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Welcome to the Exploring Neurodiversity podcast. I’m Adina Levy from Play, Learn, Chat. I’m a neurodivergent speech therapist, and I’m obsessed with creating a world where neurodiversity is understood, embraced, supported, and celebrated. Join me as we have conversations about autistic, ADHD, neurodivergent experiences, and I share how you can support neurodivergent children in your world.
Let’s all work together to make change where change is needed so that the world can be a more friendly place for neurodivergent people and for everyone. Whenever we ask autistic children to improve their social skills. We’re often asking autistic children to mask who they are to hide their true self.
This is overwhelmingly a not good idea. There’s a lot of nuance there, but what we’re going to dive into today is challenging the idea that autistic people don’t have good social skills and challenging the idea that problems in social interactions between autistic and non autistic people are caused by the autistic individual.
It’s simply not true. Today, we’re going to be covering a big idea behind what’s called the double empathy problem coined by Dr. Damien Milton. The double empathy problem essentially tells us that it’s not the fault of autistic people having missing social skills that cause communication breakdown between autistic and non autistic people.
Autistic social skills, communication patterns, social preferences can look different to non autistic preferences, communication patterns, and skills. The key word here is different, not wrong. The Double Empathy Problem addresses this and shares that non autistic people need to also understand the communication, social preferences, needs, interests, perspectives of autistic people just as much or perhaps even more than it being up to autistic people to do all the compensating and adapting and changing.
As a neurodiversity affirming speech therapist and professional educator, One of the most common questions that I get asked is how should we do social skills for autistic children? What’s okay? What is neurodiversity affirming? And so one of the biggest ideas that I teach and that we need to question as we throw some of the, let’s say old therapy approaches and programs out the window is that social skills support and social interaction support for autistic children is not just about changing the child.
We can’t just be asking autistic and neurodivergent children to change how they act and to change how they communicate and just squash down their own natural preferences, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them or how it affects their mental health, just so that the other people around them feel more comfortable.
We are not doing this anymore. So what do we do? In my training for parents and professionals, I talk a lot about changing the world around the child. So changing the world around a child is all about making sure that all the people and the contexts and the situations and the environments where a child exists are most accommodating and most supportive to that child.
We’re taking the burden off a particular child to do all the changing. A neurodiversity affirming approach is all about meeting neurodivergent kids where they are. Sometimes this means changing your perception as a person around a neurodivergent child. Sometimes, this is all about ensuring that a neurodivergent child is able to participate in activities that are really aligned with their interests, as opposed to activities that have nothing to do with what they truly want to be doing.
So in this episode, I’m going to share a few practical ideas of what it actually looks like to be changing the world around a child, to be most supportive and enable positive social interactions and connections for neurodivergent children. I’ll share this in three sections. We’ve got changes to other people, changes to the physical environment and changes to schedules and expectations.
I teach a lot more about these concepts in a particular webinar that I have for allied health professionals, which is called affirming ways to support social and peer interactions. And if you’re a parent of a neurodivergent child, I’ve actually got a specific parent webinar where I teach more about this approach and that’s called affirming ways to support your neurodivergent child’s social interactions.
And both of these are available anytime, so pop the link in the show notes and you can register for those webinars on demand. I will also be sharing a PDF, which is a neat summary of some of the ways that I’ll share in the podcast, but also additional ideas for how you can go about changing the world around a child to be most supportive for their social inclusion and interactions and joy.
So let’s dive in to some ideas for how we can go about changing other people around a child. A lot of this is about education and the fact that you’re simply listening to this podcast episode shows that you are part of this wave of very, very important change in the world around neurodivergent children.
So whether you’re a parent, a teacher, educator, therapist, whoever you are in the life of neurodivergent children, the fact that you’re here being open minded to learning new ideas, new strategies, perhaps unpacking some of the beliefs that you might have always been taught about what exactly good social skills should look like.
That is just such a fabulous approach. So we are changing your values, your perception, your knowledge, your skills. And I thank you for being here and doing so. Another brilliant way that we can change the world around a neurodivergent child is peer education. And this is a whole school approaches and whole community approaches to understanding concepts around diversity, inclusion, difference.
These are such important values to be teaching kids and information to be teaching all kids, not just asking neurodivergent kids to learn. You can teach children from a very, very young age that difference is fine, is natural, and difference can be beautiful, wonderful, supportive, and interesting for everyone.
You can give these messages in casual ways to your kids. You can read books with them and I’ve got a resources page on my website where I share a list of books that you can read with kids that can support these ideas around teaching diversity and inclusion in really engaging ways with a particular focus on neurodivergence.
Let’s turn our attention to how we can go about changing the physical environment around a child to be most accommodating and supportive so that they can have their best chance of having beautiful interactions that are relevant and aligned with their preferences and needs coming from a base of feeling comfortable and connected and safe.
We can approach this from a sensory perspective and simply understand that everyone has different sensory preferences. There are some things that we can do in our shared spaces that are more likely to be accommodating and supportive for more people. Neurodivergent people and especially autistic people have heightened and more specific sensory needs.
So it’s really important that we’re taking sensory needs and challenges and preferences into account here. Generally a more calm sensory environment, how things look and sound and smell. If you tone them down, they’re generally going to be more accommodating and more supportive for more people. I am a person who loves bright colors and shiny things and beautiful lights.
Some autistic people really prefer muted tones and dimmer lights and calm colors. If I go into a space that has muted tones, beige, low lights, things like that, I’m not as delighted as I might be if I’m in a bright colored space, but it also doesn’t disable me. It doesn’t make me feel overwhelmed. It just is neutral for me.
However, if an autistic person really has a preference for that kind of muted, more toned down visual space, goes into a space that has bright lights flashing around, strong colors all over the place, they may actually be actively disabled by the environment around them. So essentially playing it safe on a sensory level is much more likely to be more accommodating for more people.
So whether you’re planning out how your home looks, how a classroom looks, your child’s bedroom, your therapy space, the best idea is to essentially play it safe. Tone down the elements of visual, auditory, smell, input, and more people will feel comfortable in that space. And of course, the more that you can individualize that to a particular child’s needs, once you know what their needs are and their preferences, that’s wonderful as well.
Another thing to consider for physical environments is co designing with children. And what that means is get kids to join in on the experience of making decisions for that physical space. If it’s their bedroom, absolutely get a child’s input as much as you possibly can. If it’s a classroom or a shared environment, there’s going to be a lot more democracy involved, but you can absolutely get kids involved and have some buy in even into a small section of that space.
They may be able to help you design a calm corner or decide which pillows you’re going to get to put in there. Co designing for a shared space actually can lead to some really beautiful perspective taking conversations and compromise where people have to take into account other people’s interests and preferences and needs as well and that’s some really beautiful learning for all kids to do.
So there’s a couple of ideas about changing the environment around a child and truly once you’re in a space that feels comfortable and okay and safe and not even just neutral but may be joyful and cozy. This frees up an autistic child or a neurodivergent child. To feel more comfortable in their body, in their space, to then be able to do other things like connecting with other people, like learning and concentrating and focusing.
But if the environment around them is too distracting or challenging or the chair’s uncomfortable and they’d rather be standing while doing their work. Their baseline ability to be able to connect with other people or think, or be creative is going to be seriously impacted. Lastly, let’s think about schedules and expectations.
So this is all about what I like to call the time environment around a child and the things that we’re asking kids to do and energy comes into it as well. One thing I want you to consider here is what goes on in a child’s schedule across a week. So think about their therapy schedule, the times that they’re expected in their day and in their week to do their best learning or socializing with other kids.
Is that optimal for the child and their energy? Do they have enough spoons to be able to cope with these demands that are put on them or these expectations? Does the child want to do those things or are they things that the child has to do? And if they’re truly non negotiable, how can we fit them into a child’s life in a way that is most supportive for the child?
Does it mean perhaps cancelling something else so there’s one less other demand to ensure that they’re able to attend that non negotiable event every week? When it comes to expectations more broadly than just schedules, I want us to be continuing this approach of asking why for every single thing we’re expecting a child to do.
If you’d like a child to go to dance class and you notice that they’re having a significant difficulty interacting with the other kids at dance class, you might jump to the idea that the social problem is with the autistic child who’s not interacting appropriately. But if you take a zoom out, changing the world approach, you might figure out that perhaps…
The expectation is not right for the child. Perhaps they’ve had an overscheduled week and the dance class happens too late in the week where they’ve had a string of other days and events and late nights. And they’re simply too tired to be able to approach other kids socially and deal with miscommunications in that dance class.
And if the dance class is deemed a non negotiable, then perhaps taking off some other demands throughout the week, putting the tutoring on hold, or saying no to a social event so that there can be an early night before the dance class. And that child is feeling in a better space before that scenario even begins.
And therefore they’re more able to be more socially and emotionally connected with the other kids in that moment. Challenging the expectations that we place upon kids can look so many different ways. It can be on a really small level, like what are we expecting them to do in a particular homework task, or perhaps how much can we assist them, or perhaps does that task even need to happen.
As grown ups around neurodivergent kids, I just really encourage you to keep asking yourself, why? Why am I asking this of a child? If something’s working fine, and the kid is enjoying it, and they’re doing it, and no one’s having problems. Then you may not need to ask why. I think it’s still a good practice to do often.
But certainly when you notice that there’s resistance or a challenge and something arises where the child’s not meeting our expectation, and in this case we’re thinking about social skills or social interactions, and you’re noticing that the neurodivergent child that you support is not able to participate socially in the way that you expect.
Before we start blaming the child and assuming that they have limited skills and the problem lies with them, we need to zoom out and approach it from what can we change in the world around the child to best support them. So I hope that gives you a few ideas for how you can change the world around a child to be most accommodating and facilitative for neurodivergent children and their social interactions.
You can access a free PDF download where I share more ideas about changing the world around a child. And you’ll find that on my website at playlearnchat.com/freebies, or you can just go straight to the show notes and I’ll have a link there for you. And as I said, I’ve got two webinars, one for professionals and one for parents.
Where I share neurodiversity affirming approaches to social supports for neurodivergent kids. So again, I’ll pop both of those links into the show notes and I will also share a discount code with you lovely podcast listeners where you’ll get 10% off if you add the code pod10 at the checkout. I hope we can keep learning together.
Thank you so much for being a part of this changing the world around our neurodivergent kids. If you found this episode helpful, please share it with a friend and join me on Instagram and Facebook. I’m at play learn chat. That’s play. learn. chat. You’ll find all the links that we discussed in the show notes.
Have a sparkly day.
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