My Student is a Self-Described “Sheldon Cooper”

Big Bang TheorySheldon Cooper, Ph.D. is, of course, a fictionalized character from the comedy series The Big Bang Theory, which explores the friendships between four young scientists and their ability to navigate sticky social situations together. From dating to work related politics, it is very difficult for Sheldon, a genius who exhibits tendencies of Asperger’s Disorder, to know what to say and how to say it.

In contrast, his friends know the importance of social conformity and provide guidelines to help Sheldon sidestep social pitfalls. Leonard, Raj, Howard, Bernadette, and Penny often call him out when he’s engaging in behavior that is not up to social standards. His girlfriend,  Neurobiologist Amy, gives Sheldon social “due process” in a way as she is more apt to indulge him by listening to his point of view and trying to explain the way of the world in his language.

Teaching Social Skills for Those with Context Disorders

Underlying the comedic shenanigans that Sheldon often finds himself in each week is the real life issue of teaching social skills, especially when it comes to helping those who are diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum. The DSM-V has bundled Autistic Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder, and PDD-NOS into one umbrella diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) separated by various severity levels. Due to this new way of diagnosing, we will see more kids labeled with ASD and there will be more of a need to teach social skills in the mainstream classroom. This means incorporating Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) into daily lesson plans, as Common Core recommends.

High-functioning Autism, formally known as Asperger’s, is really an overall context disorder, meaning that it is difficult to naturally decipher and pick up on social cues. Rather, the person must learn these relational tools just as someone would learn math or physics or any other structured subject.

The problem with teaching social skills, however, is that there is not one formula and not one correct answer. Every social situation presents a different nuance. So how then do kids really learn social skills?

My Student is a Self-Described “Sheldon” & Uses Social Thinking to Understand Patterns in Behavior

My student is diagnosed with Asperger’s and is a self-described “Sheldon Cooper”. She identifies with his character because reading social cues and exhibiting appropriate social expressions can be trying. It does not come naturally to her but she has learned to compensate by using social thinking– applying a set of social standards to various like social situations. She is very bright and independent. For example, when I was a young girl reading “Anne of Green Gables” she was a young girl reading “The Origin of Species”. But for all her intellect she can seem lost when it comes to relating to others on a social level.

Sheldon provides her some context. Although somewhat exaggerated, his character is ultimately relatable. Sheldon’s love for physics overcomes his love for people. Why? Physics makes sense. People don’t. My student would agree. Her favorite thing is Paleontology. Why? Paleontology makes sense. People don’t.

To navigate her way through real-life social situations, my student has developed social thinking skills, whereby she looks for patterns in social behavior and then correlates those behaviors to appropriate responses. For example, when I’m smiling, she mirrors that facial movement back to me by smiling too. When I’m telling a story, she knows that her response should be something related to my story to show empathy and understanding. Oftentimes though, the conversation quickly reverts back to paleontology because that is the thing that she can most relate to. We’re still working on that one.

The Best Way to Learn Social Skills is Through Your Peers

The fact of the matter is that there is not a one-size-fits-all social formula for every situation because every situation presents different variables. But through pattern recognition and good old-fashioned trial and error, a student can learn what to do and what not to do. With my younger students who are diagnosed with Non-Verbal Learning Disorder or ASD, we spend a lot time deciding what is appropriate and inappropriate in social situations. I cannot prepare my students for every social encounter but I can arm them with an arsenal of social tools that they can use to decipher an appropriate response in a new social situation.

The best way to learn social skills, however, is by way of a student’s peers. Mirroring and social cues will come more naturally if a student’s peer is teaching them through modeling. This is simply because students can relate more to someone their own age rather than an adult. The best social thinking groups are those who intentionally have designed the group for both typical and atypical developing children. (Here are some recommended Social Thinking Skills Groups in Los Angeles.)

Just like Sheldon, everybody can learn something from their peers and social thinking is no exception to this social rule.

A funny but true moment: Sheldon “Masters” the 3 Big Social Expressions


Christine Terry, J.D., is a Special Education Advocate & Founder of Terry Tutors. She created the One Comprehensive Support Service for The Struggling Student by combining Academic, Behavior, and Advocacy support. Want to Know More? Head on over to


Autism Awareness

AP postApril is Autism Awareness Month, and this year it was a time to dust off some good-old-fashioned pencils and get a little education at the Teaching Social Skills That Change Lives Workshop, hosted by the Autism Partnership Foundation.

I was super pumped to attend this conference because I tutor so many students from Preschool through Law School who present with various signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It’s a diagnosis that’s really hard for the schools, parents, and even general doctors to pinpoint because there are so many little, tiny signs that one can easily miss. Oftentimes, that’s exactly what happens and it leaves the parent wondering and the student struggling throughout their formal and social education.

Autism Partnership was formed by a small group of UCLA psychologists in the 1970’s, and since then has been hard at work researching, developing new programming, and educating others both in the US and abroad. They are fantastic! They provide assessments, social skills groups, counseling services, an entire program based on educating schools about bullying, in home support intervention, research, and parent support with one mission: to help the child thrive. I know I’m going on and on but it was just so amazing to hear a new kinder, gentler take on ABA Therapy: less rote and more human.

One of the techniques they use, and one that may be intuitive to most of us but not to those with ASD, is this idea of Discrete Trial Training (DTT), a way to break-down every instruction, step-by-step so that the child can learn to process the information in a formulaic way. You probably already do this naturally and don’t even realize it. Here’s how it works: If I say to Kayla, an atypical developing seven-year-old: Hey, Kayla. Would you throw me that ball over there? Kayla might stand there because she doesn’t physically have the ball in her hand so to her, logically, she can’t throw it because it’s not there. She hasn’t yet learned how to read the implied action.

Now, using DTT I would say: Hey, Kayla.

(1) Do you see that ball over there (pointing)?

(2) Would you walk over to that ball

(3) pick it up

(4) hold it your hand

(5) walk back to where you are standing now, and

(6) then throw it to me?

Depending on Kayla’s development, those could be a lot of steps and we would have to revisit many of them several times over. When each step is accomplished I would give Kayla verbal praise as positive reinforcement. Then we would practice this action again, until it became intuitive for Kayla. See what may seem like simple behavior for a typical developing child can be very difficult for a child with ASD, but if we can teach these steps in a patient and kind manner we’ve already accomplished so much.

As April comes to an end and Autism Awareness Month comes to a close I’m so excited because there are a ton of great resources out there for you and your family. If your child is diagnosed with ASD or has not been officially diagnosed but you have your suspicions that something is just not quite right, check out a few of these great programs to help guide you along the way:

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