Interview between Speaker 1 (Meg) and Speaker 2 (Deirdre)
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.
If you’re enjoying this podcast, you’ll love my free 50-minute training, “Autism-Specific Strategies that Transform OT Practice”. In this training, I dive into the places where many OTs are getting autism wrong, why it matters way more than we realize, and four concrete strategies you can start using right away. We even talk in-depth about what we know now about autism learning styles, because when we can shift our perspective and truly consider how autistic kids think and learn, we can start generating more meaningful and effective interventions to help our clients find more joy, independence, connection, and acceptance in their lives. Visit learnplaythrive.com/masterclass to start learning right away.
Welcome to Episode 8! I am thrilled to share with you my interview with Deirdre Azzopardi. Deirdre is an occupational therapist with over 25 years of experience. She has both a bachelor’s degree and a doctoral degree in occupational therapy, as well as a master’s degree in psychology. Deirdre has invested years into continuing education related to social and emotional learning for kids with disabilities. She presents on these topics extensively, and she has has published a peer reviewed continuing education module in OT Today on using cognitive behavioral techniques for kids on the spectrum. You can find Deirdre’s blog, her resources, and details about her upcoming online course on her website, weinsteadofme.com, which I’ll also link to in the show notes at learnplaythrive.com/podcast.
Okay, here is the interview. Deirdre is a school-based therapist, but I know that no matter what setting you work in, there is so much we can learn from Deirdre that will have a positive impact on our work. Hi Deirdre, can you tell us a little bit about the work you do in the schools, and the path that brought you here?
Deirdre: Sure. So I have been working in the schools for many, many years. I started actually working in sort of a hybrid which was really nice, in like a place that sort of did rehab as well as had parts in the schools, and I have also worked in private practice. And, you know, I’ve decided that over the years, that the schools mentioned more — you know, spoke to me more than private practice. I kind of like the idea where it’s an even playing field in the schools, like everybody can access what you’re putting out there. Where private practices are just this small cohort of kids who really have the financial resources to be able to access it.
Then over the last 15 years I’ve been in the same school district and during that time, I started, for myself, working a lot with exercise as a way to help me to regulate my own stress levels as being a parent, and working, and working in special education. And I just realized that when I exercised, I felt so good. And I thought, “Wow, I should just bring this to my work with kids,” and I started really exploring that. That’s what I explored in my doctoral research, how I can use exercise as a tool. And that’s something you can use without clinic, and really to help kids over time, something that is life enhancing. Really thinking about being sort of a preventionist instead of an interventionist. We know this can be something that they can take for the rest of their lives, so I really just loved to bring joyful movement into my work.
And then during that time I started really getting into yoga and meditation, and went and got my yoga certification for adults and also for children. And when I really brought that in, that was really a game changer. It was just super joyful to start to be able to do large groups, whole class groups, see kids in context. Now really see all the ways that I could expand what I was doing instead of sort of these very small areas that are sort of self-prescribed in OT in the schools.
Meg: I am so excited to dive in in this interview to the ways that you use all of these interventions in your work, in the schools, where I know therapists can often feel really stuck and really sort of pigeon-holed into fine motor and handwriting type interventions. Before we go there, tell me what is your role that you play right now in the school system?
Deirdre: Yeah, I work mostly at the preschool level, just on the OT at the preschool. And I also work a little at the middle and the high school. No elementary. And that’s been by design, because one thing that I really never enjoyed was making handwriting pretty. It doesn’t in any way interest me, and I think that came across. I was getting very bored, kind of doing that at school, and I really just didn’t enjoy it, and that’s going to come across with your students. So when I was looking for a job I really did find that I wanted to really look at the preschool. And then they said, “Well, you also need to work with the middle and the high school a little bit.” But honestly, that was great because the kids that I worked with at the middle and the high school, we weren’t working on that kind of stuff.
But it’s nice because — and that’s why the social and emotional has been so important to me. It’s because I have this vantage point of seeing a kid leave at the preschool level, who they are moving still, right. They enjoy movement, it’s fun, and they’re still socially connected. And then I see them at the middle school, and all of a sudden, we have a kid who is lonely, which is heartbreaking. And we have kids who no longer move. They’re so locked into some of the visual stuff, just kids who are kind of pulling themselves away from from the mainstream. So I’ve been so interested in that. Like, what happened in between? What happened in between.
So it’s a nice vantage point to see that. But also over the years I’ve gotten a little bit feisty, and I’ve gone to the superintendent. I’ve done presentations to both and said, “You know what, I want to do other things.” So I developed a mindfulness program where I went to every single kindergarten in the entire district and did a 10-session mindfulness thing to teach them. So different things like that, I kind of have pushed myself because I want to do more. And even though it’s a lot of work, it’s been rewarding, so it’s well worth it.
Meg: I love that one of the things you’re passionate about is how can OTs be more involved in the social and emotional wellbeing of our autistic clients. How do you see this being addressed, or not being addressed, by OTs currently in the schools, and why would you even argue that we are a good fit for taking this on?
Deirdre: Well, I think that first of all we had that background. Like that whole educational background really was holistic, right? We had the mind, and the body, and the spirit. We learned all of those things. And then somehow when we go off into the world, of the OT world, we just pick one. And we stay in this lane and we forget that every time a child has an issue with a movement, just a movement, just that alone, of course there’s going to be emotional impacts from that, or social impacts. All of this relates to each other, we’re not just in one little island.
So I think that OTs really can and should be involved in all of the aspects. And the other thing is, I think that in the school, someone thinks — everyone thinks — that other people are doing this. But what I have found is that when a kid has an autism diagnosis, a lot of times the professionals who do sort of the social emotional work at schools, they kind of leave it to those people who didn’t do the developmental stuff. And so then there’s no one really working on it. You know, there’s no one really working on it.
So as OTs, we’re there. We can help track, and say, “Oh, wow, this kid doesn’t have friends.” And who’s responsible for that? I think that we can get involved in that. I don’t think that— we can’t just leave it to other people, because then I feel like nobody gets involved in it. And then kids are leaving at the high school, I see it all the time, and they’re just so socially disconnected. And again it’s very heartbreaking to see a kid sitting in the cafeteria with a radar around them of ‘Don’t get anywhere near me’. And believe me, everyone stays away.
Meg: I remember when I was working on my first leisure group for adolescents on the spectrum, I came across some research that said that on average, adolescents who are autistic desire to have as many leisure and extracurricular opportunities as their peers, but have so many fewer opportunities. And it sounds like you’re just sort of watching this unfold and saying, “Why can’t we be involved in the social emotional piece earlier, and track it, and intervene there as OTs.” I hear the things that are coming up for school-based OTs in their heads are one, “I don’t know if I know how to do those interventions, what should I be doing?” and two, “But what about IEP goals?” So I want to talk about both of those things. Let’s start by going through some of the specific interventions that you recommend and love using, and then we’ll talk about how this works within the framework of IEP goals and scope of practice in schools. So one of the first interventions you recommended was exercise. Talk a little bit more about that.
Deirdre: Okay, so exercise is just a huge fascinating topic that a lot of — I mean, really, OTs don’t talk about enough. When we think about sensory processing, right, and giving kids sensory experiences, I mean, exercise is this great way to get it. We can get vestibular and proprioceptive input right there! It’s in the exercise. But for kids, for autistic kids, often exercise becomes something that is very enjoyable very young, and then as they get older and competition comes in, and they can’t compete with the neurotypical kids, they start to retreat.
And I think what happens also is exercise becomes associated with skill development. And I think we should take all of that out. Make the exercises simpler exercises that anybody can do, and that are joyful. That we really create the link between joy and movement. And health psychologists will tell you — and they don’t do it enough for the entire world — health psychologists will tell you when you look at the studies, nobody exercises because somebody tells them it’s good for them. That is not why people exercise over time. Over time, the only way to get anyone to do anything, is to create a link between joyful and whatever it is. So that is why I use — when I do exercise, I do it with kids. Always with, not for. And a lot of the work I do is about doing things with instead of for, because when you do it with, then you send the message that this is fun. Like, “Look at me, I’m modeling this, I am having so much fun.”
That’s how I started. I would do running groups, I would do dancing things. I would just do silly things and just make it that there’s no ‘have to’. There’s no skill involved in this. I don’t care how you do it. It doesn’t matter. You can self-select, right, because we know a lot of the work that you do, Meg, is about that’s self-determination. Kids really learning what makes sense for them. That’s how I started, you know, doing a lot of the exercise things. And I still just so, so believe in it because we know it gives us right the right chemicals; the right chemicals that help us to have an alert body and feel good, all of those things. We know that kids, autistic kids and adults, the rates of anxiety article are so, so high. It is a huge problem. It can be completely debilitating for people as they get older.
Again, we know it. So what can we do early? We help kids to really get the sense that exercise is a tool, and I can use it all the way through my life to help me to be able to feel good. Things like there’s a lot of studies now on heart rate variability and sleep for children with autism, or autistic children, I’m trying to remember. Old habits die hard. And we know just that exercise and mindfulness practices help with heart rate variability. Heart rate variability just means that it’s when my heart rate goes up, I am able to bring it down. More heart rate variability is good. We should be able to keep our heart rates moving in different directions. For people on the spectrum, often their heart rates are a little elevated, and it stays elevated. It’s a sign of anxiety. So that’s why exercise and mindfulness practices. So, yeah, exercise in whatever way that makes you happy. Again, whatever you love to do is what you do with the students, and model that, and show that to them.
Meg: I love the way you described that because it comes up a lot on the podcast, that we need to shift from a medical model of intervention to a social model of intervention. And you’re not saying, “You have a deficit. Here’s the intervention to address it. Learn it.” You’re saying, “This is something everybody needs. Let’s find how it can be joyful for you and do it together.” And that’s so beautiful, and such a shift from what we often see in clinical OT practice. The other thing that has really surprised me in looking at how OTs tend to practice is the lack of focus on exercise in favor of non-aerobic sensory interventions. Because there’s so much research on the benefits of exercise for everybody in so many ways that are impactful for our autistic clients, but it’s almost like we forget, or we think it’s outside of our scope of practice, or we don’t know how to do it.
And I want to ask you a little bit more about what it looks like. I consulted at a really wonderful boarding school for autistic high school boys, and they went to the gym with a trainer every day, and lifted weights, and worked out, and most of them really loved it. And it was a really practical and sustainable way to introduce exercise. But I know for therapists working in the public schools, they’re either pushing into the classroom, or they’re in some sort of closet, trying to do their interventions. So what does this actually look like for you when you’re working on bringing more exercise into a child’s school day?
Deirdre: Yeah, so I take the first, you know, could be the first 10 minutes, or the first 5 minutes even, it doesn’t have to be the entire session. And we do what we can, where we can. I sometimes take kids outside, we do a quick run, or silly run. We go up and down the stairs. And during it, I announce — I do this all the time — I announce, “Man, I needed that! That was awesome.” Because I mean it. I actually — it comes from an authentic place, because I have just realized that I needed to move and to kind of shake it up. I think a lot of anxiety from talking to, and just knowing ourselves when we get stressed, there’s a sick rabbit we own in our head, and we get stuck there, and movement kind of like shakes all that up and we kind of forget about all of this stuff that we’re doing. Yeah, so anything I can do, I just get out of the little space, or you just do it in a little space. You can run in place, you can do a dance. I mean, I dance every week. I dance a lot. I dance an enormous amount, more than anyone ever thought I would do. Yeah.
Meg: I think one of the things that really draws me to the way you practice is how you think about the ways that you can bring more joy to you in your work while you are bringing more joy and teaching new skills to your clients. I worked in a great public school system for a while but I didn’t feel great being in a school building all day. And when I heard you talk about do a silly dance or a silly run for the first 5 or 10 minutes of the session, it made me smile because I thought, “Man, I would have been so much happier if I had done that, and my kids would have learned more for having taken the time to move their bodies.” Do you do this in a push-in model where you’re going into the classroom and working with the whole class, or just in pull-out sessions?
Deirdre: Both. Yeah, I do push-in for sure, and I really think that OTs have to get a little bit less afraid. And the only way to do it is to pull off the band aid and go just do it. Doing whole class interventions. Just going in and teaching the whole class, and then you get to know the other kids. And it’s really important to know the environment that the students that you’re working on with are in, because then you can have interventions that makes zero sense really for the kids and their actual world. So I definitely do it in the whole class. Like that one particular class every Friday, we start — I used to do the social emotional lesson, it’s 15 minutes. It was part of their actual already-there curriculum. I said to the teacher, “You know, I know you have a million things to do. If before I start my day, can I do the 15 minute lesson, and it’s called ‘Open Circle’.” She’s like, “Sure.”
And we always started with a freeze dance, where everybody got to pick. We would move in a group, and say there was like, I don’t know, 16 kids. We would move in a group and each person got to pick, and we all followed. And kids got to not do it if they don’t want to, they could just say, “Pass”. It was just fun, and everybody got their energy up, and we all knew what was going to happen. And I always picked a kid that wasn’t the ASD kid because I wanted to make sure that they knew what was going to happen, right. You can do that, you can kind of set it up that way. And then I also do it pull-out. I’ve done both.
So a lot of times with autistic kids I love to do things in dyads. Because I think so many autistic kids have adults in their face at all times, it’s just them and an adult. So just one other kid is less overwhelming than having a whole group. One other kid is easier to learn from. And over the years I’ve noticed when kids are making social growth, coming from that place where they’re really internal, and they’re working on their own stuff, and they’re trying to come out and work with other kids, the first thing they do is copy movements. Especially when it’s silly, and fun, and there’s no stakes. And I realized that for myself.
When I started teaching yoga, and this is just — I don’t know why this is, but I started teaching yoga to the whole class, and I would have kids who were non-speaking and with significant motor planning challenges. And what I would say to the teacher aides is, “Listen. I’m putting down the mats, and I’m going to present whatever I’m doing. And I don’t care if they do any of it. The only rule in this entire thing is they can’t get off the mat. That’s it. That’s the rule. Beyond they can’t get off their mat, leave them alone. Do not touch them. It doesn’t matter. They can just spend the entire time staring at me, I don’t care.” And what I found was there’s something called — and I don’t know if you know yoga, but one of the things is called the Sun Salutations. It’s a very, very common thing that’s done in a yoga class, and of course I do a kidified version, it’s not just a straight up Sun Salutation. But at the end of the day, it’s a sequence of movements, and can be very challenging for people with motor planning challenges.
And what we know from adult autistics is that motor planning challenges is one of the big sources of stress. Knowing what I want to do and not being able to do it. And over time, they all get this Sun Salutation on their own, and they love it. They just feel so powerful. They want me to do it more often. It’s kind of like for me, you know, when I first started, I thought it was going to be the most boring part of it. And they’re like, “Let’s do it again! Do it one more time!”, especially when they get it on their own. They just figure it out, and they do it. And so we need to do things repetitively to give people a chance to actually learn it, and then let them figure it out on their own. There’s a really interesting researcher right now out of Rutgers University. Her name is Elizabeth Torres, and she’s looking at micro movements with autistic folks, and what she’s finding is that there is a difference in the way that we move, even if we can’t see it at all.
But what she does, and very similar to what you do, is she creates an environment where they can self-select and learn. The environment helps them to understand what happened by exploration. So exploring with your body helps to give you then the message that, “I do have some control. I can decide on my own and how to learn.” That’s why the body is such an important place to start. This is the thing that we own. And anxiety comes, I think, a lot from not understanding that we own our body, and making this a solid place to learn from.
Meg: There are a lot of really important insights in what you just said. You started by saying that we have this holistic training, and then we sort of lose it and we pick one piece, and we work with kids as if they are just hands; or as if they are just social emotional creatures without bodies; or as if they’re just bodies without a social emotional experience. And the power of bringing back all of those pieces together, even in our role in the schools where we might technically be there for something more specific, that it all is going to be beneficial.
I want to point out two of the other things that you said. One is the fear that OTs have for pushing into the classroom and teaching the whole class. And that fear is real and it matters, and it’s something that we have to be able to look at in the face and work through, and humbly, right, to say, “I’m going to try this. I’m nervous.” You make all of those nice leveling statements to the teacher, you do such an awesome job. I’m not sure that I can do this as well as you, but I’m excited to learn from it, and really take yourself out of this expert role, and down to, “Hey, I’m learning here too. Let me see what I can do.” That when we get over our own feelings that we have to prove our competence to ourselves and others, we can actually find competence. So I like that you identify that. Rip off the band aid. Try teaching the whole class, see how it goes.
And the other thing you said is setting the expectations for the teaching staff in advance about what they do and don’t need to do in terms of sort of forcing compliance. I get a lot of emails and questions on Facebook from people who are like, “I love your position on not moving kids bodies for them and not coercing them to do learning activities. But how can I convince the teachers, the teachers assistants, the aides to do this also?” And you’re describing setting the expectations in advance, not in a way that’s critical or confrontational. Just, “This is what we do for yoga”, and letting them see how it works, and see how effective it is, and maybe inspire that change in what they’re doing when you’re not there. Have you seen any of that carry over into the classroom?
Deirdre: Well, for sure I’ve seen. What’s been amazing is teaching some of the mindfulness techniques. That has been amazing because I have seen that the teachers who really are learning about that, will teach the kids more often, and the kids will start to do it on their own, which is so gratifying. And we’re talking about four year olds doing it on their own, teaching their parents. I think so often, our instructional aides feel like they have to show that they’re doing something. And I think they get uncomfortable. I mean, I really try to get them to come down and do it with us. I mean, that’s like the best, when people will do it with you. But at the very least, then back off. If you don’t want to do it with us, then back off. Yeah, but I will look; I will look and question, Meg Proctor.
Meg: Yeah, who knows, it’s an exciting possibility. It at least opens that door for that change. That, “Hey, you’re still working and you’re doing your best work when you’re not talking so much, doing so much, forcing so much.” Let’s talk a little bit more about the mindfulness piece, tell me about how that plays into your role as a school-based OT.
Deirdre: Well, I mean, it’s just so impactful in every way. In every way. And it starts from teaching myself to learn how to be in a more centered place when I enter another child’s space. And the adult autistics, again, have taught us so much about this, that really they are, you know, I consider them antennas for the energy in the room. And so what what do I bring to that? What do I bring to that? I think we’ve so overcomplicated sensory processing, but the truth is for most autistic people — it’s hard for me to come up with anybody that this is not true for — the internal stuff is harder. They don’t necessarily always have access to that. And they don’t necessarily feel like they’re on solid ground a lot. And the external stuff is a little frightening, because they don’t have control over it. We don’t have control over what’s happening on the outside of our bodies. Vision, sight. And it’s raised, there’s a lot of amplitude. Differences in how they process sound, language, all those things. The outside stuff is a little bit raised.
So that if I know that, and I can be empathetic so that when I come into someone’s space, I have to feel really solid. Not bring all of my own stress and all of my own stuff into that, and make the relationship the number one priority of the interaction. And so much of what you’re doing is so important to talk about that, because if I enter into your space, and I don’t have my own agenda, and I enter in really willing to be there with you on your terms, seeing what you’re doing, then already everything kind of gets, you know, calms down a little bit. But then if I use things like very audible breathing, just audible for myself, and just, again, announce. And I do it all the time, and it comes from a very genuine place, you know, just kind of come into a space and I go, “Okay, I just need to take a few, I’m gonna take a few breaths right now. You can join me, you don’t have to join me.” And I just use my body to show it. So, like an inhale, and an exhale.
Meg: Your hands are going up when you’re inhaling, and coming down when you’re exhaling. I can see you, but I think the podcast listeners probably can’t.
Deirdre: Exactly, exactly. When I do that, when I do that, they can see it, and they can choose to then decide if they want to join me. They very, very, very often do join me. And even if they don’t, my energy comes into a place that’s much more compatible with them learning. That comes from you knowing yourself better. I know now, I can feel it, I can feel it; I can walk into a space with a kid and I can feel like their energy is up here. And maybe I’ve had a tough day, and then I’ll say it. I mean, we’re human. You can come in and you can say, “I’ve had a tough morning. I need a minute.” And it’s just, it’s literally like a minute, not even 30 seconds.
You teach that enough, kids will do it on their own, and they enjoy it. I think we have this idea that this stuff is so hard and kids will never enjoy it. And it’s not true. It’s actually not true. In the beginning, it’s hard. It’s hard to teach a kid to sit for a minute and breathe, which is 10 cycles of slow breathing, it’s about a minute. So I do counting breaths a lot. Counting is very soothing, if we understand what’s going to happen. I tell them ahead of time, “We’re going to do 10. We’re going to breathe 10 times. I’m going to count for you. All you have to do is relax. And again, you don’t have to do anything.” A lot of times I have kids just come into like a little turtle, cover their eyes, and we’re gonna do it 10 times, and it’s okay if it’s hard. It’s okay if you think it’s like — but kids will learn how to do it. They learn from each other. And then they start to want to do it. They ask for it.
And what does bringing our play, you know, from a self-regulation point, from an emotional regulation point, when we’re very stressed, and we do deep breathing? I mean, we all know this. We turn off some of those fight or flight chemistry, and we can access learning. And it’s so fast. And it doesn’t only have to be breath, breath is just very available, so it’s nice. It’s again one of those things, like a preventionist thing, to teach kids over time; you always have the breath, you don’t have other things necessarily. So again, it’s just ways to kind of even the playing field for all kids. They don’t have to go to any special place, so they’ve just learned something that’s very life affirming.
Meg: What are some of the things that you like to use other than deep breathing?
Deirdre: Just a minute of listening. Just listening. Stop, listen. And this is a place right for autistic kids. They’re really good at this. I want you to find something that is happening outside that maybe nobody else can hear. Just for a minute, just pay attention to that. And then this is a place where kids can shine. Like, “Oh, I heard a fire truck 10 miles away.” “You heard a fire truck? I didn’t hear a fire truck.” So that’s a great one. Anytime we concentrate on just one of the senses, immediately we have a relaxation response.
There’s a really interesting, very interesting researcher, and I forget where he’s from, but it doesn’t matter. His name is Singh, S-I-N-G-H. He’s doing a lot of research on using mindfulness techniques with autistic folks who are aggressive. And he’s been doing it for quite a while now, and many different techniques. And what he has really — I mean, beautiful research. One of the things he’s taught — and this is one that you can actually work on as well — and it’s just connecting to the body. He taught kids to concentrate on the soles of their feet. So anytime, if I say to you right now, if I say to you, “Meg, think about the soles of your feet,” and you actually just concentrate on that just for a second, you will have a relaxation response. Okay.
And so he taught kids through visuals and through practice. This is about practice. This is not about going in one time, and doing it, and thinking it’s going to work. Practice. Then they started, you know, so they got solid on learning this technique, and then when they started to feel something happening where they were getting anxious, they would just think about the soles of their feet. So it’s an incompatible response to the anxiety. Right. And like the word ‘aggression’, and when that word comes up, right, you start to get, “Ooh, aggression,” right? For even us, being around somebody aggressive, like I’m starting to get up here. But if we think instead of about aggression, instead think, “Oh, wow, scared.” Aggression is scared. I think, always, we have to look at kids with soft eyes.
Right, so we come into a space and you hear the word aggressive and we say, “Nope, not aggressive. Scared.” Scared. That’s a fight or flight reaction. Aggression means that person is scared. But then they learn a way — “Oh, I’m scared. Soles of the feet.” What was great about it is they did the study, and they did it over, say, 12 weeks, and the aggressive incidences went way down. And then a year later they went down even more. They went back and people had no incidents of aggression for a week or two weeks, even further. So the practice of it even made it better for them.
And then he’s done a lot with parents of kids with autism. The parents, if you just work with the parents and do not work with anybody else, just the parents, don’t even work on the kids, the aggression incidences go down, because the parents are in a better place, and they create an environment where there’s more calm and feeling more confident. And again, you have to be in that solid place to help somebody with autism, to feel more comfortable and safe around you.
Meg: I imagine there’s a lot of people in their cars right now driving to work thinking about the soles of their feet and feeling their stress go down. It worked for me. Definitely, when you said it, I immediately did it and was like, “Oh yeah, I’m in my body now.” This approach that you’re using really requires a different way of thinking about yourself as a full person in the space with the child, and about autism learning styles, right. So you’re saying, “I can recognize that being able to experience their sensory world more fully than me is a strength of my autistic kids,” and how can I incorporate that strength into these interventions, and acknowledge it, and celebrate it.
And also letting go of this outdated idea that autistic kids struggle with empathy and can’t read or sense other people’s emotions. Because we hear from so many autistic adults and kids that they have so much empathy, it can be overwhelming. And that they can be so tuned in to other people’s expressions of their emotions, even with how they breathe and how they move, that it can feel threatening. And so I hear you saying we have to recognize ourselves as full people, not just as handwriting teachers at the desk or whatever we’ve felt pigeon-holed into, so that we can have a healthier, more full — a healthier, fuller, and more successful relationship with our clients.
Deirdre: 100%. And when you do that, everything is much more fun for you anyway. Like, you know, when I feel more connected to my students, doesn’t that make me feel more connected to myself? Doesn’t it make work more fun?
Meg: That’s lovely.
Deirdre: It just does.
Meg: Yeah, I love that.
Deirdre: It just does. The mindfulness piece is — I’m getting worried because so many people are using it, but they’re like putting a kid in front of an app. And they’re not really experiencing the fullness of that for themselves. And anybody can really work on this, and in very simple ways, and you will just feel more connected to your students. I don’t know if there’s anything better. I mean, the best thing in the world is connecting to an autistic kid. Really, I mean, is there anything better? It’s just so joyful to have a kid who starts out in a place where they’re so in, and then you help to bring them out, and you’re in like a communion with them. I just love that. And when you teach a large group, what’s nice about it is you start to get the idea of like a family. Like, we’re here together. And then you help the other kids, again, not concentrating on the autistic kid, but you have the other kids to see that this child who’s here who may be different, is part of our family. So we’re all in it together.
Meg: All right, let’s speak to those therapists who are in elementary schools, are inundated with handwriting IEP goals, and have back-to-back sessions all day long. How can those therapists also focus on social and emotional learning for their clients?
Deirdre: One thing that you can do, and the research they’ve done in the social and emotional learning world, to start with exercise and end with a mindfulness technique, and keep it very routine-based. Routines are very soothing for people, we know that, what to expect. We start with exercise, so that helps bring us into our body so then we can connect more, we can learn more, we’re more in a place where we can actually learn the lesson. And then we end with a little bit of a mindfulness technique, so that we are in a better transitional place to go on to the next thing. In social and emotional learning, in classrooms like the BETTER Program, what they do is they start the day — they can start with movement, but they start with sort of a check in together, and they end with what they call an ‘optimistic ending’. You know, what’s going to happen, what happened today, what was great.
So you can do like those kind of little techniques at the very end. Taking a few breaths, saying, “What was really nice for you?” I also do a lot of stopping and touching your heart, “Why don’t we stop just for a second. You can close your eyes and just think about someone that you really care about, and let’s send them love right now.” You know, is it mom, is it your dog, I bet they just felt it. And then they go to class. Something very simple like that, it’s a really nice way to bring in some of those social emotional skills and takes, you know — I don’t know how long does it take, just 30 seconds?
Meg: Less. Yeah.
Deirdre: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Meg: All right, you’ve shared so many really good ideas today, and I always ask this at the end of my interviews — if there was just one thing you would like to see OTs do differently, or start doing, what would that one thing be?
Deirdre: That one thing would be to find what makes them light up, do more of it. Very few people know what we do. Don’t tell them, just do what you think will make your life more fun at work, and do more of it! And the kids will always respond by you doing more joyful things at work. So make joy, make it an IEP goal.
Meg: I love that. You’re kind of saying, refuse to be pigeon-holed. That we’re doing this to ourselves, to a large extent.
Deirdre: 1,000,000% we’re doing it to ourselves. You know, we’ve decided that this is the only thing that we can do. I mean, we have this very broad background, who decided that we had to be parenting teachers? That was just on us. And, you know, just do more of what you want. If you love cooking, and it makes you so happy, think of all the things that you can do with cooking in classes with kids. Or if you just love crafts. I’m not one of those people, but there are people who love crafts. Make crafts so interesting, and so joyful, and the kids will respond. Not every kid; you have to look at the kids, right, and you have to know your children, but definitely do more things that make you light up.
Meg: Thank you so much. I love the idea of sparking so much more joy in the work of school-based OTs, and in their clients as well. Tell us a little bit about what you offer on your website, and all the places that we can find you online.
Deirdre: I have a website called weinsteadofme.com, and on there I have a blog, and I’m starting to develop more resources for parents and for other OTs. I do offer professional development, I’m creating an online course, you know, inspired by you, Meg Proctor, to do something. And it’s an online course because I do present in-person mostly. I’m actually doing a conference soon, which I will link to it because I can never remember the name of this conference, it’s really on OTs being more impactful in the inclusion movement, which is very tied to the autistic movement. It’s really a civil rights issue. Anyway, I’m going to be doing that very soon, so that’s on my website, and I will link to it if you want. It’s a $25 conference on the 31st of August. It’s only like an hour and a half, but there’s other great speakers. And, yeah, that’s it. I’m online, I’m on Facebook, kicking and screaming, but I am doing it. I’m on Facebook. First time really actually doing anything with it. Again, inspired by my friend, Meg Proctor, who I just met but is my friend.
Meg: I am. You’re my friend too, and I’m so glad because I really love the work you’re doing. And I will link to all of the resources you just mentioned in the show notes at learnplaythrive.com/podcast, and I can’t wait to see what you do with your website and your online course in the future. Thanks for being here today, Deirdre.
Deirdre: Thank you. Thanks, Meg.
Meg: All right, talk to you soon.
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.