Neurodiversity Affirming ‘Social Skills’ Support for Autistic Children – Part 2:
What Is and What Isn’t Affirming
Exploring Neurodiversity Podcast – Episode 3
by Adina Levy
In this episode, we dive into the specifics of what a Neurodiversity Affirming approach looks like when supporting social interactions for autistic children. The key point is that we do not want to teach neurodivergent children that they need to act more neurotypical. This means all our goals, therapy approaches and resources need to teach that autistic children might be different, and socialise in different (but not wrong) ways to neurotypical kids. We need to stop sending the message that kids are missing social skills… because they DO have social skills, just different perhaps from neurotypical social skills.
We discuss that boundaries can still apply to autistic kids’ communication & interactions (it’s not OK to hurt others, physically or emotionally!), but we need to pause and think carefully about why we are asking a child to change.
The traditional approach of teaching autistic children that they are wrong, different, and weird in a bad way is not acceptable any more. We talk about the issue with asking children to ‘fit in’.
So what should we do? We should focus on truly seeing neurodivergent children for who they are, what they enjoy, and help them be surrounded by people who appreciate them. We should teach self-awareness. We should teach self-advocacy.
Tune in for these ideas and more!
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📝 Free download for parents of autistic and neurodivergent children – ✅ Checklist: How Neurodiversity Affirming is your Child’s Team?: https://playlearnchat.ck.page/8c5072e2e7
📝 Free download for therapists and parents of autistic and neurodivergent children – ✅ Checklist: Neurodiversity Affirming Social Support Approaches for Autistic Children: https://playlearnchat.ck.page/1fcf4c5759
👩💻 My on-demand webinar ‘Affirming Ways to Support Social & Peer Interactions’ for therapists and therapy assistants: https://courses.playlearnchat.com/offers/2ARTUmfd/
Yellow Ladybugs – Org I mention – https://www.yellowladybugs.com.au/
I CAN Network – Org I mention – https://icannetwork.online/
Podcast Link: https://pod.link/1625478932
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.
In the last episode, we talked about an overview of what Neurodiversity Affirming social skills support looks like for autistic children. We talked about a lot of the ideas underpinning this, and today we’re going to get into the nitty gritty. So I’m going to share some points about what is and what isn’t a Neurodiversity Affi rming approach to supporting social interactions for autistic kids.
So, if you haven’t listened to the previous episode, go back and listen to episode two. It’s going to give you a lot more context for where the ideas of today’s episode are coming from. Broadly, we don’t want to be teaching neurodivergent children that they need to act more neurotypical. So this is it. This is the key point.
Any intervention, any goal, any resource, anything that teaches your child, that the way they act is wrong; the way that they naturally want to interact with other people is wrong; the way that they have conversations is wrong and that they need to change to be more like the other kids… we need to throw that out the window.
I am going to do a little asterisk here and make sure that we’re clear. We are not saying that autistic children get to act however they want.
There are of course boundaries. A Neurodiversity Affirming approach does not mean a permissive approach. There are some universal rules and boundaries that need to apply to everyone. But we have to think really carefully when we’re asking someone to change, we need to pause and step back and think, why are we asking them to change?
Are we asking them to change because they are hitting somebody and that is violating somebody’s personal space and somebody’s ability not to be injured by somebody else. That’s a universal boundary. I think we can all agree. It’s okay to tell people not to hurt other people physically or emotionally. There’s a lot more nuance to it, of course.
So I do want you to recognise that it is okay and important to set boundaries for autistic children.
I think the issue that we come across is that traditionally in schools, in families, in therapy sessions, we’ve all probably said too many boundaries. And some of those have been guided with the WHY of, ‘ well, it’s a bit weird what that child is doing’, or we want them to fit in with the other kids.
That might come from a good place, but it does a huge amount of damage to somebody’s self-concept if they’re always told the ways that they act are are wrong and they need to change to try and look like somebody else. It’s incredibly effortful and it’s very damaging for self-confidence and for longterm mental health outcomes as well.
So let’s start with thinking about what approaches are not good.
Teaching neurodivergent kids, that they are wrong, different and weird in a bad way. And that they should stop doing those things and acting in that way. We don’t want to do that.
We don’t want to teach neurodivergent kids, that they are missing social skills. In the last episode, we talked about the double empathy problem that teaches us. Autistic people have social skills. They just might look different from neurotypical social skills. We need to ensure that we’re seeing the world from both angles where everybody needs to improve perspective-taking. Everybody needs to consider other people and how we interact with them and how they understand us. But it is not just the job of autistic people to make those changes.
We need to be really careful about the term ‘fitting in’, in inverted commas. We cannot be teaching neurodivergent kids that they’d need to change, to fit in with other people, and that’s the way that they’re going to be accepted socially.
So there’s a really key point here. The difference between ‘fitting in’ and being accepted. The fabulous Brené Brown has a quote that I’d love to share with you. It is such an important one that just hits this topic on its head. She says " true belonging. Doesn’t require you to change who you are. It requires you to be who you are."
Let’s just step back for a moment and reflect on yourself and your own life. When have you felt truly accepted, supported, part of something. Who are those people that have made you feel that way? And how much did they celebrate how you are as a human?
‘ Fitting in’ is a dirty word.
‘ Fitting in’ is about asking someone to change, to be like other people. And it just gives the message that somebody is not enough, not good enough. Not correct. Lifetimes of being told this both explicitly and implicitly through other people’s actions, can be incredibly harmful and can lead autistic people to have no idea who they really are, to always feel that interactions are super effortful because all they’re doing is masking their true selves, hiding who they are, acting differently, and to never feel like they’re enough, the way that they are, the way that they exist in the world.
So keeping that idea in mind. I want you to come back to thinking about your own socialising preferences.
Think about your tolerance for socialising? Are you an introvert, an extrovert, an ambivert. Do you love being around other people all the time? Sometimes. Does it make you feel really great and energised? Does it give you a huge amount of exhaustion? Do you like one-on-one catch-ups in a quiet space. Do you like to be doing an activity near somebody and sharing that time and space together?
Do you like going to parties? Do you like having sort of structured dinner parties where you know what to do and what’s expected and who’s going to be there?
Do you like socialising online? Does that help you feel like you can keep more connected with more people? All of these are perfectly valid ways of interacting with the world, with other people.
The key is knowing your own social preferences and then supporting yourself and your life to match your preferences as much as possible.
So let’s flip this back on the kids in our lives. Autistic children in your life, whether it’s your child, your grandchild, a client who you see through therapy, a student in your class.
What do you know about their actual socialising preferences? Sometimes, what we see on the outside may be hiding how they really want to be and act. So you may not always know.
Keep in mind that sensory preferences have a huge impact on this situation. And other things like shared interests, language abilities, being able to speak. So we talked last time about: all communication is okay. So we really want to be accepting all kinds of interacting with other people is acceptable and okay. And speech speaking with mouth words is not better than other ways of communicating.
I think this is a nice time to bring up the idea of parallel play. So we might typically know this as, for example, two kids playing near each other in the sandpit. They’re not directly interacting with each other. They’re just near each other, doing something similar. That’s parallel play.
Parallel play doesn’t just get stuck in early childhood. Many humans and especially many neurodivergent people enjoy parallel play as grownups. For me and my husband, it might look like sitting on the couch, scrolling on our own phones or doing something on our laptops. We’re near each other. We’re doing similar activities, but we’re not directly interacting with each other. That can feel really nice and cozy and supportive.
So I want you to keep thinking about this idea of parallel play as another very valid option for socialising. Is there a way that you perhaps, or your child or a client or a student, enjoys being near other people without directly interacting with them? That is a really valid way of socialising as well.
So I think you’ve got the idea by now that we need to make it really personalised. We need to understand what does a child want from their social life. And then we can meet them there. We can support them to get more of what they want and have less of what they don’t want. And create a life for them that is supportive of their sensory needs. Their emotional needs, their social capacity and preferences.
Other helpful affirming goals are things like building a child’s knowledge about their own interests. Self knowledge is always powerful, valuable, and actually essential. Once they know themself their preferences, what they love then. They can start to find more of that themself, they can start to self advocate and you can advocate for them.
You can start to help them find more of what they need, what they love, what they enjoy in their lives. And they might even be able to play a part in asking for more of that too.
So we want to build their self knowledge around their own interests, around their social capacity, around their sensory preferences and their sensory needs. And once they’ve got that self knowledge, we want to be building the ability for children to self-advocate.
Now something I’ve taught for a long time is that self-advocating can look many different ways. It might look like putting up your hand in class to tell the teacher that you need to go to the bathroom. That’s advocating for yourself and what you need for your body.
It might look like standing up to a bunch of kids who were saying something unkind to you and saying, " I don’t like that".
It might look like going up to another kid, who’s doing something interesting and saying, ‘" "can I join you? That looks fun".
Self-advocating is all about supporting children to be able to seek more of what they want and reduce what they don’t want, or what’s not okay. But it doesn’t only have to be spoken. People can self-advocate simply by walking away from a situation. For many people, it is so hard to speak up to say, "this is not okay". Or "I don’t like what you’re saying to me".
It’s an incredibly challenging dysregulating moment. Even for us grownups, it can be incredibly hard to manage situations where somebody is saying something unkind, bullying, or seriously challenging our thinking.
So I do like to teach kids that if they’re not happy with a situation. Self-advocacy can look like moving away from that situation.
Let’s come back to some other things that we do want to be teaching children. When we’re talking about neurodiversity affirming social support, we want children to learn about different communication, preferences and styles that people have without preferencing that one is right, one is wrong. We’re sharing the idea of difference.
We want to support everyone, not just the child that you’re thinking about. But everyone in their world to improve perspective-taking. We want more people to accept and understand your child’s true self, how they interact, how they like to socialise, how they like to communicate, what they like to communicate about.
It’s so important that what we’re doing is changing the world here. We all need to accept that different ways of communicating are okay.
So the last thing I’m going to share is this idea about helping your autistic child or your autistic client to find their people. What I mean by that is we’ve got a lot of research and lived experience and my clinical experience that shows, when neurodivergent kids have opportunities to interact with other neurodivergent kids.
Life can be a whole lot better.
Interest based groups where kids are sharing something that they already love, and they just happen to be hanging out, doing that thing together or talking about that thing together. That is so powerful.
If your child isn’t finding that kind of support within school. I want you to be thinking outside the box, how can you help them find other people like them who have similar interests who are perhaps neurodivergent like them? That they can spend time with whether that’s in-person or online.
I’m going to share some resources in the show notes for some fabulous organisations that are doing a lot of work to connect autistic and neurodivergent individuals. One organisation I love is Yellow Ladybugs. And another one is the I CAN network both are Australian and if you’re listening from outside Australia, I hope that you can find this in your community. It may not even be in a therapy group or a particular organisation labeled as such. If you start by looking for interest based supports and find ways that your child can do things that they love around their topics of interest.
It’s quite likely that they may find and connect with other people who have a similar deep interest who might also be neurodivergent.
I’d love to hear your big takeaway from today’s session. What idea has challenged you the most? What stuck with you? What’s been most interesting. Please feel free to get in touch on Instagram, Facebook.
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 got a webinar 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, and I hope you do, if this has sparked your interest and curiosity. You are so welcome to access the framework checklist free. Again, I’ll pop the link to that in the show notes.
If you’re a parent of an autistic child, and you’re wondering how can I make sure that my kid’s therapist is near a diversity 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, that if you do find what they’re doing in some aspects is good. And then there are a few aspects of their practice that are not so Neurodiversity Affirming, that 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 a 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. I’m wishing you a splendid day.