Interview between Speaker 1 (Meg), Speaker 2 (Michelle), and Speaker 3 (Jane)
Hey, podcast listeners! Meg here. If you’re a professional who listens to this podcast, chances are your work reflects both your values and pro-neurodiversity practices. But if you want to test that theory, I made a free quiz just for you. The Learn, Play, Thrive quiz takes less than two minutes to complete. And after you finish it, you’ll get tons of information about your strengths, your blind spots, and possible next steps. You’ll find the quiz at learnplaythrive.com/quiz. So, give it a shot, see how you do, and maybe learn something new. Now, here’s the episode.
Welcome to the Two Sides of the Spectrum Podcast. A place where we explore research, amplify autistic voices, and change the way we think about autism in life, and in occupational therapy practice. I’m Meg Proctor from learnplaythrive.com.
Meg: Before we get started, a quick note on language. On this podcast, you’ll hear me and many of my guests use identity-affirming language. That means we say, ‘autistic person,’ rather than, ‘person with autism’. What we’re hearing from the majority of autistic adults is that autism is a part of their identity that they don’t need to be separated from. Autism is not a disease, it’s a different way of thinking and learning. Join me in embracing the word ‘autistic’ to help reduce the stigma.
Welcome to Episode 30 with Michelle Neuringer and Jane Sloan. Michelle is mom to two girls, a neurotypical nine-year-old and an autistic six-year-old. Michelle has spent over 20 years designing and building technology products most recently in the health and wellness industry. It’s really interesting to hear her talk about how this has shaped how she approaches understanding and supporting her autistic daughter. So, Michelle says that she learned early on in her career that in order to craft solutions that work, you must first commit to the discovery process and to deeply understanding who you’re serving — their needs, aspirations, and motivations. Michelle has translated this mindset to her autistic daughter’s journey, learning and discovering alongside her daughter, her daughter’s teachers, and her daughter’s therapists.
Jane Sloan is Michelle’s daughter’s teacher. She has a master’s degree in education, she’s a Montessori-certified teacher with two decades of experience in preschool education, special education, and she’s spent the last 10 years supporting autistic children. Jane is so passionate about collaborating with parents and building from the strengths of her autistic students. You will hear this passion and the really positive implications of it throughout the episode. Jane currently works in the core program at Rivendale Montessori Preschool. So, in this episode, we talk about the beautiful collaboration between Michelle and Jane. They came together through quarantine through virtual learning to support Michelle’s autistic daughter, Maya. This episode is full of wisdom that can really transform many of the ways therapists approach our work and the ways we collaborate with parents.
So, we’re actually going to start this episode by introducing you to Maya. Here’s a clip of six-year-old Maya talking with her mom:
Maya: Well, I think in my lesson, I like to lay down with Peppa on the couch. I like to walk.
Michelle: You like to walk? Where do you like to walk?
Maya: In the forest. I now like to walk down there for a minute. And I like to go ice skating and go rafting. And going kids — and going kids pool.
Michelle: Kids pool.
Maya: And I can also do some s’mores.
Michelle: You can make s’mores.
Maya: Or I can go to Hamilton.
Michelle: What do you like to eat at Hamilton’s?
Maya: Well, I like to go Chino’s as well.
Michelle: What d’you get at Chino’s?
Maya: I get some cookies.
Michelle: Do you like to dance?
Maya: I like to dance at school.
Michelle: And what’s your favorite song?
Maya: Lady Gaga.
Maya: And ‘Say So’.
Michelle: Who sings ‘Say So’?
Maya: Um, Doja Cat.
Meg: Okay, that was Maya. Now let me introduce you to her mom, Michelle, and her teacher Jane. I spoke to them in Michelle’s house, and they were actually sitting in the spot where Michelle and Maya had sat so many times to do virtual school with Jane. But today, they were sitting there together. Just to help you tell their voices apart, after I welcome them to the podcast, you’ll hear Michelle talk first. Here’s the interview. Hi, Jane and Michelle! Welcome to the podcast.
Michelle: Hi! It’s good to be here. Thanks for having us.
Meg: Yes, it’s nice to have you here. And we were talking before we started recording that it’s nice to see you sitting together in the same space.
Michelle: It’s very exciting. We’re very cramped into my tiny desk area that I had to create during COVID. But it’s good to be cozy.
Jane: Yeah, it’s nice to be in the same rectangle. Usually, I’m in the other one.
Meg: Well, it was so much fun meeting Maya in the recording of you talking with her, Michelle. Tell us a little bit more about Maya and even how you got that lovely recording of her.
Michelle: Okay, so here’s real talk. This is how we got the recording. So, Maya was on the toilet. She was sitting and she was occupied. And I came by with my laptop, and I previewed her about ‘Me’ story, which is something that we all created together, which was ‘Hi, I’m Maya and I have a sister’, and it’s all from photographs that we’ve been sharing all along around our weekend adventures, and our school adventures, and the foods we like, and everything. So, obviously, things Maya’s super interested in. We went through the ‘About Me’ presentation, and I said, you know, we can do some reading. And so, she read about ‘It’s my chocolate cake’ and ‘It’s my kids pool’. And then I interviewed her and I said, “Hey, who are you and what can you do?” and while she was talking, I was just flipping through the pictures again. She’s like, “I like to dance. And I like to walk, I like to walk in the forest.” So, I was kind of prompting — a little bit of light prompting by kind of having those photos stream. But she enjoyed it, and I think it was a really great result.
So, yes, Maya is the girl in the audio clip. She’s joyful. She loves her family. She loves Peppa Pig. I think that’s how she started her thing. She has this Peppa Pig stuffy where she’s taken all of the stuffing out through a little hole in the nose, and we call her flat Peppa. She’s musical. She loves singing and dancing. She loves making up silly songs. Ever since Maya was very small, even in my belly, she did this very rhythmic kicking — kick, kick, kick, kick, kick, kick, kick, kick — that has evolved over time into what we call the happy dance. Maya is always dancing. She loves travelling. She’s recently discovered bowling and that’s where she is right now with her dad. And this past year, she actually made her first friend, and they really love to play together. So, Maya is — she’s a fantastic, joyful kid and I love learning more about her every day.
Meg: So, I want to circle back to that ‘About Me’ story. You e-mailed it to me when we were preparing for this interview, and I want to describe it a little more because it’s lovely. It is 41 pages long.
Michelle: [Laughs] And growing, Meg.
Meg: [Laughs] Okay, it’s a live document. So, each page has a photograph of her or someone important in her life, one or two sentences about her, and there’s lots of pages like you said that describe things she enjoys, things she’s done; like you said, food she eats and things she experiences in our life. I want to read a few examples: “My family, we like to have fun and be silly,” and then another one with a picture of her on her bike, “I learned to ride a bike. My bike is at grandpa’s house. It’s purple with a white basket and a horn.” We have a picture of her dressed up, “I love to dress up. My favorite dress up costume is Minnie. I like my Minnie dress and my mouse ears.” Lots of things about the playground, things she loves to do with her friends at school, pictures of her working with you, Jane, and stories for trips. “We like to go rafting down the river. I didn’t want to wear the red vest. I had fun in the boat. I want to go again.” Not a single thing in this book is intended to teach her something, tell her to do something, tell her to do something different, change something about who she is or what she does. It tells her a really positive and very true story about herself, who she is, and what she loves.
Jane: Yeah. It’s a celebration, you know, and it’s an ongoing document to celebrate her and her strengths, her can-do’s, her interests. And if you notice too, in the book, what I found so fascinating working with her and Michelle — and really, all of our families, because we did this over Zoom so there were many players here — was that she just kept increasing her language with us, right? You know, it became more detailed, it became more alive. And now we’re doing one in the classroom with a whole bunch of peers about what we can all do by ourselves. And Maya’s words to meet Jane, “Which should I pick?” and I just — I love that she had so many things to pick from that she celebrates about herself.
Michelle: And even the language that she used when she was looking at the ‘About Me’, “I can make s’mores,” right? It didn’t say, “I can make s’mores,” but she was already embodying that these are the things that I can do. And then in terms of just reading stories, like we’ve had a really challenging time. She’s not a kid that I can read a story book to at night, she’ll lose interest or she’ll flip through the pages. But if the story’s about her, she’ll attend to it. She’ll want to read those words; she’ll want to show that book and share it with friends. It becomes something that she really owns. And you could say, “What is she learning from just looking at pictures of herself?” it’s like, well, she’s got the language, and she’s sharing, and she’s connecting. I mean, it does the trick. I don’t even know what’s on Maya’s IEP at this moment, because I know that all of these tools that are so much fun to do that are bringing us all so much joy are doing it or accomplishing it.
Meg: I love that you said they’re bringing you all so much joy too. And kids can tell when we’re joyful in our interactions with them, that you’re genuinely having a good time and enjoying it too. It’s so fundamentally strengths-based. I hear you guys saying the goal was language and attending to books, but you’ve been bedded in it cultivating her positive sense of self-identity as a person, learning about herself, and you really truly started from her strengths. You didn’t say, “She’s having trouble reading books, so let’s do books for 20 minutes a day until she can sit for longer,” you know, you said, “What does she love and how can we start from there?” which is a great starting point for the story.
Okay, Michelle, you sent me this e-mail that is unlike any e-mail I’ve ever gotten. I sometimes get e-mails that’s like, “Hey, you should interview this person for the podcast,” and I’m like, “Oh, that’s helpful. Thank you,” or sometimes people are like, “You should interview me, I sell this product,” and I’m like, “Noted,” but you sent me this email that was like, “Here’s the story of me, and my daughter, and Jane. Here is what I think your listeners could learn from this interview. Here’s the questions you could ask me. Here’s why it’s relevant.” It was amazing.
Michelle: That was so — and even that I was so nervous about it because I’m such a fan of the podcast, your guests are wonderful. They’re so thought provoking. And I said, “You know, I really — I need to figure out my own root cause, my own ‘Why’. Why am I doing this? Why do I want to tell the story?” It’s not just because it’s a good story. And I think it’s because having lived this journey with Maya over the last five, six years, I wish I had something like this as a parent when I was getting started. And that inspired me to actually start doing some writing about, hey, if there’s something that we experienced or some choice that we made, whether in the last year in COVID, or even as we were getting started as we were starting to notice some delays, and that could be worthwhile. And so, thank you for giving us this platform to just take all of our collective learnings and share them. Because in COVID, there’s just this — I got to do something coming out of this. I’m not sure what. There’s too much here for us to just move on and not share. And we are entering a point of transition. Jane has been working with Maya for three years now, and it is coming to an end in two weeks, right? The end of the summer. It is the end because Maya is going to elementary school in the fall, and for the first time, she’s not going to have a one-to-one. She’s not going to have Jane. And so, we’re kind of wrapping up this wonderful time in a bow and hoping that other families, and therapists, and teachers could take something from it. And now we’re going to cry. [Laughs]
Meg: Me too. Okay, before we all start crying, take me to the start of the story. How did it unfold?
Jane: I think we should start at the beginning of when we met.
Michelle: Yeah, yeah. Do you want to start it? Do you want me to start?
Jane: Yeah. I don’t know. Why don’t you start, and I’ll —
Michelle: Sure. We complete each other’s sentences, so.
Jane: We do. We do. We’ll try not to talk over each other so everybody could hear us too. You know, it was interesting. I get a case, and it comes to me, and there’s a phone number. And I said, “All right, let me call this Michelle.” So, I called her, introduced myself. I’m like, “Hi, I’m Maya’s teacher. ‘What is Maya like’? Not anything like, ‘I’ve read her IEP, I’ve read all her evaluations,’ no. She was just like, ‘Tell me about Maya. And can I come over and meet you?'” And this is in 2018. And I came over and just got to know Maya. So, I had some idea because Michelle gave me a list like, number one on the list is Peppa. Not only does she have one, but she has many Peppa’s. So, I went in, and I said, “Hey, Maya. Here I am. I’m Jane. And show me, show me what you like.” We started there, and we started playing with Peppa together. And then Michelle and I got back to talking.
I told her a little bit about how I work, and that I felt that the most important part of learning is learning together as a team, and emphasizing relationships as our primary focus, and building Maya’s relationship and Maya’s sense of who she is. And that I really want to start with all her strengths, that there’s nothing that — it doesn’t matter what her strength is, it doesn’t matter what her can-do list is, if she likes to turn on and off lights. Tell me about it, what she likes to do. Tell me about it so I know. I want to know what drives her, what makes her smile, because, really, when you meet Maya, the first thing you feel is her warmth, her energy, her happiness with her beat, her body, her whole self. And so, we started there together. Then we started in school, I think.
The following week, we went to school, and Michelle said to me, “You know, I have an idea. How about every Friday we meet?” And I’m thinking to myself, “What? Didn’t we just meet the other day, like, I just got her can-do list and all her strengths.” I’m like, okay, and there was a part of me as a teacher that felt a little nervous, I would say. Like, “Oh, my gosh, every Friday? That’s a lot of meetings with a parent, like 30 to 90 minutes, sometimes longer.” And I felt immediately like I had to inform Michelle of what was happening, right? You know, I had to come to the table on Fridays with a video to share, of possible progress, you know. Of course, what teacher doesn’t want to celebrate progress? And I realized early on, oh, my gosh, that’s gonna be an impossible feat, right? Nobody’s gonna have progress every week.
Michelle: I’m sorry that I made you feel that way, because it was completely not my intention.
Jane: Well, it’s, you know, I want to strive to get my own little gold star teacher and be exciting. We want to be great at what we do. This is why we’re in this field as teachers. You want to help, you want to succeed, you want to celebrate your work with a child. But what I learned is our meetings became so much more. They became about sharing. They became about growing can-do lists. There were things that Maya was starting to do at home that she wasn’t doing at school yet. And I’m like, tell me about it. Show me! Show me these videos.
Michelle: There were a lot of — I mean, before we were fully virtual, we were sharing photos and videos on the phone and seeing commonalities. Like, “Oh, yeah. You know what, when I saw that in school, I didn’t know what it was. I thought maybe she was imitating somebody else in the classroom.” It’s like, “Oh, no, no. We watched this movie over the weekend, and she really liked it. And like, that is something that she’s thinking about. So, if she’s going away, you say to her, ‘Are you thinking about Frozen?'” And it became this collaborative root cause analysis problem-solving mode. We were not saying, “Oh, we’re seeing this behavior. How should we extinguish it?” It’s like, “Oh, we’re observing this. Let’s figure out what else is going on in this world, and we together piece together the world,” because she had the school world, I had the home world, and a lot of times, we really finished each other’s sentences because like, “Oh, that’s why that’s happening. Okay, maybe we could do a little bit more of that. Okay, great. Let’s do it.” Very fluid, very flowy.
Jane: It was.
Meg: I want to pause here before we keep going because there was a lot of richness there. So, Jane, you started with this question, “Tell me about Maya.” A lot of people who listen to the podcast are speech language pathologists, occupational therapists, and when we go into our evaluations, there’s usually a first question we’ll ask a parent. And I think that’s a good reminder to us to be aware of what is that first question we’re asking. “Tell me about your child,” and it sounds like Michelle responded with that things she loves, things she can-do list. And I imagine that you had other backup questions in case you got a list of challenges and deficits because I hear you say, “The next thing I did is I said, ‘Show me what you can do'”.
Jane: Well, the funny thing, Meg, is that I didn’t ask her what she couldn’t do. I never started with any challenges for Maya in terms of that. We started with just the can-do, because I thought to build the relationship with Maya, Maya has so much she can do. Does she know what she can do? Does she celebrate that for herself? Does she have an understanding about that? So, that was our starting spot. And sure, I have a list of goals. I think I had like eight goals with five short-term goals, and they were wonderful goals, but they would come. They weren’t going to come without Maya, right.
Meg: So, you started with ‘Who is she? What can she do? What does she love?’, and the other thing you did at the beginning was you talked about the importance of collaboration explicitly, because we have a lot of therapists who are trying to start using the coaching model. And you said that you described early on how that would happen and why it mattered. But then I loved your honesty talking about Michelle saying, “Okay, let’s meet every Friday,” and you needing to de-center yourself from the story, right? That we feel, as therapists often feel, that same anxiety to show that we know what we’re doing, to show that we’re doing something, when that’s not what parents are looking for. They’re not looking for someone to swoop in and do something simple that fixes everything, that parents have tried a million things and nothing’s worked. They’re looking for someone to join in to their lives. And you all are describing that process so beautifully. A lot of it is a mindset shift that starts with what we’re bringing to the table.
Michelle: Yeah, and I’m sure that there are parents that are really tired, and they have tried a lot of things. And somebody is coming into their home, especially in the early years where it is in home therapy, and as much as they academically want to get involved, they need a break. And they said, “Go in the back room and do your magic,” and I think that those — like, that exists as well. Again, we’ve had very, very, very difficult times with Maya as well. But I would say to those parents that if you just focus on just extinguishing behaviors that you see, you’re just robbing your kid and your family from that real exploration and that real sense of self. It might be hard to sort of relinquish control and let that exploration take over. ‘Cause it’s a longer process, right. We’ve been working together for three years. You heard Maya, her can-do list has only grown. But it’s just so much more worthwhile, and we’re just so excited about everything that Maya has been able to do, because she has that strong foundation.
Jane: You know, Meg, you had brought up the word ‘coaching’ a bit ago in the conversation, that we all want to be involved with parent coaching. And I used to — and I think it’s on my bio, right, because I do parent coaching — but I don’t even call it that. When I meet somebody, I’m not here as your parent coach. I’m here as your partner in learning. And I think that that is really the key. Like, if I could redo my bio and still have my degrees next to it, and write ‘Learner, learner’ together, I would put that in.
Michelle: I love that.
Meg: I love that too.
Michelle: They’re really important. One of the things that I felt was a key on how we unlocked Maya’s strengths was that in our meetings together, we came up with, “Well, I think she’s thinking about this. I think she’s thinking about this. Is she thinking about this, Michelle?” and I said, “Well, let’s ask her.” And that became a phrase that we all used.
Jane: And in the beginning, it was really difficult for her to express what she was thinking about. So, we kind of had some great guesses, because we were super sleuths, detectives together, knowing her strengths, her can-do’s, her interests. And we were able to say, “I wonder if you’re thinking about Peppa Pig right now,” and then it had to be about her. It wasn’t even about “Yeah, but you know what, I’m thinking about the math lesson that we’re about to do.” It wasn’t that. It was, “Okay. I want to think about Peppa with you,” and we started there. We eventually got to the point where Maya got to know me. There were three other teachers in the classroom. I was for one-to-one. There were 10 or 12 other children the first year, and the only expectation that we had as Team Maya was that Maya understands who she is, the role that she can participate in as Maya, and gets to know Jane. And through that, it was phenomenal when she finally, towards the end of Year One, wanted to know what I was thinking about, and we shared it.
We took turns and it was through — you know, I know therapists are like, “How do you do it? What do you do?” I mean, I drew pictures. I’m not an artist by any stretch of the imagination. I wouldn’t even have you put it on the podcast. But we drew pictures, and I wrote the words ‘I’m thinking about’, and I believe those are some of the first words Maya was able to read and own; ‘I’m thinking about’. It took a long time but that’s where we are, and the time that we took as detectives diving deeper into understanding the ‘Why? Why is Maya processing things this way? What is happening inside her body and her brain? How can we use these beautiful things that she’s doing, that she’s showing us something really important to communicate?’. We did. We just constantly ‘Why-d’ each other. Why, why, why; and came up with possible solutions. Sometimes they were like, “Yay! Let’s do a round of applause,” and other times they were like, “Yeah, no.”
Michelle: And it’s rubbed off on the family. Like, I realized my dad — so, grandpa, who was in the ‘All About Me’ — he’s also taking this problem-solving approach. He’s like, “You know what I was thinking? When you ask Maya if she wants a waffle and she says she wants two waffle, she wants one for Maya and one for Zoe even though Zoe says that she doesn’t want a waffle? I think Maya’s doing that because she knows that Zoe’s not gonna eat the waffle. So, it means that she’ll get two.” As a grandpa that was — that was amazing, grandpa. And this is, you know, a grandfather that has had — that has umpteenth grandchildren, right? Who’s not asking the questions, “Why can’t she be more like anyone else,” but really saying — taking an active interest to how this person works. Yeah. And it’s just bringing us all closer together.
Meg: I hear you both positioning yourself as learners, and Jane used the word detective, that you are learning about Maya, about how she experiences the world, about what she loves about what she wants to do, rather than positioning yourselves as experts who have come to teach Maya to act in the world the way her peers act, or to learn the things that you want her to learn. You’ve positioned yourself as someone who’s interested in building a relationship. And rather than imposing interventions, Jane, I hear you describing how these new skills and experiences evolved as they were natural, and your relationship was ready for them.
Jane: Yes, that’s correct. Yeah, it really is spot on. You know, I think that what has been tricky is that COVID threw us a whole new — we were on this really great plane, we’re moving along, we’re flying nice and evenly. And then boom! Here we go.
Michelle: Fully remote.
Jane: Fully remote, and the class isn’t up yet. So, I can’t rely on a group sing-a-long, or making playdough with three people, or whatever else we were doing together that was really just starting to emerge and her participating roles in the classroom. And I was like, wow, okay. So, it’s not just me, and Michelle, and Maya on the Zoom. It became me, Michelle, Maya, her husband, her caregiver, her daughter, my husband, my father — who’s living with us — my two kids who were also yelling about WiFi problems and all sorts of stuff. And I thought — I remember looking at Michelle and Michelle looking at me, and we both said, “But we have our Fridays,” we had these times for, what was it, a year and a half?
Jane: We did it a year and a half of every Friday being together, and it went past that because she’d be on weekend adventures and of course, she’d want to share it with me. So, she’d send me a photo or a little video and I’d watch it and send a message back via video to them, but we had that as our foundation.
Michelle: Yeah, it definitely made the transition much easier, even though we had never been on Zoom together so there was some like figuring that out and being like, “No, no, share control. No, no, I can’t hear you,” but we very — I think, on day one, Jane coined it computer school. And we were learning about computer school. And computer school was this really empty hole, like it wasn’t much to learn about computer school because we were designing computer school together. And okay, well, how do we do this? A lot of it was okay, well, you know, what do we have as part of the school schedule that we can bring in? Okay, maybe we have a visual schedule. Let’s create one together so that there’s one at home. When do we do snack? Let’s try to keep snack at the same time. Let’s try to connect it to something that’s normal.
And it was also dealing with everyone’s schedule because I was working full-time, my husband full-time, we had two kids at home. We didn’t have any other carer and we ended up kind of playing around with the schedule. Maybe I’ll do an hour with Jane in the morning, because it’s not like Maya could sit in front of the computer without us, right?
Jane: Well, that’s her can-do list. Her can-do list changed, right? So, all these can-dos, all of a sudden, I’m like, “Oh, my goodness. We have to start a new can-do list. We have to go back.” It’s not a one-way street that we’re on. It’s cyclical.
Michelle: Yeah, we built it around what she could do, and played around with the setting. So, finding her the right chair, or finding her the right background, asking her questions like, “Do you need a crash break? Do you need to be crashed?” and we crashed her on the couch. Or, “Are you hungry for a snack?” and then my husband would come in and he would do the second hour where we — so, how can we learn with Maya around snack? Okay, well, we’ll make it into a counting exercise, you know, “Count out five veggie sticks, Maya, you love veggie sticks.” And then she came to understand that and she was looking for, “How many veggie sticks can I have this morning?” because she knew that. And so, we were just making it up as we went along. We were supporting each other.
Michelle: You know, it wasn’t something that we felt like, “Oh, we have to do this,” it wasn’t — like, I never said, “This sucks. This sucks that I have to be on a Zoom with Maya. I have to be a teacher now.” It was like…
Jane: Well, that’s exactly what happened. But Michelle ended up having my role, right? So, she became the special ed teacher and I became this general ed teacher that was in a rectangle hoping that my lesson was, you know, our lesson together was going to come across and keeping it as Maya’s strengths. What are her interests? And keeping it really real and saying, “Oh, you know, maybe we need to move something over there. I don’t think she’s looking at me. I think she’s looking at herself still. Yep. Yep. She’s not looking at me,” you know?
Michelle: But the things that were the most successful during that time — and again, a lot of these things are now being used in the classroom now that she’s back was, the more we tied it to Maya’s specialized interest, the more we got her attention; the more she was invested, the more words we got, the more attention we got. And it evolved. So, Jane said, “I’m gonna go on Google and find a picture of Kermit the Frog because Maya’s thinking about Kermit, and why don’t you print it out, and we’ll use it. We’ll tell a story of Kermit,” and the amount of — and I got a laminator. Amazon, of course, was our best friend during this time. So, I got a laminator. And we made all of these stories based on Maya’s interest. Peppa Pig, Muppet Babies, My Little Pony, all of that. We all got very, very comfortable with it. And so, that really held Maya’s attention because she knew that it was something that she really loved.
Meg: I hear you all describing such an unusual situation that became so usual, and is so familiar to many listeners of having to go virtual and working with very young children, where we would never choose that given in-person options, and all of the challenges, and some of the can-do’s that get taken away from that, and the additional support that kids need. But also, the opportunities, right, that Michelle, you transformed into the teacher, you had more of an opportunity to learn from Jane. And I hear y’all saying that the foundational pieces that helped you be successful were you had that collaborative relationship in place, and you maintained it, and you were still focused on learning about and building from her strengths, her interests, and what she could do.
Jane: And we were weren’t afraid to fail. We were open to experimenting, we were open to saying, “Well, that’s not working, let’s try something else,” like the Frozen sing-a-long, not gonna cut it, right. And I think that that takes a certain — and this is where I bring it back to sort of what I do in my career — which is it takes a certain amount of maturity to be able to say, “I don’t know all the answers. I’m learning, I’m experimenting, I’m iterating.” I’d imagine that you’ve got some listeners who are earlier on in their career, and potentially afraid to deviate from the book. But I think the beauty of working individually with someone is there’s no book. Like, that openness, that curiosity, that empathy, that co-creation is so much more important than how well you know the material that you were taught, and this is how you are a therapist, this is how you are a teacher.
Meg: You are speaking directly to the imposter syndrome and performance anxiety of so many new therapists or therapists who are new to a setting, where if we have that sort of performance hat on, we have to prove that we know what we’re doing and we can do something, as opposed to that detective hat where like you’re describing, Michelle, our job is to learn from and about a child. If we don’t take risks and do experiments not to ever provoke any negative outcome but just to offer new learning opportunities and see what lands, and see how it lands, and learn from our clients about what they’re interested in and what kinds of supports they need to be successful at new activities, then we are doing very small scope therapy. We’re just staying in our safety zone. Let’s just keep stringing beads, because I know you can do that, even though it doesn’t really matter and have much impact on your life.
I had a mentor earlier in my career who had been an educator for 20 years and a parent of four kids. She had an adult autistic child and she said, “You know, Meg, parents aren’t going to be impressed if you never make a mistake. And they’re also not going to be shocked and surprised if something doesn’t go well. Because they are with their kids day in and day out, and they try things, and they experiment, and they see things land, and see things go badly. And they learn from that.” And when you see that, you can just say, “Oh, wow, is that what you see at home? Is that what usually happens when you try to do X-Y-Z routine? Tell me more about that. Why do you think she left the table when we presented the Frozen sing-a-long? How could we make this work better?” Like, we’re shutting all of those doors to learning when we don’t try new things because we’re so scared of failing. I think people really need to hear that from both of you. Because it’s a big shift for a lot of people.
Jane: It is a big shift. It’s something that I would say in my early, early days of teaching, I was not there. It took time. And then just the fact that our collaboration, that foundation, going into COVID, I was able to really collaborate even deeper. I mean, yes, I do have Ed goals. Yes, I have to write reports. I have to write, you know, progress reports, and notes, and they have to go somewhere. And there’s a responsibility as a therapist, as a teacher, that I have to do these things. But do I have to do them in a way that Maya doesn’t like? Do you think maybe Maya can learn something through her interest and also generalize it to maybe a work material in the classroom? You know, those are the conversations. I wasn’t going to say, “Michelle, please buy a bunch of Unifix cubes. We need to do one-to-one correspondence and counting at home. And make sure they’re different colors so we can do our AB-AB patterning, that’s on her short-term goal number three.” No, no. I would have my snack cut up. And, you know, Michelle used to call it the JetBlue basket of snacks in my house.
Michelle: It does. Like, the snack basket on JetBlue. That’s what she has for her house.
Jane: Because I have all these people in my home eating all day and on Zoom for their school. And so, Nate was like, “All right, I’m gonna get a pineapple.” I’m like, “I’ll get a pineapple. I’ll get some strawberries. Oh, we like strawberries too. Let’s pattern them. Let’s make shish kebabs. Like, let’s make fruit kebabs. Let’s do that,” there’s the goals. And never once did I say, “Oh, my gosh, I see on my calendar, I’ve got to write those progress notes.” I saw them naturally happening because we always stayed with her interests. Her interests are what kept her here. And it became a bigger interest to her. I mean, it was hard with the veggie sticks, she would eat them before she would count them. So, we would count them going into her mouth. But we explored them all in such a natural way that she then said, “Come on, dad, now you make a pattern too,” or, “Come on, dad, let’s change the pattern. Let’s put two pineapples and a strawberry.” I’m like looking at my notes saying, “Oh, yeah, you got to do that too, kiddo,” you know? But that’s your interest. And you’re sharing that with somebody else. How fantastic is that?
Meg: Michelle, so much of what you’re describing is so lovely. How is this different from what you might have experienced with other providers along the way?
Michelle: So, it’s an interesting question. It takes me back to the first time we had a provider in our home when Maya was 21 months. And even back then, I was very curious about this person that’s in our home. Not to spy on them or to guide them, but just to say, “Hey, how can I learn about what you do? How can I help?” But the thing that we didn’t have at the beginning was the big picture. The big picture was still unfolding. We did know as much about Maya’s interests, and her motivations, and the way she saw the world. And we kind of went off on, “Okay, IEP goal number one,” and so she had — I don’t know if I’ve said this, but I just remember that we made a lot of mistakes because we were actually working on inappropriate things, like things where she lacked the foundation. So, she had some crazy IEP goal like, “Will engage in back-and-forth play with a peer.” And so, I partnered with the therapist. I said, “How can we get a typical peer in the session so they can pass a ball back-and-forth?” And knowing what I know now, Maya didn’t even know who she was, who this other person was, let alone be able to relate to a peer.
So, there were definitely some mistakes because we didn’t have that holistic view which came with Jane, where we said, “Okay, let’s really partner on an ongoing basic, holistic view. Who is Maya, ‘All About Me’?” And the other experience I had, I think the only therapist that came to our house, and she only came once because after, I said this is not right. You know, when Maya was diagnosed, she was all of a sudden entitled to 25 hours of ABA. I didn’t feel like that was going to be right for Maya, but I wanted to see for myself, so I had therapists come over. And there was no interest in getting to know Maya, and getting to know the big picture, or asking me questions. It was straight ‘Apple, Apple, Apple, Apple, Apple’ and just watching Maya, her body language in that moment, and knowing how many hours a week we would be getting that, I said, “I’ve been exposed to a better way that just felt more at home.” It felt more right. It felt like I was getting — even if my daughter wasn’t smiling — I just felt like it was just more tailored to her. This isn’t gonna work. And I was able to work with our IEP coordinator to say, is there a way that I can transfer some of these hours to a different methodology? I know I’m not gonna get 25. But 25 is a lot, right? I want some time to go hiking, and to go expose her to bowling, and stuff like that. So, I think I ended up cutting a deal where I could get like maybe 10 to 15 hours with a different approach, where we had someone come to our house and do more of a floor time, more of just listening to Maya, and playing with her toys. And that was just how we used that time.
Meg: So, you said a couple of things that I just wanted to say again, because they’re so important. One of them is that one of the reasons you were successful with Jane and had maybe struggled in the past was because with Jane, you were working on emerging skills, things Maya was ready to learn, and things she was interested in. Whereas before, you might have had therapist do a thing that a lot of us do, which is write goals based on quote-unquote ‘neurotypical developmental milestones’. And we just say, “You are this age, we expect you to do this. I’m going to write a goal on it,” when that is a milestone for a neurotypical child that might not even be a milestone for that neurodivergent child. And it’s also not something that they are ready to learn or are interested in learning. And the other thing you said is that, who cares about all of that? She didn’t have the foundational piece of learning who she was, and what she can do, and having that positive relationship with herself and with the people she was interacting with.
And I think that we need to latch on to some of these lessons. We, as therapists who are listening, that that’s where we are going to feel like we’re good at our jobs too, when we can learn about, and from, and with our client, and what they’re ready to learn and stop failing, because we’re no longer imposing our inappropriate goals or acting off of our imposter syndrome. So, that’s lovely. It’s so nice to hear your perspective on that. And I do have a lot of therapists asked me, “Okay, I’m ready. I want to use this neurodiversity-affirming strengths-based approach. But a lot of the families I work with have been taught a deficits-based approach. And what do I do when I walk into a house or into a school IEP meeting and the parent says, ‘No, actually, I want this.'” Do either of y’all have advice for therapists in those situations?
Jane: I mean, first, I’d say they can contact me or have the parents contact me. I’m happy to have a conversation here. But I think that what I would tell therapists and maybe tell the parents to understand is that before we rush into behaviors, we need to understand who your child is. Once we understand what they can do, the behaviors might take on completely different meanings.
Michelle: To quote Jane, she said something like, “If you only look at the behavior, it’s like never opening the hood if your car breaks down.” My husband also joined in. He’s like, “Yeah, there’s some quote about a fence, like, don’t take down a fence unless you’re sure why it was put up.” So, it’s like if you just treat a behavior without understanding, it can really take away that child’s sense of self, who they are, and you’re in turn limiting the experience of them understanding themselves. But strengths-based is having them develop a sense of self which once, as we say, you do sense of self, and then you can start to deepen relationships with others. So, yeah. And I think that parents get that. They want a sense of self for their children. Yeah, there’s lots of different approaches out there, but I think that would resonate.
Jane: I think, if I would be speaking with therapists about it, I can imagine you walk into somebody’s home and the parents right away are telling you what their kid can’t do, and hoping that you can have their kid do these things. And that is daunting. It’s like, oh, you know, how do you get to the place where what can your kid do? And a lot of that is looking as a therapist, watching in those moments. And if the parent can’t yet come up with a can-do list, come up with your own can-do list that are not based on these goals. And also, don’t be afraid to modify these goals. Make them achievable. There’s nothing worse than goals out there that are not achievable, don’t make sense, actually harm a child, take away from their child and their sense of self. So, those are the really important things. And I would say that collaborating with families is a gift. It’s a freebie. It’s like, whoa, you can go out there and you have a parent. They are the professionals. They are with their child forever.
We have a certain amount of hours, a certain amount on our caseload. And you know what, at the end of the day, we go on to the next child or to the next case, but they don’t. And their goals are important for their child. But to come to a place to sort of, maybe in the beginning, you’re modelling a can-do list for a parent. You’re celebrating that student, that child of yours that you have. There’s so much more to add by using strengths-based learning and the child’s can-do list in your sessions that will take them to places, will also help you and the parent together modify goals, make goals that are achievable. And maybe they’re little teeny goals and teeny steps to get to a bigger one. But taking that time, it’s a lifetime of learning. And it’s not a lifetime of coaching. It’s not a lifetime of keeping your teacher hat on only with information. It is about shared learning, finding the common ground. So, I hope that that’s the takeaway. And again, you know, I would love to be able to speak with anybody too.
Meg: I will put their email addresses in the show notes, everybody, don’t worry. I love these answers. They’re very much starting on sort of neutral ground in some way. That’s not saying, “What you want is not good, what I want is good”. It’s saying, “I think we both want the same thing for your kid.” And we’re seeing something that’s going to resonate to their deeper things that they want for their child, taking it sort of back to what Jen Schonger said about this in Episode 10, is tapping in to the parents’ long-term, big picture goals for their child to love themselves, to feel accepted, to thrive in their life. And you’re talking about one, modelling that with the can-do lists, and creating the can-do lists, and focusing on the can-do list. And two, being explicit that that’s the starting point, and that that’s important. I can’t imagine a parent that wouldn’t want that for their child. It does take some slowing it down which can feel uncomfortable, and that’s okay too. So, there’s a lot of meat and a lot of really important takeaways. Some of these types of conversations, I feel like, are therapy for therapists. Some of us are saying, “Oh, I can let go of so much stress. I just need to shift my own mindset.” But if there was just one thing that each of you hoped therapists listening would take away from this episode, what would that one big takeaway be?
Michelle: Obviously, it’s about, you know, trying to take the time to get that big, holistic picture, and building that sense of self, and working together to combine that. I’m sure Jane will talk more about that. I think the one that we didn’t talk about as much is if you’re not using a child’s specialized interests in your curriculum or in your lesson, like that’s an easy one, right? Go do it. Peppa Pig, Thomas the Train, whatever. It’s not hard. Jane would literally Google an image and have a coloring page, and just having a picture of Peppa on the table got Maya to talk about Peppa and engaged with Peppa. So, use those specialized interests. I remember early on, again, because the goals were written for neurotypicals, ‘Plays with a variety of toys’. So, when Maya was obsessed with Peppa Pig — and she still is — and her first word was ‘Peppa Pig’, I remember having getting the advice to like, put them away, because she needs to play with a variety of toys and just play appropriately with Peppa, right?
But Peppa has been like, we’ve learned things through Peppa. I mean, Peppa is the great, you know, equalizer. Maya was very scared to go to this petting zoo on Sunday. And she was very, very upset. She hadn’t been there before. She didn’t want to go there. She was kicking, and screaming, and pinching, and everything. And then I said, “Look, but there’s a Peppa house”, “Oh, there’s a Peppa house? I want to go see the Peppa house.” It looked nothing like a Peppa house. It was pink, Peppa’s house is yellow. But as soon as we kind of connected it to something that we knew that she loved, she was okay and she went into the petting zoo. So, specialized interests. Use them.
Jane: My biggest takeaway for therapists and parents is keep the relationship in the foreground. You know, take that time to get to know your child or your student. Take the time to celebrate all those can-do’s because they’re there. You know, looking at deficits is really rough. It changes your own mindset as a therapist, it changes your heart as a parent. I am a parent of a child with special needs. And it’s not joyful. As we talked about in the very beginning, Meg, you said, “Children will pick up on our joy about things.” And if we’re celebrating, we start with celebrations of can-do’s and strengths, and their relationship, and who this child is, and helping that child understand their sense of self, and weaving together their interests in the world around them. Then there’s an opportunity as us as teachers and therapists to be part of that, to really have the child be part of the relationship with us.
Meg: That’s lovely. Thank you both. So, I know you’ve said we can reach out to you, we can send parents your way. I’ll link to both of you in the show notes. But tell us what you’re both working on now and where we can find you online.
Michelle: Yeah, so I’m not very active on social media, but I am pretty active on LinkedIn. So, I would kind of push people there because as I do some more writing and sharing, I’ll probably share it there. And if I decide to become more active in a different kind of social media, I will post it there too. So, that’s the place to find me.
Jane: Well, the program that I work for, I think, Meg, you can put a link on there so people can learn more about can-do’s and strengths-based training through what I’ve been doing. And I’m continuing to work there happily for now over 20 years. And that’s where you’ll find me.
Meg: Thank you both so much.
Jane: Thank you.
Michelle: Thank you.
Thanks for listening to the Two Sides of the Spectrum podcast. Visit learnplaythrive.com/podcast for show notes, a transcript of the episode, and more. And if you learned something today, please share the episode with a friend or post it on your social media pages. Join me next time, where we will keep diving deep into autism.