Responsive Relationship Strategies for Building Connection with Autistic Children

Exploring Neurodiversity Podcast – Episode 31

by Adina Levy

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In this episode, I’m super excited to be talking about a topic that is just deeply embedded in my clinical practice, in my worldview and in how I support autistic children in my whole life. And that topic is Responsive relationship strategies for building connection with the autistic children in your life. We’ll be outlining some of the ideas behind what forms responsive relationships. And the opposite, what forms directive relationships and why that can be quite damaging or challenging for your relationship with the autistic kids in your world.

Keep learning with me!

Register for the Communicate and Connect Webinar Series for Professionals who support Neurodivergent Children: https://playlearnchat.com/c-and-cΒ 

The 3 webinars in the series are:

  • Responsive Relationships: Communication Strategies for Professionals to Connect with Neurodivergent Children
  • Collaborative Connections: Coach and Communicate with Carers & Teams of Neurodivergent Children
  • Supportive Spaces: Creating Inclusive and Accessible Environments to Support Neurodivergent Children in their Communities



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Welcome to the Exploring Neurodiversity Podcast for adults who support Neurodivergent children. Whether you’re an allied health professional, medical professional, education professional or a parent of a Neurodivergent child, you are welcome here.

This podcast is recorded on the Aboriginal lands of the Gadigal and Bidjigal people. I acknowledge the traditional owners elders past and present, and I extend my acknowledgement to any Aboriginal first nations people listening in.

I’m Adina from Play. Learn. Chat. I’m an autistic ADHDer, a speech therapist, professional educator speaker, and I also support Neurodivergent Business owners in my other business, neurodivergent Business Coaching and Consulting.

I’m obsessed with creating a world when Neurodivergent people are understood, embraced, supported, and celebrated. A world where we Neurodivergent people can understand ourselves and thrive in a life aligned with our individual strengths, wants and needs.

On the Exploring Neurodiversity Podcast, you’ll get my perspectives and conversations with my Neurodivergent friends. All about how adults can best support Neurodivergent children in our lives.

I bring a Neurodiversity Affirming approach and indeed a human affirming approach to the support that we all provide for Neurodivergent kids in our lives.

Let’s dive in.

Hello friends. I hope you are well, wherever you’re listening from today and whatever state of mind you’re in today, I’m super excited to be talking about a topic that is just deeply embedded in my clinical practice. In my. Worldview and in how I support autistic children in my whole life. And that topic is Responsive relationship strategies for building connection with the autistic children in your life. They might be your children, your clients, your students, your patients, whoever you are listening. If you have autistic children in your life, this is going to be for you. We’ll be outlining some of the ideas behind what forms, responsive relationships. And the opposite, what forms directive relationships and why that can be quite damaging or challenging for your relationship with the autistic kids in your world.

This is a topic that I teach more on in my speechy course, affirming communication for autistic children, but also in my upcoming webinar, responsive relationships. That is for any professional who supports autistic children in any capacity. And it includes speech therapists. It’s different content to my speechy course

In that webinar, I’m sharing communication strategies and relationship based strategies that have an evidence-based behind them. And also bear out in my clinical experience in my relationships and life and experience with autistic kids, as well as. Bringing in my own personal experience as an autistic person having relationships with different people in my life, both as a child and as an adult. So bringing all of that together to share knowledge and insight and professional development with you, I hope you’ll join me. The webinar is live on Monday the 22nd of April, 2024, but it’s something that will be recorded and you’ll be able to catch up any time.

So if you’re listening after that factory, can’t make it on the day. It doesn’t matter. You are so welcome to join. Anytime the link is going to be in the show notes for that. And I do have a special discount for you. Wonderful podcast listeners. So you can get 10% off with the code pod 10. So that’s the digits one zero. All of that info is in the show notes.

So you don’t have to remember in your noggin. I will dive into our strategies right now. And I can’t wait to share with you what I think is some of the most deeply important core of how we connect with autistic children.

As you’re listening, you may well find that you already do a lot of this. And if you’ve noticed that for yourself, that is fabulous. Good. Keep it up. And I want you to kind of nod to yourself and say, yep, this is it. This is a helpful strategy and a helpful way of connecting with and supporting autistic children.

You may also find that I give you a new idea or two. I don’t want you to feel that you have to go away and shake up everything about how you communicate with autistic kids. I hope that you’ll take away one or two ideas of something that you might be able to dial up or do a little bit more or reconsider in your future interactions.

So I’m going to be contrasting responsive relationships with directive relationships. We might think of it a little bit as like the old way being more directive. However you want to think of old, whether that’s old in your previous practice or old, as in kind of old fashioned way of interacting with kids.

Or just all it is something that we all generally as a culture, want to mostly leave in the past. So. An old way of viewing how adults interact with autistic children has been around telling kids what to do and shaping their behavior to form what we believe is more acceptable forms of. What behavior should look like. What this does is it can diminish the experiences of those kids. So when a child actually experiences, for example, sensory dysregulation, perhaps they’re eating their favorite pasta or what is usually their favorite pasta. And suddenly in that moment, it doesn’t taste right to them. Something’s off about it.

Maybe there was a, extra salt in the water. And it just tastes too different for them, or maybe the cooking time was quite different. So for whatever reason, That pasta feels different enough for that child to suddenly not be favorite and not be okay in that moment.

In a directive scenario, the adult in their life might say something like, oh, come on, you love this pasta. Just eat it. That is a directive experience telling that child how they should think and feel and act. And it’s incredibly problematic.

It tells the child that their own experiences are not valid or not to be trusted. And that’s a form of gaslighting, essentially that explains to a child, but their way that they view the world or experience the world, Isn’t correct.

Now as autistic people, we often have challenges reading our body cues and our body signals anyway. And once you layer in a social element of wondering whether what we think our body is experiencing, or our mind is experiencing. Wondering whether that is valid enough for the rest of the world. Double guessing and questioning our own experiences internally. Lay it in with the challenge of experiencing those things in the first place. It is a really, really tough life.

It’s something that I’m still working through unpicking as a late diagnosed autistic person, trying to figure out. Which of my experiences in the world are worth kind of speaking up about, and advocating for myself to try and change something. Which are my experiences are something I should just suck up and deal with and push through.

The neuro-diversity approach really broadly says that my experience and any autistic person and truly anyone’s experience is valid. However they do notice and feel that. But it’s not the message that we’re always giving to kids. And it’s not the message that we always receive ourselves.

So let’s flip it around and let’s look at what responsive relationships look like. I think the two biggest keys here is the idea of listening to children. And when I say listening, I don’t just mean, listen with your ears. I’m sort of thinking, listen with your. Whole mind and body and soul.

Basically being open to perceiving how the children in your life are feeling are acting, what they’re telling you with their actions, with their words, with any way that they’re sharing messages with you, any way that they’re communicating with you.

You often do need to do a lot of interpreting in that, whether we’re talking about an autistic child who can communicate with words to you. Or not, there’s still an element of reading between the lines. So that means that you need to be able to. Have your best guess as to what’s going on for that child and what they’re really thinking, feeling, and maybe wanting to communicate, or maybe. They’re not even aware of their own experience and you need to help them figure out what they’re feeling in the first place. Obviously the closer you are to that child. And the more that you know them, the better guests you’re going to have as to when you’re interpreting their communication.

Now I mentioned earlier, believing children. . So this is one of the core parts of being able to interpret a child’s intentions and thoughts and feelings. You need to be prepared to fully believe that child’s experience is valid for them in that moment.

I’m adding in that moment as a really key point, because for many autistic people, our experience is variable. So even just taking our emotional reactions to a social situation, for example, The very same scenario can trigger very different emotional responses at different points, even in one day or across different days.

And it’s all dependent on what else is going on in that day. Other stresses, sensory experiences, other things on their mind, things that have come up earlier that day. All of these can have a really significant impact on our emotional responses to the very same situation. So that variability is a big part of it. You need to believe that the child’s experience in that moment. Is true for them.

If a child normally loves going to preschool and they normally hop into the car happily and they’re ready to head off to preschool. But one day, one particular moment. There’s a lot of resistance. Instead of pulling out your directive relationship strategies and tell them not to make a fuss or just hop in, it’s fine. Or you love going to preschool?

In that moment. Your job is to listen to the child and to believe them. Believe that for them, something about that situation is really tricky. Something about how their body and brain is feeling. Something about what they’re anticipating is coming up. Something is difficult for them.

And so your next job is to respond with that belief in mind and with your best guess as to what is actually going on for them. When you do this, you’re building that child’s positive. Self-concept their experience that. They are worthy of being believed of being trusted. That their experience can vary from one day, one moment to the next. And that is okay and normal because it is.

And over time, that is what will contribute to their self-advocacy capacity so that they can actually start to ask for more of what they need and more of the support and feel more confident to be able to reach out and. Feel that they’re genuinely worth helping and they’re worth. Having their needs met.

In a more medical setting. What this might look like is if a child is feeling really worried because they’re going to get an injection. That’s pretty normal. I got a little bit worried about them too.

The actual words that you say to the child can make such a huge difference. So in a directive world, you might say to the child, Oh, don’t worry. It doesn’t hurt. Which is again, gaslighting, it’s kind of incorrect. , and telling someone not to worry is. Effective about 0% of the time. As far as I know. And while that might come from a good place, it might come from a place of wanting to take someone’s pain and worry away.

It’s not an effective or supportive or responsive way of speaking to kids. So rather than that, a responsive way of supporting that child. Is to listen. Look, notice, try to figure out how they’re really feeling. You can label that you can normalize that and you can tell them, oh, it looks like you’re feeling a bit worried about that injection. I understand. I get really worried about injections to. Believe the child. Maybe they did really well with the injection last time. But in that very moment, they’re not feeling it. They’re not feeling okay.

And what that might sound like is something like. I understand this is really tricky for you. Just letting somebody know that they’re heard. That you can see them. You can listen to them. You believe them is incredibly powerful. And maybe you can reflect on a time recently, even when somebody has believed you and something that’s felt hard or tricky or or worrying for you. And somebody has said to you, or indicated that they understand that that is your experience.

In a school situation. This might look like one of the big things about schools that was always hard for me is when plans change. So you think, you know how Thursdays go and you think, you know that that’s your sports day. But the sports teacher is sick that day and the plans keep changing and nobody’s telling you what’s going on. And that can be incredibly anxiety inducing for someone like me and for many other autistic kids. In a directive world. An autistic child might be told. Don’t worry. We’ll figure out how the day goes. That’s fine. But it’s not. For that child in that moment, it is not fine.

And if they’re not feeling fine, but you’re telling them that they should be feeling fine. They’re going to have a whole lot of internalized ableism directed at themselves and thinking. Well, I’m not fine enough. I need to hide that. I need to push that down cause I’m supposed to be fine. Everyone tells me it should be fine.

That can lead to a lifetime of masking and hiding your real feelings. And even from yourself, Very very hard. And can seriously contribute to mental health issues and real disconnect from our own emotions and our needs. The responsive relationship version of this.

Again, we’re listening and we’re believing children. So it might sound like. Hey, Jackie, I can hear that. You’re a bit worried about how the day’s going to go and you’re not sure who’s going to be the teacher and that’s making you feel a little bit worried, I think, is that right?

When you believe the child, you are showing them that their experience is part of the normal human range of experiences. It might be a stronger version of it and you may not fully understand it. But you’re showing them that you’re prepared to understand their perspective. I just wish that for everyone. I wish we all understood each other’s perspectives a little more and got a little bit less judgmental. And. List jumping to conclusions about how people feel.

So this is obviously a topic quite close to my heart. And it’s something that I can talk about for hours. I won’t hear on the podcast, but it is something that I’ll share a lot more about in my upcoming webinar, responsive relationships.

That’s part of my communicate and connect webinars series. I’ve already got so many professionals from all different walks of life, joined up for it. And I can’t wait to invite you in as well. So I’ve got therapists, I’ve got a couple of parents have joined and parents are welcome to join. I do speak specifically to professionals, but I’ll never say to a parent you’re not welcome.

It’s just more directly kind of designed for professionals. Including allied health, health, and education professionals. So I teachers childcare educators, I’ll be giving examples that relate to all of your different settings and really actionable practical tips and strategies. For communication strategies, relationship building strategies with the Neurodivergent children in your life.

And it’s just something I can’t wait to share. I am so excited. So we will be talking about autistic children. ADHD is. Dyslexic kids. Kids with mental health challenges. And more broadly kids who have different kinds of brains, whether or not they have a. Diagnosis.

We’re talking about those kids who maybe they act up in class that some of the language that people might use. They’re a little bit odd. They’re a little bit quirky. It’s quite likely that these kids on your neurodivergent in some form, whether or not there’s a diagnosis.

These strategies, as you can probably hear, will relate to helping you connect with any child in your life. But they are just so much more powerful and needed for the Neurodivergent kids in your world, because these are the kids who so often find life a lot harder, and we want to make life easier for them.

We want to make bigger connections. We want to help these kids know. That they are valid and their experiences valid. And okay. I caught my tissue. So head over to the show notes But I will tell you the URL in KCO sitting in front of a computer right now. We have a fabulous memory. Good for you. So where you want to head is play, learn, chat. Dot com slash C hyphen and hyphen C that’s for communicate and connect. But yeah, Lincoln buyer and you’re so welcome to use the discount code pod 10 to get 10% off. And, yeah, I welcome you in, let me know if you have any questions about it, you can find me on Instagram. I’m at play.learn.chat and let’s connect there.

Thank you so much for sharing this space and time with me. Thank you for being open to learning and unlearning and to listening to the perspectives and experiences of Neurodivergent folks.

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I’m πŸ“ @play.Learn.chat. Have a spectacular day!


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