Neurodiversity Affirming ‘Social Skills’ Support for Autistic Children – Part 1: The Big Ideas

Exploring Neurodiversity Podcast – Episode 2

by Adina Levy

Play. Learn. Chat - Exploring Neurodiversity Podcast Logo

Show Notes:

‘Social skills’ is a massively important area of support that we all need to pause and examine what we’ve been teaching neurodivergent kids. We need to check if the programs, resources and goals we’ve worked on previously still apply under a Neurodiversity Affirming approach.

There’s a lot that we need to change.

In short, we do not want to be teaching neurodivergent kids that they should act ‘more neurotypical’ to be accepted and socially connected.

Today we discuss some of the bigger ideas that underpin what affirming social supports look like, and in the next episode we’ll cover specific aspects of support that form a neurodiversity affirming approach to supporting social skills and social interactions for autistic kids.

In this episode, you’ll learn about

  • The importance of unlearning old practices and adopting Neurodiversity Affirming approaches to support for autistic children
  • Understanding neurodivergent communication styles can be different to neurotypical communication styles, but not wrong – we discuss the ‘Double Empathy Problem’
  • Why we should focus should on respecting the unique strengths, challenges, quirks, and preferences of each child, instead of trying to make neurodivergent kids conform to neurotypical ‘norms’
  • The impact of sensory differences on socialising, for neurodivergent people


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📝 Free download for parents of autistic and neurodivergent children: https://playlearnchat.ck.page/8c5072e2e7

👩‍💻 My webinar ‘Affirming Ways to Support Social & Peer Interactions’ for therapists and therapy assistants: https://courses.playlearnchat.com/offers/2ARTUmfd/

🖼 Fellow AuDHDer Speech Therapist Em @Neurowild_’s cartoon about the Double Empathy Problem is on Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/p/CoGbw44PziC/) and Teachers Pay Teachers (https://www.teacherspayteachers.com/Product/Differences-in-Autistic-and-NT-communication-styles-9-page-infographic-9079365?st=a31d3c6801571aefbb50f2ff8414a384)


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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 when 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.

Today, we’re talking about what neurodiversity affirming ‘social skills’ support looks like for autistic children. Now, if you’re not looking at your screen right now, ‘ social skills’ is in inverted commas. There’s a long history of autistic and neurodivergent children being taught how to act in more neuro-typical ways. There are many programs, resources, therapists that have basically taught autistic children that the way that they are and the way that they naturally interact with people and want to interact with people is wrong and needs to change.

That is not the message that we want to be giving to our autistic and neurodivergent children.

So, let me preface all of this by saying there is a lot of unlearning to be done. It can be really, really hard to set aside what we’ve already been taught perhaps in university or what we’ve heard therapists talking about for what our children need or what teachers say our children need. Perhaps we’ve done professional development and training in certain programs or we’ve been using resources.

As you listen to me today, I want you to recognise where you feel any friction where you think that’s not what I thought before, or that’s not what we taught our child before, or that’s not how I practiced as a therapist before. It can be really hard to change practice. I absolutely acknowledge it. I’ve lived it. I’m living it constantly. However, we need to do this for the kids. We need to be supporting autistic children to grow up in a world that respects them for who they are. And how they act and support them along the lines of what their preferences are and what they want out of their social world.

Put short. It is simply not okay anymore to be teaching ‘ neurotypical social skills’ to autistic children.

What you learn today or what you’ve been learning and what you’re learning over the next few months and years, might involve breaking up with programs, breaking up with therapists, breaking up with training that you’ve done before. Let’s recognise this is not an easy process, but I also want you to recognise that if you know that in the past, you have done taught, said, or enrolled your child in support that isn’t aligned with a neurodiversity affirming approach, you did the best with what you knew at the time. Please be gentle with your past self.

Let’s take this new knowledge and think carefully, how can we support the children in our world who are neurodivergent, to feel like they are thriving, like they’re supported, cared for, understood and even honored for who they are.

Neurodiversity affirming practice means that we take an individual’s strengths, challenges, quirks, perceptions, preferences. And we understand that is what makes them uniquely them and perhaps different. And if that means different from the average or different from most people, that is fine. Difference is not a problem. Problems arise from people not understanding or respecting difference. Problems arise from other aspects as well.

But so many of the challenges that our autistic and neurodivergent community experiences is because of people not accepting, understanding and catering for their differences.

A lot of what informs the information that I’m sharing today and always, is lived experience. That means that we listen to the voices, the opinions, the words, thoughts of autistic and neurodivergent adults, teens, children. We learn from people who have the experiences, and have experienced various types of therapies, supports, stories, social interactions that go well, that don’t go well, friendships that look all different ways, different types of socialising.

Lived experience, I believe needs to be preferenced and come above in inverted commas, ‘professional expertise’.

Let’s just start by acknowledging that people’s lived experiences can play a huge part in informing what we should be teaching our children today.

When we’re looking at supporting autistic and neurodivergent people, we need to take a view that the child is not wrong, broken or disordered. The child lives in a world that is perhaps not as supportive as it could be. The challenges that the child experiences are primarily due to the world around them, the people around them, not understanding, not supporting. The spaces around them, not being set up to support this individual.

Autistic people have sensory challenges and differences. Each person might experience their own pattern of being very sensitive to some inputs. Being under sensitive to other sensory inputs. Essentially needing a lot more sensory support and a more ideal sensory environment, then neurotypical people, to be able to function and thrive.

This has a huge impact on socialising. If an autistic person is feeling completely dysregulated because the world around them is too noisy and they’ve had a day full of changes. And they’ve not been able to eat their safe preferred foods. And the clothes that they’re wearing a really uncomfortable and there’s one seam that it’s just really rubbing on their leg and it is so annoying and distracting. We have so many layers of challenge there before even coming to the ability to socially interact, to communicate and do all those things that come along with connecting with other people.

So let’s keep this idea in mind: When we’re supporting the social interactions of an autistic child in a neurodiversity affirming way, we are A not trying to change people to seem like they are more neurotypical and B, we actually need to change the world around the child, much more than changing the child’s skills.

You listening to this podcast is already a huge part of changing the world around the child. So thank you for being here. Thank you for listening and taking on this information. And considering how are you supporting your neurodivergent clients, your child, people in your family and in your world.

How can you be more open-minded and accepting of the different ways that they interact and they communicate, then that is okay. That is fine. Difference can be challenging, but difference is not wrong.

There’s two other key concepts that I’m going to share, which I talk about quite a lot in my programs and my webinars. One is all communication is valid.

Despite the title, ‘speech therapist’, or ‘speech pathologist’. I do not preference speech as a better way of communicating than other ways of communicating. Unfortunately, our society does have a huge bias towards speech and mouth words, being the perhaps preferred or ideal or most impressive way of communicating.

For many autistic people, speech is not possible, not always possible or incredibly effortful.

I can feel that there’s space for a whole other episode on that topic. I’ll put that on my list for things we’ll discuss in the future.

Today, let’s just keep this idea in mind. However an individual prefers to communicate, whatever their best communication method is. Let’s encourage that, support, that model, that, and meet them where they’re at.

Other ways that somebody might communicate might include actions, facial expressions, the way that they move their body, the way that they pull you to their favorite packet of chips. It might include using visuals. It might include using an AAC device.

A speech generating device, for example, an iPad app where they tap images and the message is spoken by the iPad.

Sign language, simplified sign language, like keyword sign, writing, reading. These are all other ways that people communicate.

We all naturally use a mixture of different ways of communicating, but we do need to be careful and check ourselves that we are not only preferencing speech or mouth words when we are interacting with autistic people.

The last important concept that I want to share is the idea that all play is okay.

All play is okay to me means that we recognise that any way that somebody wants to interact with the world, with objects by themself, with other people. However they want to share joy and experience the world in a flow way. That is okay. Autistic play might look different to how other kids play and interact. It is not wrong.

If a child is enjoying themself and is engrossed in something and is having fun. That is play, and that is fine. So this extends to how people interact with others.

So we do want to make sure that we’re not forcing or encouraging autistic children to play with other people, if that’s not what they’re ready to do. Or to play, doing activities that are not their preference. Let’s make sure that we are honoring autistic play and your child’s individual play, or your client’s individual way of playing as number one most important factor. That’s where connection is going to happen if you start to understand the way your child experiences the world and engage with them there, if they’re happy for you to be joining in.

We can’t possibly talk about autistic social skills without talking about the Double Empathy Problem. This is a concept coined by Doctor Damien Milton, who essentially has debunked and opened up the world’s minds to the idea that autistic people don’t have social skills and don’t have empathy and don’t know how to interact with other people.

The double empathy problem talks about the idea that autistic people DO actually have social skills. They might look different to neurotypical social skills. The way that a person interacts with other people, the way that a person has conversations. What is deemed okay. And acceptable and rude. The way that body language plays into it. All of these factors contribute to the way that autistic communication can be different from neurotypical communication styles.

What we find in the research and certainly in my own experience, in my clinical experience, working with loads of autistic kids over the years.

Is that many autistic people can get along well with other autistic people and other neurodivergent people. It can be a harder leap in a sense to get along well with people who are not autistic or not neurodivergent.

If you think about how easily you have a conversation with somebody from your own cultural background, perhaps you grew up in the same area. You speak the same language. You have a bit of a shared understanding of the world.

Perhaps you even have similar mannerisms. That’s what communication can look like between two autistic people, and between two people who are not autistic. When you do come across an autistic and a non-autistic person communicating. It can be done. Absolutely. Can have a great time. But it might take extra effort from everybody’s part to take the perspective of the other person, whether that’s in how we’re maintaining a topic or changing topics all the time, whether interruptions are okay or not. There’s so many other ways that social communication skills can look different, but not wrong for autistic individuals.

What’s traditionally happened is that an autistic person has been taught, told implicitly and explicitly their whole life, that for them to communicate effectively, they need to change communication and they need to act like a neurotypical person.

What we all need to be doing is shifting our perspective. A neurodiversity affirming perspective of social skills means that we’re understanding that autistic ways of communicating are different, not wrong. Say it with me. Autistic ways of communicating are different, not wrong.

So we need to ensure that we’re not just asking autistic people to change their ways of communicating, thinking, acting. To act more neurotypical. That’s not fair. It’s a compromise, like any conversation or interaction and social communication, is all about taking perspective of the other person, but it has to go both ways.

There has to be a compromise and a meeting in the middle where perhaps, non-autistic people take into account what autistic communication styles might look like and allow and celebrate the autistic person to communicate in ways that feel natural to them, to stim while they’re talking, to interrupt and understand that it’s not rudeness, it’s actually excitement.

My friend Em, who is @neurowild_ online. She’s got a fabulous cartoon about the Double Empathy Problem, outlining a lot of the different ways that communication styles are different, often for autistic and neurotypical people.

I’ll pop a link to that in the show notes.

In the next episode, I’m going to go into some specifics in terms of what types of goals and aspects of support are a neurodiversity affirming approach to supporting social skills and social interactions for autistic kids.

I hope that you found this a helpful overview with heaps of ideas to get your mind ticking and thinking about your approach so far.

If you’re a therapist and you’d like to know more about what neurodiversity affirming social skills does look like for autistic children and how you can uphold that in your practice. I’ve actually got a webinar. We’re doing it live on the 13th of February. If you are listening to this before that date, and if you’re listening after it’s going to be available as a recording.

You get 12 months access.

So the webinar is called Affirming Ways to Support Social and Peer Interactions. We’re going to go a lot deeper into all of these topics.

We’re going to talk about the history of social skills training. We’re going to talk more about the double empathy problem and different communication styles that autistic people have.

We’re going to talk about socialising preferences and I give a framework for how therapists can analyse any resource, program or goal to ensure that it is neurodiversity affirming.

So I’ll pop the link to that in the show notes, if you’d like to join us. And I hope you do, if this has sparked your curiosity.

If you’re a parent of an autistic child, and you’re wondering how can I make sure that my kid’s therapist is neurodiversity affirming? I do have a checklist that you are so welcome to access. Again, I’ll pop the link to that in the show notes. The checklist is called, How Neurodiversity Affirming is your Child’s Team. And I find it can be a really helpful framework for you to work out if a new provider might be a fit for your child and family, but also to frame conversations with your current providers. You can use this as a tool to decide what to discuss with them, to have a conversation with them and see if you can support them to change the ways that they work with your child, to be more aligned with the neurodiversity affirming approach, that sees your child for who they are for their awesome individual strengths, and supports them exactly where they need as an individual.

Thank you so much for sharing this audio space and time with me, and thank you for being open to learning and unlearning and truly listening to the neurodivergent experience and perspective. If you found this episode helpful, please share it with a friend and join me on Instagram and Facebook. I’m @play.learn.chat

that’s Play.Learn.Chat, you’ll find all the links that we discussed in the show notes. Have a fabulous day.


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