The essentialness of teaching context to kids with social learning challenges


We are living in a time when we are inundated with information, from the 24-hour news cycle to social media, notifications on our smartphones, etc.  It has becoming increasingly easier for us to form an opinion based on an attention-grabbing headline or “click bait” than it is to take the time to read an article or watch something that doesn’t fit into the narrow parameters of the Internet/TV news formula. 

Last week, a student I work with was suspended for making a comment to another student that falls under his school’s sexual harassment parameters.  This young man handled the situation beautifully by taking responsibility for his comment and accepting the consequence for his poor choice of words.  When he explained to me what had happened he explained that the student whom he made the remark to often makes (inappropriate) comments and jokes to him which he reciprocates.  He considered this student to be his friend however this student decided to tell a teacher what my client had said which led to his suspension.   When I asked him if he explained to his principal what led up to his making this comment he said he had not.   

 I emphasized to him why it is never appropriate to make jokes of a sexual nature in school I asked him why he did not explain to his principal the fact that he and this other student frequently make jokes of a sexual nature back and forth.  He stated that it had not occurred to him to explain the full story.  This did not surprise me as this young man has a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome and like many individuals with social learning challenges such as ADHD, Asperger’s and higher-verbal ASD he lacks an understanding of context.  

Dr. Peter Vermeulen, a psychologist from Belgium coined the term context blindness to describe the way people on the autism spectrum lack an understanding of context. Many individuals diagnosed with ADHD whom I work with also have difficulty understanding context (understanding themes, summarizing, taking the “bigger picture” into consideration) thus I do not believe that context blindness is strictly limited to those on the autism spectrum.

If someone has social learning challenges, they likely have difficulty understanding context.  Their brains tend to focus on details and they have difficulty looking at the *bigger picture which is why we need to place an emphasis on teaching them context.   Given that we are living in a time when context has taken a backseat to headlines, learning how to understand context is not just important it is essential to developing critical thinking skills and social competency.

Teaching context is something that must happen at home, in school and in any social situation.   I will sometimes explain this concept to kids as understanding the “who, what, when, why, how” of a story or situation.   Typically, I explain it as “the bigger picture”.

When speaking with your kids, regardless if they have a social learning challenge or not take the time to teach them this critical life skill.  You will be helping them to learn how to think critically while also teaching them that not everything in life can be simplified to a headline or click bait.

by Ryan Wexelblatt, LCSW

*The term “bigger picture” comes from the ILAUGH Model of Social Cognition created by Michelle Garcia Winner, creator of Social Thinking.  Learn more by visiting:

Learn more about the work we do teaching context at: (Bryn Mawr, PA) (Linwood, NJ)

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