ABA and Social Thinking

Categories: Social Skills

During my open Q&A Facebook live in December, the topic of Social Thinking came up and what my thoughts are on ABA and Social Thinking. I engaged in some immediate escape behavior and told everyone I would write a blog post on it. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to answer the question, but I definitely needed more time than a Facebook live video allowed me. And then 2 months later, I am finally getting to it. 

Many of you are probably familiar with Social Thinking®. The goal of Social Thinking is to “create unique treatment frameworks and strategies …. to develop their social thinking and social skills to meet their personal social goals.” Seems like a goal we can all get behind right? Developing social skills and meeting personal social goals. Sign me up.

Now how does/can ABA fit into all of that? This question was probably asked because BCBAs (Board Certified Behavior Analysts) don’t always play well with others (sad but true…). I get. I have been on both sides of this issue. I have been the special ed teacher on one side of the table biting my tongue as a BCBA tells me all of the things I could be doing different during an IEP meeting. I have also been the BCBA hired to consult with a classroom teacher how to improve their behavior plans. BCBAs sometimes get a bad rap. First part of this, there are some bad apples. There are in any profession. You all know teachers that you would never let your child be in their classroom. You all have meet a doctor that you didn’t love. Ever profession includes people who don’t accurately represent the goals and missions of the job. There are definitely some BCBAs running around out there that aren’t doing my profession any favors and are ruining it for the rest of us. As a teacher, parent, or clinician, when you meet one BCBA who rubs you the wrong way it can turn you off to the whole field for a while. 

Now, secondly BCBAs also get a bad rap because we tend to have a know-it-all attitude and our plans overlap with every area of functioning for an individual. Although speech/communication and motor issues obviously are integrated into many components of an individual’s functioning – there seems to be a clearer line of where boundaries begin and end for Speech Language Pathologists and Occupational Therapists. When BCBA’s look at problem behaviors, social skills, and academic/functional instruction – there really are no boundaries and we end up getting into everyone’s business. BCBAs utilize approaches that are evidence based. Every intervention we ethically recommend is backed by scientific research. So sometimes we come across as if we feel like we have all the answers. 

Why I am giving you all this context? Because this is where the question of “Can ABA and Social Thinking work together?” comes from. These two approaches are at their core extremely different. With ABA, we look at changing the environment and Social Thinking looks to change an individual’s social cognition. In the autism world, these two concepts get thrown around and utilized frequently. So how can we make sense of this?

I don’t have an easy or quick answer (as you can probably already guess from my overly long intro into this topic). As a special education teacher, I utilized Social Thinking regularly. I have read the books, bought the materials, and attended the conferences. I found the resources easy to utilize, accessible for my students, and resulted in high levels of engagement. My data showed increased levels of desired behaviors and decreased levels of inappropriate behaviors. As a BCBA, I am concerned about the lack of scientific backing. There are two studies to date on Social Thinking but both have some methodical flaws. There is a great deal of anecdotal support for Social Thinking but as a behavior analyst, I want to see more scientific data. 

So where does that leave us? Entering the field of behavior analysis with an already existing love of everything Social Thinking urged me to think about how these strategies can be utilized in a behavior analytic way. Am I eager (and hoping), that researchers will conduct more studies on the effects and use of Social Thinking? Heck yea. Do I think you can thoughtfully and purposefully utilize the concepts of Social Thinking while incorporating the concepts of behavior analysis? Heck yea again. A bigger bag of tricks is always better – when you know how to utilize those tools. I am by no means advocating throwing every strategy we have at a child. But the more ideas we have, the better we may be at selecting an appropriate intervention. 

Here are some ways:

Teaching Discriminations

We are often in a situation where our student or child is unable to discriminate between two concepts. These concepts can be something basic like big and small or something more complex like appropriate behavior and inappropriate behavior. Social Thinking uses the language Expected and Unexpected Behavior. They share various strategies and techniques on teaching these responses. This is a form of discrimination training. We want to teach our child exactly what behaviors are included in each category. It’s important to really consider what behaviors are included in each of those categories. Use the concepts of multiple exemplar training to be teach a wide range of examples and include close-in and far-out examples and non examples. You can train these concepts and then apply it to real life scenarios. 

Teaching Contingencies

In ABA we talk a lot about contingencies. A contingency is the relationship between two events. We are particularly interested in how certain consequences (or reinforcers) are contingent on (or resulting from) specific behaviors. Social Thinking talks about contingencies too. Their strategy of Social Behavior Mapping is a nice way to illustrate to individuals how their behaviors will effect the outcomes and may not lead to their intended consequence. You can utilize this strategy to define problem behaviors and replacement behaviors and show how each behavior results in a different contingent consequence. Expected Behaviors will likely result in peer attention, praise etc. where as Unexpected Behaviors will likely result in peer avoidance, getting in trouble with the teacher, etc. This concept is similar to Behavior Contingency Maps for common classroom inappropriate responses. This version goes more in-depth for social responses. You can use these tools in-situ to provide a visual prompt of what to do next while reminding of the contingencies that could likely follow the response.

Replacement Behaviors

I have talked a lot about the importance of replacement behaviors on the blog (and will be doing a lot more of it in the next month). A replacement behavior is an appropriate behavior that you teach and provide reinforcement for that achieves the same consequence as the problem behavior targeted for decrease. So if your student was engaging in behaviors to get out of work, the behavior you teach him will also result in him getting out of work (Ie. asking for a break). There are some strategies within Social Thinking that also look at replacement behaviors. The Zones of Regulation looks at associating behaviors with a specific zone and teaching appropriate replacement behaviors within each zone.

Cue for Appropriate Behavior

In ABA we refer to an SD (discriminative stimulus), which is a specific environmental event or condition in response to which a child is expected to exhibit a particular behavior.  An SD is ‘a stimulus in the presence of which a particular response will be reinforced’ (Malott, 2007, p. 202) SDs can sometimes be difficult to identify when it comes to complex social situations. If someone smiles at you and makes eye contact with you, that is an SD for approaching that person and talking to them. The smile signals that talking will be reinforced by the person welcoming the approach and talking back to you. However, if the person was frowning, looking down, and whispering quietly on their phone, that would not be an SD for approaching that person to talk. If you approached that person to talk, your response would likely be punished by the person looking oddly at you or quickly ending the conversation. The person’s behavior did not signal that they wanted to talk right now. Many individuals with autism have trouble identifying these SDs. They may struggle to know when certain social behaviors are appropriate and will be reinforced depending on the SDs they see. Social Thinking utilizes many strategies that help individuals identify the cues in their world. Concepts like the Social Detective and Superflex give language and define various common cues in the environment and how we should respond. After teaching these concepts, you can use these tools as a prompt to signal what type of behavior to engage in (ie. “Is this glassman situation?” to prompt de-escalation behaviors). 

My take home points:

  • Always rely on the data. No matter what strategies you are using, let data drive your decision making and illustrate progress (or lack of progress). Carefully define those behaviors you are seeking to increase or decrease. Continue taking data. Assess growth on a regular basis. Set mastery criteria. Set a timeline for changing the intervention if you are not seeing an increase. Do not rely on your observations. Don’t “think” things have improved, know that things have improved. 
  • Try one strategy at a time. It is tempting to overload and try a bunch of strategies at once. They all seem cool, so let’s just try them all. Nope. First off, you will never know which strategy is working. Second, you will confuse your student by incorporating too many concepts. 
  • Be a team player. Back up to my soapbox on BCBAs not always being everyone’s favorite colleague: be a great collaborator. Nobody wants to work with someone with a know-it-all attitude. Even if you know a great intervention that is data based that you think will definitely improve your student’s behavior – be a team player. It doesn’t matter how great your intervention is, if nobody is going to listen to you to actually learn how to use it. Listen to your colleagues. Value their expertise. Be professional and respect them. Always tie in data and agree on how everyone can track progress. 


If you are working in the autism world, Social Thinking is something you will definitely come into contact with. Set clear strategies on how you are going to use these concept and take data. ABA and Social Thinking can play in the same sandbox but make sure there are some rules in place first! 


  1. Thank you for your blog regarding “Social Thinking”. I, too, am a former Special Ed Teacher turned BCBA. You articulate very well a similar “landing point” to mine regarding Social Thinking. The materials are useful and I make sure to use and coach others using them in a behavior analytic way. The teaching of specific social skills is evidence based.

    I always preface any training of teachers regarding with materials such as the “Zones of Regulation” with: as a BCBA, my code of ethics requires that I tell you these curricula are not evidence based and my certification does not cover the use of these materials.

  2. This is pretty fantastic. Thank you for looking at this topic from all sides, and finding common ground in a well-researched way.

  3. This is a terrific post! My clinical team and I often have discussions on our love for Social Thinking (given our time as special educators) while attempting to manage the ethical dilemma of the BACB’s take on non-evidence-based interventions. Here’s to hoping more research is conducted to see effects on these programs!

    Rae @ Mindful Rambles

  4. Thank you for reading!

  5. Thanks for reading! It’s definitely a complex issue. I would love to see more research in this area.

  6. I loved reading about this! Do you have any books you would recommend to learn more about ABA?

  7. So what is an alternative to Zones of Regulation? What is better than this?


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