Old way/New way – Upgrading to Neurodiversity Affirming Strategies for Autistic Children

Exploring Neurodiversity Podcast – Episode 25

by Adina Levy

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I’m sharing 3 strategies that we need to leave in the past, and 3 strategies that are more aligned with a Neurodiversity Affirming approach – let’s call them ‘Old way’ and ‘new way’!

OLD WAY: First do the boring ‘work’ task, then do the fun activity
NEW WAY: Use intrinsic motivation: Ensure that the ‘main’ activity is motivating for the child

OLD WAY: Intrude – Insert yourself into the child’s play when they’re playing solo
NEW WAY: Join in with the child… Sometimes. Let them play solo sometimes. Honour their sensory & social capacity

OLD WAY: Shape an Autistic child’s play to look more ‘normal’… More like neurotypical children’s play
NEW WAY: Honour & enjoy the child’s individual way of playing. And sometimes add small new ideas as an offer, with no pressure


If you’re a speech therapist, you’re invited to join my FREE 3-day Challenge ‘Evolving your Affirming Practice’www.playlearnchat.com/challenge 

Registrations are open now (from 21st Nov – 30th Nov 2023) for my Affirming Communication for Autistic Children Course for Speech Therapists! Head over here to check it out and add yourself to the waitlist if the course isn’t open when you’re listening, or if you’re not quite ready to join this time! https://playlearnchat.com/acac-course/ 





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.

Learning about neurodiversity affirming practice and changing how we interact with neurodivergent kids can be hard. I get it. I’ve been a speech therapist since 2012 and I know that weird feeling that you get deep down in your gut, that’s where it feels for me, when you recognise that something that you’ve always known and done and taught and said isn’t okay anymore and it needs to change.

At best it can feel uncomfortable and it can even feel very confronting. There can be guilt associated with that feeling of thinking that the things that you’ve said to kids before or the activities or the way that you’ve interacted with neurodivergent kids has been problematic. So yeah, I get it.

I’m also quite obsessed with changing practice, reflective practice, and doing the best we can at any moment with all the knowledge, information, skills and support that we have. I’m equally obsessed with being that support for many speech therapists and allied health professionals and all of you listening here as well.

So I recognise that it takes a lot of bravery to say I was wrong, I’m making a change. I did the best with what I knew back then and now I’m ready to try something different.

Once we have this new information and we have a new mindset and a new approach to supporting autistic kids and neurodivergent kids in a neurodiversity affirming way, we simply can’t ethically continue on in the "old" ways. Every time I say "old", I want you to imagine inverted commas.

Because I recognise that it’s not that all of these practices need to 100 percent be left in the past, nor are they all going to be left in the past at the same moment, given that society takes a whole lot longer to change than, you know, listening to one podcast episode.

These changes take time, and that’s okay.

My hope is that when you’re listening to this episode with me, you will engage in some positive reflection for yourself to think about the strategies that you use when you’re interacting with autistic children, and whether you want to start shifting some of those practices to be more aligned with a neurodiversity affirming approach.

*If you’re a speech therapist,* *I hope you’ll join me for my free three day *challenge *Evolve Your Affirming Practice* .

*In this challenge, over three days, * *I’ll send you information, activities and ideas for action* *to support you to make some personal connections * *and go deep into reflective practice *to support you *on your neurodiversity affirming journey. We are going to get started, my friends. Check out the free challenge Evolve Your Affirming Practice. Head to playlearnchat.com/challenge.*

If you’re ready to embark on this journey in a big way, and you’re a speech therapist, the good news is that my course, Affirming Communication for Autistic Children, is open for registration right now, all the way until the 30th of November, 2023. So if you’re listening around the time that this podcast episode is coming out, check out the course and head over and register. You get immediate access and access for the next 12 months. So you can choose to do the course straight away if you’re a keen bean. You can also opt in to our live accountability round in January where I support you to move through the modules week by week if January is an excellent time for you to take on some professional development and reflective practice. And you also have access to the content for 12 months. It should suit your calendar no matter who you are and how that calendar looks.

In my Affirming Communication for Autistic Children course, I teach nine of my favourite strategies to support autistic children’s communication.

And I see them as three categories of strategies. We’ve got relationship strategies, activity strategies, and communication strategies. The relationship strategies are all about valuing relationship building time, getting comfortable with silence and cultivating positive regard. There’s a very good chance that I’ll do another podcast episode going into those three strategies one day down the line.

Our activity strategies is what we’re actually going to be diving into today. And they are using intrinsic motivation, joining in sometimes, and adding small new ideas sometimes.

And our third category of neurodiversity affirming strategies is communication strategies, and they are providing multimodal receptive support. So that’s about helping children understand your communication when you use a variety of different modes of communicating with them.

The next strategy is model and accept multimodal communication, so supporting a child to use a variety of communication methods. And the third strategy is about using declarative language. So again, down the line, I may do another podcast episode looking at those three strategies.

But today, we’re focusing in on the activity strategies. And I want to talk about old way, new way. Because we’re here talking about the practice of changing. We need to call out what were the strategies of the "past", inverted commas, what is this old way so that we can recognise it and start to shift that into new way, what is much more affirming when you’re supporting autistic children.

So, number one. The old way is conducting a speech therapy session or an OT session or teaching children where you do the boring task with a fun activity at the end. So you’re using extrinsic motivation. Perhaps a child may even have to earn tokens or points towards that fun activity at the end. Hands up if this is something that you do with children in your therapy sessions if you’re a therapist, um, I certainly have and I still do it sometimes. There may sometimes be a place for some of these strategies, but broadly we want to be leaving them in the past. So what do we do instead of this idea? The old way is keeping the fun activity for the end, you can think about a now and next sequence, where now is the work, the task, the activity where you think that the therapeutic benefit may occur. And next is a fun activity that the child may have chosen, or you know that the child will work for. That’s a behavioural approach that can be quite effective, but it is not the best way of supporting *autistic children, of it’s not the best way of supporting* any child to do any learning, or you know, any human at all.

The new way is using intrinsic motivation. This means that we want to embed the fun, the engagement, the motivation within the main activity.

And to flip it on its head, it might be more about finding the learning and connection opportunities and communication opportunities, within an activity that a child is already enjoying.

When you use intrinsic motivation in your sessions, in the way that you support and interact with autistic kids, you build a stronger connection with them. You get their engagement, without having to trick them into it or coerce them into it.

You will generally get their buy in more. You’ll get better attention, you’ll get better participation, and you’ll get better retention of learning because the space where that child is doing their learning is within the context of something that they enjoy.

Our second old way strategy is something that many of us may have been taught to do, which is a strategy of intruding on autistic children’s interaction to insert yourself within their play. Why is this a problem? Um, many reasons.

So, one is that it can put a lot of pressure on you to turn every possible moment into a learning moment.

Like anyone, but even more heightened, autistic kids need breaks and downtime and safe spaces, safe moments, safe activities, where they can go to regenerate, and feel better, calmer and more regulated. Everyone needs this to some degree. For autistic children, this is not optional.

Quite frankly, it can be pretty full on if somebody is constantly intruding into your activity. The other day, I was enjoying reading a magazine on the couch, which is something I don’t often get to do with two kids. And it was a lovely, peaceful, calm moment. It’s something that I really treasure and enjoy, the moment of opening up that paper magazine, smelling the pages. Taking that little moment in the sunshine to myself. That is a calm moment and I absolutely do not want somebody else joining in on that. There are other activities I do throughout my life where I treasure sharing that with somebody else. But reading the magazine on the couch at that particular time of day was something I needed and wanted to do solo.

Which brings me to the new way. What do we do instead of intruding all the time on a child’s play? We can join in sometimes. Sometimes is probably the most important word here. So it’s really important to be recognising when a child’s sensory capacity, emotional capacity and social capacity, is it a point that they actually require or even just want some of that time solo. That is valid. A neurodiversity affirming approach to supporting anyone is recognising their capacity and their preferences in any moment. So it’s okay, you may need to give yourself permission. To only join in sometimes rather than constantly be trying to intrude and participate in a child’s world.

There is a lot to be gained from joining in sometimes. The key here is to pick your moments. Sometimes join in and sometimes step back and let the child do their own thing.

Our third strategy, that we’re throwing in the bin. The old way. was to shape an autistic child’s play to look like neurotypical children’s play or perhaps to look normal in inverted commas.

Or to follow a developmental trajectory that somebody has written a checklist about.

So if an autistic child enjoys lying on the floor and holding a car above their face and spinning the wheels and watching the wheels spin, um, The old way might have been to take that car and model for them how you drive the car along the pretend road

and make vroom vroom noises because that is what you are "supposed to do" with a toy car.

Now in this example, the autistic child… probably has a sensory preference of seeking that visual input, maybe the sound, maybe the tactile feeling of the wheel moving in the hand, or the vibrations of the car as they hold it. For whatever reason, that is the way that the child likes to play with that car.

Cool. That is okay. All play is okay. The old way is not affirming, because that strategy just says to the child, the way that you want to play in your world is wrong and we need to change that.

That just sounds so weird when we put it that way. And not even the good kind of weird.

What’s our new way? Our new way is all about adding small new ideas sometimes. That’s where learning can happen. Modelling something for a child, showing them a different way that they can do something, or adding on a little bit. Adding one new little idea onto what they’re already doing, is an opportunity and an offer for that child to try something new, to take it on, maybe, if they want to. But please recognise that for autistic children, change can sometimes be incredibly dysregulating in and of itself, whether or not that change would have been something the child might like anyway. Just the fact of change can be tricky.

You need to shift your mindset that when you’re adding a small new idea for a child, sometimes you’re setting aside any expectation for the child to take on your idea. They might, they might not, and either way is fine. It’s an offer and an opportunity for the child to see something or hear something or try something a little bit different.

Adding on to what they already enjoy and know. It’s an opportunity for them to potentially try something different, but without any pressure to do so. And the reason that I’ve added the word "small" in there, is because you may get most success and retain that playfulness, When the things that you model for a child are just a tiny little bit outside what they’re already doing.

Let’s come back to our car example. If the child already loves to lie down and look up and watch the wheels of the car spin, the one small new idea you could add is perhaps you lie down next to the child and you get your own car and you watch the wheels spin and you might say, it’s spinning. Or model a message like, look at it spin on their AAC device.

There, the new idea is adding language. A different version of adding a new idea might be taking the spinning concept and finding something else that can spin.

So you might grab a spinning top and model watching that spin on a table. And the child might come over and check it out, they might be interested, and they might not.

Either way, you’re having fun watching the spinning top and also trying to learn about the world from the perspective of the autistic child. There is so much we can learn by observing how autistic kids play. And trying to figure out what it is about their play that makes it so awesome for them. It’s very individual and it’s very dynamic too.

So I’m going to just recap our three old way, new way ideas. And as I do that, I want you to pick one of these that you think you are, I don’t want to say guilty of one of these old way ideas that you do quite a lot that you would like to practice shifting into the new way when you’re supporting autistic kids.

Old way number one is keeping the fun activity as the reward for doing a boring learning activity. New way number one is using intrinsic motivation, ensuring that the main activity is intrinsically fun and motivating and enjoyable for the child.

Old way number two is intruding on the child’s play and inserting yourself into their world. And the new way, strategy number two is joining in, sometimes. You might want to imagine that sometimes is underlined five times and highlighted too.

Old way number three is to shape an autistic child’s play to look more like neurotypical children’s play. Let’s shift that to new way number three, which is about adding small new ideas sometimes, but overwhelmingly considering that all play is okay and that the autistic child doesn’t need to change their play, but there may be fun opportunities to show something slightly outside of what they’re already doing, sometimes. Again, let’s underline and highlight that word in our minds.

You might want to hop on Instagram and let me know which of these three strategies you are going to be focusing on changing or shifting most in your practice.

*If you’re a speech therapist,* *I hope you’ll join me for my free three day *challenge *Evolve Your Affirming Practice* *You can find out all the info and register at playlearnchat.com/challenge.*

And if you’re a speech therapist and you’re keen to get more support understanding why, but also deeply understanding how to be a neurodiversity affirming speech therapist when you’re supporting autistic children, please do join me in the Affirming Communication for Autistic Children course.

Doors are open up until the end of November, 2023. And if you’re listening to this later, please still head on over to playlearnchat.com/acac-course. That stands for Affirming Communication for Autistic Children.

And you can add yourself to the wait list there if we are between course rounds.

That way I can let you know when it’s open next time, or even if the doors are open and you’re not quite ready, totally fine, add yourself to the waitlist and I can keep in touch with you.

I’d love to hear from you which is going to be your main strategy that you want to shift, so find me over on Instagram.

And if you’re joining the ACAC course, I’ll see you in our Facebook discussion group so we can catch up there.

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 sparkly day.


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