We all think differently!

Alex Robinson, Nicola Williams and Dr Rebecca Docherty describe their work on the key issue of developing an awareness of self.

Noticing differences

It’s hard to make sense of people having different thoughts and feelings… especially if you’re not sure what thoughts and feelings are.

Toby is an adolescent young man at Kisimul School; an independent special school for young people with severe learning difficulties, many of whom have autism. A lot of people with autism have differences in how they make sense of thoughts and feelings. Taking on board different perspectives and points of view can be a challenge.

Toby had started to become aware of some differences between himself and other people. He has autism, but was not sure what this meant. After seeing a person on television with additional needs, he apologised to his family for having differences. This prompted his Mum to raise the question of how Toby could be supported to feel comfortable with his sense of self and the wonderful person he is. The in-house therapeutic team, together with colleagues from Educational Psychology, Speech and Language Therapy, along with class staff, collaborated to work with Toby.

Developing a positive sense of self 

Toby’s likes and dislikes

The intention was to help Toby develop an integrated sense of self, feeling at ease with differences between himself and others. It was hoped he could start to feel okay about his own way of thinking. This looked at first like it might be tricky. We were not sure whether he understood the concept of ‘thinking’. Some groundwork was needed.

What is thinking?

It is hard to discuss what people ‘think’ if young people are not clear what we mean by ‘thinking’. This was the starting point for work with Toby and a small group of peers.

The language of ‘thinking’ was introduced with visual symbols on talking mats. The students explored a range of physical items, focusing on a different sense each week. They were asked to decide what they ‘think’ about the item by placing the symbol of it onto a talking mat of either ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The talking mats had each student’s photograph, along with a symbol of their brain reading ‘Toby thinks…’. In this way, students could see differences in what their peers thought about items.

Sentence strips and symbols were used to clarify the emerging concept…. eg “Toby thinks rain/orange is good/bad”.

Generalising the concept

The language of “Toby thinks…”, “I think…” “Louise thinks…” was modelled by adults throughout the sessions, with reference to having thoughts in their brain. This helped move the concept from the structured intervention into real life language

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes

Being aware of your own thoughts is one thing… imagining what someone else might think is another. The talking mats were used in subsequent sessions to help students articulate what their peers thought about a range of items, using the same sentence strip structure, eg

Louise thinks rain is good/bad”.

Toby would then give the item to a peer and see if they still thought the same today. The language around peers thinking the ‘same’ or ‘differently’ to Toby was again modelled throughout and actively encouraged.

A new Concept emerging

All young people during the sessions used visual sentence strips to scaffold language around thinking. Toby grasped this well and began to use this sentence structure to comment on the objects without visual supports, only requiring a slight prompt of “Toby th…”. As the sessions progressed, he no longer required verbal prompts and began to spontaneously verbalise his thoughts about the items.

We could see that Toby was starting to embed this new concept as he began to verbalise it outside of the structured session, commenting that he liked things “in my head”, or expressing emotions with comments such as, “I feel frightened in my head”. He was developing an awareness that thinking and feeling happened internally.

I like thinking about Minecraft

Toby began to consistently express what he liked to think about, as well as that thinking happens in the head/brain. He would tell us:

I like thinking about skeletons
I like thinking about Minecraft

‘What’s your favourite thing to think about?’

Toby grasped that his peers’ talking mats indicated their thoughts. He began to show curiosity about his peers’ thoughts, asking a peer:

Louise, what’s your favourite thing to think about in your head?

Toby did this whilst looking directly at Louise, before waiting for a response. It showed us that he was developing an understanding that she had thoughts in her head that were different from his own, and that he could not know these thoughts unless he asked her.

Feedback from Toby’s mum, Carla, showed that he was generalising this new concept of different people having different thoughts into the home. She shared examples of family conversations:

Toby: ‘Do you want to play Minecraft?
Brother: ‘No Toby. I don’t like Minecraft. I think it’s boring
Toby: ‘Oh I like Minecraft. What do you like to play?
Brother: ‘I like to play Fortnite.
Mum: ‘I like doughnuts
Toby: ‘I don’t like doughnuts. I don’t like the sugar on them. I like cookies, not doughnuts.’

Differences can be okay

There was an emphasis through the sessions that people can think the same or differently about things, and that this is ‘okay’. The concept that it is okay to ‘change your mind’ was discussed too. This was tricky at the start. In the first few sessions, Toby would express confusion when voicing that he ‘liked’ something, if previously he had stated that he ‘disliked’ it, trying to amend his sentence to keep it in line with the original statement.

Expressing musical preferences

With revisiting this concept and staff modelling, Toby began to grasp this new concept, thoughts could change! Eventually this also became integrated into his spontaneous language.

He told us:
“I changed my mind, I like it today”.

Moving forward

Toby worked hard in the sessions and it was great to see him clarifying some tricky new cognitive concepts. His emerging understanding within the structured sessions was a good start, but his spontaneous use of newly acquired ideas in real life situations meant he could make genuine use of them. This was made possible through the reinforcement of new key learning, modelling of new language both in and out of sessions, and sticking with learning content until generalisation had finally taken place.

Toby’s real name has been used here. This is at the request of his mother, to honour Toby’s role in the piece of work. Toby’s views were sought regarding publication of this article and use of his name. Toby is unlikely to have full understanding of these concepts, but showed enthusiasm about sharing this piece of work with other people.

Dr Rebecca Docherty
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Dr Rebecca Docherty is an independent educational  psychologist (psychologyfoundations.co.uk) who offers supervision and consultancy at Kisimul School.

Alex Robinson
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Alex Robinson has been an assistant educational psychologist at Kisimul School for 9 years. She conducts intervention sessions with the young people in relation to SEMH topics or cognition and learning outcomes.

Nicola Williams
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The intervention was carried out in conjunction with Nicola Williams, a speech and language therapist who has been working with Kisimul School since September 2020.


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