The Social Sensory Cognition Process

The Social Sensory Cognition Process is an experiential therapy for helping people with high functioning Autism and social awkwardness to become more at ease in social situations by creating space for more complete sensory experiences. 

This week at Kids Cooperate we started a new curriculum based on the Social Sensory Cognition Process (SSCP), a practice based on my doctoral research and years of working with families.

The SSCP approach begins with the recognition that a person’s reality is rooted in their perception, which is shaped by her or his sensory experience. One of the reasons people on the Autism Spectrum are challenged by social expectations is that sensory processing challenges prevent a holistic sensory experience that is needed to navigate the subtleties and complexities of interaction with other people. Some sensations such as sounds or lighting are experienced with distracting vividness, while other important signals are ignored or blocked out. Over time, prolonged or traumatic sensory experiences will cause avoidant behaviors. Important social signals come through in pieces over many channels, and must be decoded and sorted through cognitive processes. Without a holistic sensory experience, the information to make authentic and appropriate decisions about social interaction is simply not available.

Many other treatment milieus for Autism Spectrum Disorder focus on skills acquisition, essentially seeking to help people on the Autism Spectrum to add a layer of meta cognition to their social interactions, providing tools to help discern expectations and appropriate responses. Traditionally, the child is asked to examine what’s going on in their own mind and make adjustments based on what they are told is “wrong” with their worldview.  This is an added burden on their cognitive process, and, it starts with the basic assumption that the child’s reality is not valid.

image via Marco Puccini

image via Marco Puccini

The SSCP approach is to move the intervention point to the sensory experience (the creation of reality) itself by bringing awareness to the senses and cues most important to social interaction, essentially reorganizing perception.

The Social Sensory Cognition Process is realized through facilitated experiences. You don't "learn" fully integrated social skills, you "get" them. You don't think about them, you "do" them. The core of the Social Sensory Cognition Process is a heuristic called the 3 Social Senses, or 3S. The 3 social senses are: Sight (facial expression, auxiliary social cues such as clothing, environmental context), Sound (tone of voice, environmental sounds, side conversations) and Space (social touch, personal boundaries, environmental safety hazards).

image via Carlo Muttini

image via Carlo Muttini

At the beginning of each session, the facilitator leads a discussion to bring the participants awareness to the 3 social senses. Activities like "connected conversations" and other social games chosen to foster interaction happen in small groups, while the facilitators circulate to provide feedback and cues to bring the children's attention back to the critical sights, sounds, and spacial issues of the social interaction they are engaged in.

The transformation comes by doing the process. By being there for the sensory experience and fully taking what you get. By bringing awareness to the three critical social senses, the child becomes an authentic participant in social interaction.