A two-day conference held in Billings this week aims to send its 650 attendees from across Montana home with innovative ways to help people with autism and other social-learning challenges.
Called Social Thinking — named for the treatment and strategies program highlighted at this year’s conference — the 2014 version of the Montana State University Billings Extended Campus’ annual Autism Conference began Tuesday and wraps up Wednesday at the Holiday Inn Grand Montana, 5500 Midland Road.
Keynote speaker and presenter Michelle Garcia Winner founded and developed Social Thinking, a program teaching social skills to youth and adults with social-learning challenges.
“It’s really a new idea to understand the power and the influence of the social mind,” Winner said.
She spent Tuesday teaching attendees about Social Thinking and how it applies not only to people with social challenges, but also the people teaching and working with them.
The concept focuses mostly on people with near-advanced IQs who face challenges when it comes to social interaction. It revolves around the idea of teaching them to think about their interactions, and how they affect both themselves and others, to develop those social skills.
It encourages them to think about how others think, said Cheryl Young-Pelton, an assistant professor of special education with MSUB’s College of Education and a member of the conference’s coordinating committee. “That’s a hard skill for any of us to learn,” she said.
For example, Winner showed the crowd of more than 600 people a slide with four items to have people consider in social interactions to gain perspective: “1. I think about you. You think about me. 2. I am aware of your motive/intention. Why are you near me? What do you want from me? 3. Since you are thinking about me, what are you thinking about me? 4. I monitor my behavior and possibly adjust it to keep you thinking about me the way I want you to think about me.”
It also includes ways to pick up on physical cues during communication.
Dr. Pamela Crooke, Social Thinking’s director of clinical services and research, said that approach provides specific steps for students.
“We try to give people strategies to make it really concrete,” she said. “It’s social skills versus social thinking. It’s really a deeper look at how we use social skills.”
Winner described it as “a paradigm shift away” from traditional methods and hoped that those in attendance will take it to heart.
“I hope they rethink what it means to be social,” she said. “Our social skills are linked to our interpretations.”
The training is for educators, therapists, clinicians, practitioners and for parents, Young-Pelton said. “We want (Winner) to come in and from day one teach them how to assess, to make a dynamic assessment.
“It’s not a paper-pencil kind of test. It’s watching the kids, their actions and their interactions, and being able to say, ‘They’re doing this, they’re not doing that.’ “
The conference is hosted by the Extended Campus and sponsored by Region III Comprehensive System of Personal Development in conjunction with the College of Education’s Montana Center for Inclusive Education, as well as Easter Seals-Goodwill.
Tuesday marked the start of the conference’s seventh year. Conversations from the 2008 conference helped spur the passage of Brandon’s Bill, which expanded insurance coverage for autism, during the 2009 Montana Legislature.