Communication is more than soundbites, posts and tweets. Communication – especially in autism, is best when it connects people at a deeper and more human level with more conscious awareness of personal needs, feelings, values, growth, goals and outcomes. Meaningful face-to-face conversations are one way to deepen relationships with others, yet the Social Thinking model developed by Winner and Crooke encompasses so much more.

What is Social Thinking?

“Social Thinking is what we do when we share space with others and when sending an email, sitting in a classroom, lining up at the grocery store, reading a work of fiction, watching a funny video clip, participating in a business meeting, driving in traffic, and a host of other daily activities that involve our social interpretation and related reactions.  We consider the context; take in the thoughts, emotions and intentions of the people with whom we are interacting and use that information to determine how we respond. How we think about people affects how we behave, which in turn affects how others respond to us, which in turn affects our own emotional internal and external responses. It’s an incredibly complex process that most of us take for granted,” Michelle Garcia Winner

The mission of Social Thinking (ST)  is to provide practical frameworks, strategies and products to teach social problem solving, social emotional interpretation and social skills across schools, homes, communities and workplaces across the lifespan and around the globe.

As I learned more about the core foundations of Social Thinking, however, ST is much more than merely tools or strategies. It is a philosophy, and a very good one. Happily, I found the core of ST to be aligned with my work in autism and the arts over nearly three decades, which drew me closer to the model. I’m thrilled to see it shared in DeMarco’s upcoming film. Among other things, Social Thinking is about whole-person centeredness and building congruent pathways to conscious efforts and personal responsibility that effectively begets success.

“Social Thinking helps us understand how to pursue our social goals, and the huge misunderstandings of the social mind,” Michelle Garcia Winner

Michelle Garcia Winner
Michelle Garcia Winner

Michelle Garcia Winner attended her first autism class in 1979. Can you imagine what that class might have been like in an era when autism was barely known or understood by professionals let alone by the general population? A family friend then encouraged Michelle to volunteer to work with kids with special needs, which later led her to become a licensed speech and language professional. Much of the foundation for Social Thinking was created by Michelle in the early 1990s, growing over time into ST’s solid framework for kids as young as four and adults in their 70s.

“The neurotypical brain is born to cause and effect, and to infer and predict. The A-typical – or autistic brain may not have as strong a social connection or cognitive relationship with others,” Michelle Garcia Winner

Michelle’s work – shared brilliantly on camera (we can’t wait for you to see it represented in the film), is a departure, if not a positive leap from what we have generally come to know as rote “social skills” training. Social Thinking shifts the focus of vague social skills (“I want my child to make friends”; “My child needs to understand how to talk to others”; “My child needs to learn to take turns and share”, etc.,) to a 24/7 focus on building ones’ social competencies (social thinking about people and situations and related problem solving) to fuel the understanding of what social behavioral responses (social skills) produce as part of our daily functioning, whether sharing space quietly with people we don’t know or actively interacting with people we hope to keep as friends. Check out one of Michelle’s past articles, Explaining Social Thinking to Others: The Big Picture in Sound Bites.”  

The portions of Michelle’s interview filmed last week that will be included in A Sound Paradigm, will surely be a conduit through which knowledge and heart flows to bind the Dave Royer story into a world of possibility for futures for so many with autism and other learning disabilities.

Every Crooke and Cranny Explored in Social Thinking…

Dr. Pamela Crooke, Social Thinking’s Chief Strategy Officer of Research, Content and Clinical Services is a highly impressive woman. Warm, funny and easy to talk to, Pam is definitively unaffected by her status as an award-winning author, researcher and speech pathologist. She’s a persons’-person who is a major contributor to the world of different learners. Our conversations with Pam were pivotal in helping us to ask ourselves larger questions about the core of the film’s pulse, and to go deeper into the story of Dave Royer.

We encourage you to check out Crooke’s vast body of work (much of it free and accessible online), and view some of her Youtube presentations. “3 Simple Ideas for Using Superflex, Superdecks & Thinkable/Unthinkable Double Decks” is one I particularly enjoyed. I was struck by both the creativity of the games and processes she shares in this short video, and felt that many teens and adults will enjoy the games as much as kiddos do.

Art of Autism collaborator, Luis Tirado’s mom, Jennifer called me while we were setting up the equipment for Winner’s interview…

“…Oh, Luis uses Superflex and the Unthinkables when he’s anxious. I know all about Social Thinking,”  she said. “Can you ask him to write about his experience and send it to me?” I asked.  His reply and mom’s input were in my inbox within a half an hour…

 Luis Tirado, 15

“I think Superflex and the Unthinkables are cool. It shows that the Unthinkables are the villains that control people’s minds to reject using Superflex’s strategies. Also, he is the best hero because he helps people with autism to be flexible with things that they don’t like or want to do. For me, it’s difficult to be flexible, but using Superflex made me realize that being flexible is good. Also, it showed me that I can do it.

Superflex strategies help me to gain control by getting flexible knowledge of how to defeat the Unthinkables. It helps me to use self-control, kindness, nice words, and showing how to express my feelings and ideas without hurting others or their feelings.

I recommend using Superflex for kids with autism because it will help kids to know how to use words and self-control.  Especially when they feel like hitting, insulting, or biting someone, because Glassman (a character) is controlling them.  It helped me when I was a child and still helps me now at 15. When I feel stressed my mom reminds me of the worry wall and how to use my strategies to defeat my stress.”

Luis Clay Superflex characters
Luis’ clay Superflex characters

Jennifer is Luis’ mom and a dear friend whose values I trust…

“As a mom, I saw Luis progress in applying self-control and lowering anxiety using social thinking. He loves the paradox of villains and a superhero. It was fun, and he enjoyed the processes so much that we used these tools for fun reading when he was bored.  Luis feels so capable when he uses the Superflex tools, that he created some of the characters as clay figurines and based most of his imaginary clay sculptures on it.

As a psychologist, I think this program helps children with autism and other learning differences to acknowledge and recognize their feelings and difficulties in a way that is not threatening. It gives them skills to use in a fun and engaging way. When Luis was little we were introduced to this program by his speech pathologist, Mindy Newhouse. We then encouraged his whole team of specialists to use the same language, which we used at home. That made a huge difference in Luis’ team approach, and helped Luis to generalize his knowledge in multiples situations. The Superflex program gave my son knowledge and strategies that he keeps using even now into his teens.”

A Sound Paradigm

Royer accepting Grammy
Dave Royer accepting Grammy

This award is particularly moving for me and my family. I was diagnosed with classic autism as a young child, but fortunately a few people along the way refused to accept autism as an excuse – starting with my brother and two sisters – who insisted that I do my share of the household chores,”   Dave Royer, 2013, Technical GRAMMY® Award acceptance speech, opening comments. See entire speech on youtube.

A Sound Paradigm, is a feature-length documentary that explores the life and history of Dave Royer, an autistic creative and one of an elite group of microphone designers who knew that music and sound were inseparable from electronic design.  The film digs deep into the back story of a community of support that helped bring Dave’s passion to the marketplace to create a Grammy-winning microphone manufacturing lab active in the forefront of music recordings today.

A Sound Paradigm aspires to inspire autistic individuals and their families worldwide to dream big, work hard, seek supports, and live into their futures in jobs, careers, and the infinite possibilities of their lives. The film is due for release in early 2018.

If you’d like to keep up with our progress on A Sound Paradigm, please like us on Facebook.


Keri Bowers is the co-founder of The Art of Autism, and owner of Normal Films. She is a featured contributor for Autism Asperger’s Digest magazine, supporting autistic writers to share short stories from first-person perspectives. Her films, made with her son, Taylor, include Normal People Scare Me, Normal People Scare Me Too, The Sandwich Kid and Arts. She is currently consulting for Ability Productions on the Sound Paradigm film.

The Sound Paradigm – A documentary film about a man, autism, and futures

A Sound Paradiam is a riveting glimpse into the highly charged and vibrational story of Dave Royer – autistic pioneer of current-day ribbon mic; the team that brought old technology from a bygone era in microphone design to the forefront of modern popularity in music and sound, and futures for people with autism.

One reply on “Social Thinking: Interviews with Michelle Garcia Winner and Pamela Crooke”
  1. I appreciate that this ST model, and the SuperFlex guys, seem to translate into real world situations. I’ve found over the years that what goes on or seems clear in an office or social skills group does not necessarily remain available when in a “real life” situations.
    Thank you for this post!
    Full Spectrum Mama

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