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How speech therapy benefits neurodivergent people

Defining neurodivergence and autism

Neuro = relating to nerves or the nervous system

Divergent = tending to be different or develop in different directions

Autism = a neurological and developmental disorder that affects how people interact with others, communicate, learn, and behave.

Neurodivergence describes the range of differences in how peoples’ brains work and the behavioral traits that vary as a result. This range is considered part of normal variation in the human population. The term is used especially in the context of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). It can also include dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia and ADHD.

Being neurodivergent means having a brain that works differently. As we learn more about the brain and typical development, society is moving toward a more positive view of these differences. Non-harmful and adaptive autistic traits (such as stimming, limited eye contact, or intense interests) aren’t seen as something that needs to be changed. Certain traits or behaviors that are intrinsically harmful, however (such as self-injury or communication impairments), can be addressed with intervention.

Autism is present throughout a person’s lifetime, and a cause may not be known. Autism can be hereditary. Other possible causes include genetic differences, differences in brain development or in brain function, and exposure to harmful materials or chemicals in the environment. About 1 in 44 children have been identified with autism spectrum disorder, and is about 4 times more common in boys than girls.

Neurodivergent people and people with autism often have sensory issues. The formal term for this is sensory processing disorder (SPD), which is a condition that affects how your brain processes sensory information (stimuli).

Supporting neurodivergence

The neurodiversity affirmation movement believes that neurodiversity isn’t something to be altogether cured, but rather acknowledged and empowered. A neurodiversity-affirming approach can be thought of as modifying the environment and providing supports, instead of expecting people to change who they are.

Speech therapy for neurodivergent people should acknowledge that:

  • First-person Autistic perspectives are a necessary part of evidence-based practice;

  • Therapy plans and goals actively address environmental factors affecting communication abilities;

  • Therapy should be centered around respect for Autistic self-expression and sociality.

For neurodivergent people, speech therapy often focuses heavily on pragmatic (social) language skills. Therapy goals may look similar to these:

  • Self-advocacy and body autonomy

  • Perspective-taking: self, family, therapist, and peers’ perspectives are all valid. Neurotypical and neurodivergent perspectives are equally valid.

  • Acceptance training for neurotypical people

  • Self-regulation and self-awareness

  • Problem solving

  • Recognizing bodily sensations that correlate with internal feelings

  • Figurative language (metaphors, similes, idioms, sarcasm, hyperbole, symbolism)

  • Building upon the individual’s strengths

Sensory integration and processing is also incorporated into speech therapy. Whether a child is over-responsive or under-responsive to sensory input will determine the amount of sensory experiences a therapy session should have. For example, an over-responsive child will likely need a quiet, dim environment with limited movements, no loud/unexpected noises, and calming strategies/objects such as a weighted blanket. An under-responsive child will likely need a sensory-rich environment with gross motor activities (jumping, crashing, rolling) or novel and motivating toys and activities to increase engagement.

References -this site has fantastic resources for therapists, too!

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