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What is Social Therapy?

By M. Haskins
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Social therapy is a group therapy-oriented, behavioral treatment used by practitioners to help people with a wide variety of psychological problems such as phobias, anxiety and depression, as well as conditions like autism and developmental disabilities. The focus of this form of therapy is the interaction in a social therapy group, rather than interaction one-on-one with a psychologist or counselor. An important idea in social therapy is that people learn and develop behaviors by performing them, just like children learn how to do things by playing and imitating others. Proponents claim that this therapy can help people develop and change social behaviors specifically by practicing, or performing, behaviors in the group setting, and that group interaction is key for this kind of learning. This therapeutic approach is based in psychotherapy and has been described as development-focused psychotherapy.

This form of therapy has been developed since the 1970s, mainly by Fred Newman, a former counselor with a PhD in analytical philosophy, and Lois Holzman, a developmental psychologist. Both have been active at the East Side Institute of Group and Short Term Psychotherapy, a center for the practice and theoretical development of social therapy. Newman and Holzman were also influenced by the works of Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who believed that learning and development are social rather than individual activities, and by Ludwig Wittgenstein, an Austrian philosopher.

Using social therapy for autism and Asperger's syndrome is especially common for children with these conditions. It is sometimes used as social skills therapy, which aims to teach social interaction in a group setting, often by using conversation, stories, games and so-called teaching scripts. A specific type of social therapy called Stop Observe Deliberate Act (SODA) is a method of teaching social problem solving skills to children with autism who can have problems understanding common social behaviors and interactions. This therapeutic approach to practicing and teaching social skills is also used for persons who have other forms of developmental disabilities.

Social therapy can also be used to treat conditions such as manic depression, anxiety and depression. Proponents claim that the interactions and conversations in the group help sufferers cope better with their conditions, and that this social group interaction is beneficial emotionally, spiritually and intellectually to participants. Social therapy was somewhat controversial, especially in its early days, and is not considered part of mainstream psychology or psychiatry, but has gained wider acceptance in later years.

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