When I first joined Instagram, I posted this self-calming routine:
Here the child asks for a hug, blows the feather, and squeezes the ball, dropping each item into the finished container after using it.
When I cross-posted this to a Facebook group, someone commented, “This would be good except my client doesn’t like hugs.”
Immediately I realized what I had done. I thought I was posting a flexible template. An idea that could inspire other ideas. But people were looking at my Instagram activities as packaged ideas that they should use as-seen-on-Instagram with their real life clients. And this was all wrong.
If we approach our work with a set of cookie-cutter interventions, we will quickly hit a wall. We will find ourselves presenting the same activities to each of our clients regardless of their needs, strengths, interests, and emerging skills. And we’ll find that increasingly we are met with resistance from our clients, and seemingly left to rely more and more on behavioral strategies like rewards, reinforcers, and withholding preferred activities in order to get our kids to participate in therapy.
But it shouldn’t be this way. With the proper toolbox, we can use the ideas we’ve grabbed from Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest in a way that enriches our work and makes it more individualized rather than leading us away from client-centered practice.
Three Strategies You Need to Get Back on Track
1. Informal Assessment. All of us know the therapy process starts with an evaluation, then we write goals, and finally we dive in with our interventions. But many of us are missing the step of truly doing an informal assessment.
Informal assessment is an opportunity to let a child teach us about what they know, what makes sense to them, and what they need to learn. When we learn to slow down, watch, and become skilled observers, even the worst therapy session can lead us to deeper insight.
Since autistic kids think differently, letting them teach us about their learning styles and doing the work to discover their emerging skills is an essential part of the therapy process.
And informal assessment isn’t just a one-time thing. When we let ourselves learn from how our autistic clients respond to our learning activities throughout the therapy process, each session becomes another opportunity to go back to the drawing board and further tailor our activities to the person in front of us.
Our interventions can and should be continually emerging in response to the feedback from our clients to become more individualized for their own unique learning style.
2. A Strengths-Based Approach. All too often we have in our minds and our written reports a catalog of the deficits of our clients. They can’t do this, won’t do that, don’t like this, and run away from that.
But what are their strengths, and how do they learn best? Autism isn’t a cluster of deficits, it is a different learning style, and we must deeply understand it, and the individual child, in order to shape our interventions in a way that will be meaningful and relevant for their lives.
When we develop interventions that start with a child’s strengths, rely on emerging skills, and incorporate their interests, we will find that there is less stress for our clients and more participation in new activities.
3. Respect for Our Clients. One of the most important things I had to learn as a new therapist was that my job wasn’t to make the client meet their goals no matter what. My job was to meet them where they were, respect them for who they were, and team up with them to figure out what they were ready to learn next.
When we approach our clients from a place of respect, we can reduce our reliance on compliance-based approaches like hand-over-hand assistance and the use of reinforcers. We can be a team working together, and a positive force in the client’s development of positive autistic self-identity.
So the next time you find yourself on Instagram looking at treatment ideas, file those ideas away as flexible templates. Ideas that can be individualized and changed based on what you know about your clients and what they teach you on your journey together.
And if you want to learn how I use an autism lens for every step of the therapy process, from informal assessment to developing interventions to teaching flexibility and generalization, check out The Learn Play Thrive Approach to Autism. Enrollment ends on 1/22!