How We Can Celebrate Neurodiversity in our Speech and Language Therapy Practice
Neurodiverse affirming speech therapy is an approach to speech therapy that acknowledges and respects the diversity that exist within every person. It is based on the understanding that there is no single "normal" way of thinking, feeling, or communicating, and that everyone has the right to express themselves in the way that is most comfortable and natural for them.
Often in more traditional speech therapy practice, we use assessments that are designed to compares individuals against a 'norm', and use materials are designed to teach children how to act/communicate in a way that is 'neurotypical'.
Neurodiverse affirming speech therapy, on the other hand, seeks to empower clients to communicate in the way that feels best for them, while also helping them to navigate communication challenges that may be impacting their quality of life.
Chris Packham's recent documentary, Inside Our Autistic Minds, is a wonderful exploration of how we can understand what neurodiversity means and understand that everyone exists in this world in their own unique way. Above all, it highlights how detrimental not understanding this can be, as he explores how the pressure of 'masking' ( the practice of concealing or suppressing one's autistic traits or behaviours in order to appear more "neurotypical"), can have on that person's mental health.
As speech and language therapists who work with individuals who are autistic, it is imperative that we re think our therapy approaches and goals for our clients. Below are some strategies that we can use to ensure that we are acknowledging and respecting difference by providing neurodiverse affirming speech and language therapy:
1. Holistic and Person-Centred Therapy:
Listen to and value the individual's perspective of their own communication needs and preferences. Ask them about their goals for therapy and collaborate with them on developing a treatment plan that respects their autonomy.
2. Use a Strengths-Based Approach:
Instead of focusing solely on areas of difficulty, recognise and celebrate the client's strengths. Focusing on strengths can increase self-esteem and confidence, leading to more successful therapy outcomes.
3. Provide Alternative Modes of Communication:
Offer alternative modes of communication, such as assistive technology, visual aids or written word, that can help the individual to express themselves in a way that feels more comfortable and natural to them. Some individuals may be speaking or non-speaking, so we need to aid communication in whatever way is most comfortable for that person.
4. Adapt Communication Styles:
Adapt communication styles to better fit the individual's needs and preferences. For example, some neurodivergent individuals may benefit from more time to process information or from visual supports to aid in understanding. Some individuals may need you to communicate using less language, as too much adds complexity and can overwhelm.
5. Provide Emotional Support:
Validate the individual's experiences with communication challenges and provide emotional support to help them manage communication-related stress and frustration.
6. Encourage Self-Advocacy:
Help the individual develop self-advocacy skills so that they can better communicate their needs and preferences to others in their daily life.
7. Educate Others in Inclusivity:
Foster inclusive attitudes among colleagues, families, and communities by educating them about neurodiversity and the importance of respecting diverse communication styles.
8. Be Mindful of Sensory Needs:
Sensory needs can differ significantly among neurodivergent individuals. As such, it is essential to be mindful of sensory needs and adjust therapy accordingly. For example, some individuals may find certain smells, sounds, or textures overwhelming, and it is essential to adjust the environment accordingly.
These are just some areas that we can adjust and improve on to ensure that we are acknowledging and valuing the diverse ways that autistic people think and communicate.
This is something that I am constantly striving to incorporate into my clinical practice.
If you have any thoughts or experiences to share, I would love to hear from you.