There has been a lot of change (for the better) in the Speech Pathology industry lately, from employment conditions to evidence for different therapy approaches to supporting our clients to value what they have to offer the world, especially if it is different to others. In particular, we’re starting to change the way that those with neurological differences like Autism (ASD and ADHD) are treated clinically. More and more individual clinicians and Speech Pathology practices are adopting a neurodiversity affirming approach to clinical intervention.
It’s something we’re happy to see changing! So today, we’re excited to share the world of neurodiversity affirming practice for Speech Pathologists with you. We’ll explore what neurodiversity is all about, and what taking a neurodiversity affirming approach as a Speech Pathologist looks like.
What is Neurodiversity Affirming Practice?
Neurodiversity affirming practice refers to an approach to clinical practice (in this case, within a Speech Pathology setting) that honours neurodiversity and affirms neurodivergent ways of being including traits and preferences.
The opposite of neurodiversity affirming practice is a clinical approach that treats neurodivergent clients as though they have a problem that needs to be fixed. Rather than seeing the individual as unique, and supporting them to achieve their individual goals, a client is treated by their disorder and potentially given therapy that attempts to alter their behaviour or personality to appear more ‘neurotypical’.
Historically, treatment approaches like ABA – Applied Behavioural Analysis – were used by Speech Pathologists when supporting Autistic clients, especially children. This approach has since been deemed as harmful by autistic people and other, more neurodiversity affirming approaches to behaviour are being implemented in its place.
How Can Speech Pathologists Be More Neurodiversity Affirming?
1: Change your perspective on Autism (and other neurotypes, like ADHD)
One of the first things you’ll want to reflect on as you begin to embrace neurodiversity affirming practice is your perspective on Autism. A lot of what we believe about Autism has been shaped by research that hasn’t considered the perspectives or preferences of neurodivergent people, like Autistic people or even those with other neurotypes like in the case of ADHD.
This perspective of Autism and other neurotypes then goes on to influence the way we talk about it with parents and caregivers, how we conduct assessments, and ultimately how we deliver speech therapy.
Seeing Autism as a disorder, rather than a different neurotype, can be harmful because our focus goes directly to the deficits and shortcomings related to Autism that the individual client is experiencing. We then treat the client as if they have a problem that should (and can) be fixed with therapy, which simply isn’t the case. Autism is caused by a neurological difference, and while there are challenges that come along with it, one of the most common challenges tends to be interacting with people with different neurotypes to them. An attempt to remedy the challenge of not ‘fitting in’ with others is setting communication goals that align with the ‘neurotypical way’ of doing things. An example of this is changing the way our clients communicate with others through sustained eye contact, adhering to certain topics, etc.
2: Value all communication modalities
As Speech Pathologists, we have the professional ability (and responsibility!) to help our clients communicate with the world around them through whatever means is appropriate for them. For some, this may mean focusing on supporting clear and confident verbal speech. For others, this may mean providing tools to support multi-modal communication through the form of an Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) speech generating device, a physical book like a PODD or key word sign. We even encourage the use of a combination of verbal speech and AAC to help our clients have tool belt of communication methods they can use in different situations as preferred by them!
Even though we are all trained in providing both verbal speech therapy and AAC-focused therapy, we can fall into the trap of preferring or favouring the use of verbal speech over assisted communication, or one particular type of AAC over another. This can also be something that we may need to educate families and caregivers on to ensure they are valuing AAC-based communication just as much as they value and celebrate verbal communication.
3: Incorporate self-advocacy goals into your speech therapy
Setting speech therapy goals that are neurodiversity affirming should be one of your first ports of call as a Speech Pathologist. If you’re unsure about what areas you might want to consider when planning out your goals and therapy sessions, give self-advocacy a try! Even from a young age, it is helpful to support our Autistic clients in advocating for themselves and their needs in their everyday life.
For example, in sessions you may work with a client on exploring some of the ways they can advocate to get their sensory needs met so that they feel comfortable and emotionally regulated in situations where sensory input is overwhelming. Setting goals that support self-advocacy in speech therapy sessions can result in practical outcomes that allow your client to develop useful accommodations for situations they find tricky and to advocate for accommodations to be made when they need it.
For more information on being a neurodiversity friendly Speech Pathologist, take a look at this review from The Informed SLP.
Moving towards a more neurodiversity affirming approach as a Speech Pathologist won’t happen overnight, but every step you take will greatly benefit your clients and their families.
If you’d like to explore Neurodiversity affirming Practice in more depth and get practical strategies and action steps to become more ND-affirming as an Allied Health professional, join us at our upcoming workshop series with Adina Levy.
We are hosting an in-person workshop in Brisbane on Tuesday 11th April, and an online LIVE workshop on Saturday 15th April – open to all Allied Health professionals.