Speech Pathology as an industry is constantly evolving. With new research, access to new intervention approaches, and new voices of influence in the industry, we as a professional community are growing. One of the ways in which Speech Pathology has evolved in recent years is the approach to clinical treatment of Autistic people. Neurodiversity-affirming speech therapy is making waves, and today we’d like to share what we’ve learned about this important topic.
What is Neurodiversity Affirming Speech Therapy?
As a parent, caregiver, or adult seeking Speech Therapy in relation to an Autism diagnosis, you may have come across the concept of Neurodiversity.
Neurodiversity is a term coined by the sociologist Dr. Judy Singer to refer to how each person’s brain develops differently, and how these differences impact how each of us thinks, feels, behaves, and perceives the world around us.
Neurodiversity refers to neurological (brain) diversity of all people, but it is often used when discussing Autism. When the concept of Neurodiversity is taken into consideration throughout the Speech Therapy process, it can create a more positive experience for all involved.
Neurodiversity-Affirming approaches influence and impact the way a Speech Therapist views their client and their client’s experiences. For example, when a Speech Therapist is neurodiversity-affirming, they recognize that neurodivergence by itself is not a flaw or illness that needs to be “fixed” or corrected. Instead, the therapy goals that are set and approaches that are used support that neurodivergent individual’s quality of life. Because of this focus, it’s important we note that neurodiversity-affirming Speech Therapists also acknowledge and affirm that neurodivergence can also be disabling. While there is an inherit strengths-based approach in delivering neurodiversity-affirming care, Speech Therapists also acknowledge that there are situations and scenarios where neurodivergent clients may need additional support.
5 Things Neurodiversity-Affirming Speech Therapists Should Do
If you are working with a neurodiverse caseload right now and want to know some practical actions you can take to be more neurodiversity-affirming.
#1: Consider how you write your therapy goals
One of the first things you should do on your journey to neurodiversity-affirming practice is consider how you’ve written therapy goals for neurodiverse clients in the past. Are there certain themes cropping up? Language that’s used? Be kind to yourself (there’s always room to learn and grow!) as you go through this process.
5 Examples of Neurodiversity-Affirming Speech Therapy Goals
Feeling a bit stuck on where to get started with setting Neurodiversity-Affirming speech therapy goals? Here is a helpful video from the Making the Shift podcast.
#2: Change how you approach ‘social skills’ therapy
Social skills therapy has been a commonly used approach for Autistic clients to ‘improve their social skills’ and facilitate better interactions with neurotypical people. Things like encouraging direct eye contact, and certain dynamics of conversation are the goal of many social skill therapy approaches. However, this approach inherently encourages our clients to be like someone else and hide who they are. Instead, it’s much more effective to work on supporting our clients to understand the emotions, behaviours and communication of other people around them so they can better choose how they want to respond.
#3: Celebrate special interests
Autistic clients tend to have special interests (items, topics of conversation) that they love to share with others. Sometimes in speech therapy, we may try to steer our clients away from these special interests to engage in play and conversation in a way that we think is ‘better’. However, this is often at the cost of celebrating these special interests, passions, and personality features of our clients. Instead, it’s worth taking the time to celebrate your client’s interests and passions in the clinic and encouraging their families and caregivers to do the same at home.
#4: Use neurodiversity-affirming language
As Speech Pathologists, we know how important language is and that words hold meaning. A great step you can take to become more neurodiversity-affirming in your Speech Therapy practice (and wider Allied Health clinic team!) is to make some neurodiversity-affirming language swaps.
Below is a helpful graphic with some swaps you can start making in your clinic today!
#5: Consider how you write your speech therapy reports
Similar to the way you review your therapy goals for language and general themes, consider how you’ve written your therapy reports in the past. In particular, take a look at the way you’ve written assessment results and diagnosis reports for neurodiverse clients. Do you need to update your report templates? Are there better ways to share certain information with caregivers and family members?