Is it social anxiety, social learning challenges or both?

Eric, a 13-year-old diagnosed with ADHD has been attending social skills groups since age 7.  Eric knows Social Thinking® terminology like “expected and unexpected behaviors” and knows the Superflex® characters.  His parents report that he still struggles socially, despite many years of social skills groups.   Eric’s lack of progress is likely a result of two issues.  The first being that he has been learning terminology and scripted behaviors rather than learning how to think in a social context and apply skills relevant to the situation.  The other explanation for Eric’s lack of progress could be because his social anxiety has never been adequately addressed. 
Social Learning Challenges: Difficulty learning social information intuitively which may include:
Difficulty with perspective taking (understanding other’s thoughts, feelings and intentions and understanding how you come across to others)

  • Lack of situational awareness aka “reading a room”
  • Has a hard time initiating and ending conversations appropriately
  • Weakness in using their language to relate to other’s experiences
  • Tendency to focus on small or irrelevant details and difficulty getting “the bigger picture”
  • Can have strong decoding skills but appears to have trouble with reading comprehension around inferencing, explaining the main idea, etc.

Social Anxiety-Two Types

  1. World-Based Social Anxiety
  • Avoids social interaction outside of the family and structured activities
  • Propensity to say “no” to anything new or speak negatively of new experiences
  • May gravitate towards adults who they find more predictable or younger kids who they do not find threatening
  • Often misinterpreted as being shy or oppositional
  • Most common with Asperger’s and higher-verbal autism
  1. Experience-Based Social Anxiety
  • Anxiety is specific to interacting with similar-age peers, may find it easier to speak to adults or younger kids because of past, unsuccessful social experiences with peers
  • Tends to become more pronounced during middle school
  • Very common with those who mainly present with inattentive ADHD as well as those with slow processing or expressive language delays

Suggested Interventions
Social Learning Challenges: Start with individual sessions with a *social learning specialist to learn basic concepts and put social learning in a relevant context for the individual.  Can do a group simultaneously or after individual sessions end. 
Word-Based Social Anxiety: Start with individual sessions, possibly move to small (2-3 total) group when ready.   Moving forward will depend on the individuals level of social motivation once they learn to manage their social anxiety better.
Experienced-Based Social Anxiety: Individual or small-group followed by group.
Both Social Learning Challenges and Social Anxiety: Start with individual sessions focused on developing strategies to manage social anxiety.  Gradually move into learning social learning concepts.   Can do a group after social anxiety has been adequately addressed.
*A social learning specialist is an individual who has received training in teaching social learning concepts.   A social learning specialist may have a background in special education, speech-language pathology, social work, etc.    Running a social skills group does not automatically make someone a social learning specialist.   Visit for a list of individuals who have completed the Social Thinking Clinical Training program.

Learn about our social anxiety groups and How to Hang Out program for boys starting in February at:

Social Thinking and Superflex are the work of Michelle Garcia Winner.  Learn more at:

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