Social Inferencing: Clues + Background Knowledge = Assumption
You are about to walk into your favorite dessert store, but you suddenly notice a “Closed” sign on the front door. You use your background knowledge of the meaning of “closed” - something that is not open - and the fact that the door of the dessert store is shut, to connect the dots and reasonably assume the store is currently closed for business and that you should come back another day. This is an example of an inference. Inferences are generated when a person combines background knowledge with contextual information of the current situation to make an assumption of what is happening. Contextual information could range from nonverbal cues from a speaker to written information provided in a text.
So what do we use inferences for? Inferences are drawn upon naturally and unconsciously. Not only do we make inferences when reading textual material, we also use it to “read” other people’s feelings and thoughts to appropriately modify any behaviors, actions, and words.
A reader must generate inferences while reading in order to comprehend the text, understand an author’s intent, or make an assumption about the information they have read. At the same time, a listener considers the speaker’s facial expressions, body language, and other nonverbal cues to interpret the speaker’s message. It is important that a person generates inferences about their conversational partner to discern situations such as sarcasm. For example, when something bad happens, one might say something like, “Great. That’s just what I needed today!”, or there might be bodily actions that suggest one is feeling uncomfortable and is ready to move on to a different topic, such as crossing their arms or looking in another direction. It is understandable that some behaviors, like teeth grinding or scratching sometimes are less noticeable as compared to banging the table or flapping of arms. With most neurotypicals, these tasks are completed easily and without much conscious effort.
Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder, however, have difficulty with comprehension of the meaning of both spoken and written discourse that affects their ability to function socially and academically. They might not make sense of hyperbole or sarcasm during a conversation or even the author’s intention in writing a piece of written work. The ability to make inferences or to fill in gaps using your own knowledge and clues is an essential skill for comprehension of discourse. However, each individual is different. A few studies suggest that some individuals with ASD that are higher functioning and have better developed skills do not have an overall problem with making inferences. Instead, they have a particular difficulty with inferences about more abstract social information like intentionality or mental states (Bodner et al., 2015). Thus, having the knowledge of social inferencing will aid in the understanding that other people have thoughts and opinions different from their own. It will also build up foundational skills for individuals when engaging in conversations and grasping the motives and emotions of others.
The method of teaching social inferencing varies as each child learns differently. For visual learners, one can first begin to make inferences using pictures from a magazine or book. After explaining the concept of inferencing (finding clues and combining with the background knowledge to make an assumption), one can begin to show a picture of the example stated above - a “closed” sign. When showing the picture, one can ask the child to guess what is happening before, now or after. Next, one would explain to the child that the inference is that the dessert store is currently closed for business. How does one figure it out? One can figure it out by noticing the details in the picture (closed sign) and combining that with your background knowledge that “Closed” means something that is not open. After comprehending this visual concept, one can further practice by making inferences from text and pictures combined and eventually making inferences from passages and in social inferencing skills such as reading a person’s body language. For other children with ASD who are more active, one can be creative and fun by making social inferencing into a game. By doing so, the child could be driven by the notion of winning to decipher clues accurately, identify emotions appropriately and answer WH- questions correctly.
For many children with ASD, the shift from observing and deducing to inferring and assuming social contexts will be hard to grasp and marks the beginning of another challenging obstacle to overcome. However, with much practice, patience and perseverance over time, there is cause for hope.
Written by Hannah.
Bodner, K. E., Engelhardt, C. R., Minshew, N. J., & Williams, D. L. (2015). Making inferences: Comprehension of physical causality, intentionality, and emotions in discourse by high-functioning older children, adolescents, and adults with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(9), 2721-2733. doi:10.1007/s10803-015-2436-3