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Understanding Autistic Communication and Recognizing the Importance of Acceptance-based Occupational Therapy

Melanie Shaw

MOT Student

Course Length: 1 contact hour (.1 AOTA CEU)
PRIMARY Presentation Category: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
SECONDARY Presentation Category: General & Professional Issues
Short Abstract:

Learning from an autistic OT student about the value of two-way communication in addressing stigma and misconceptions about autism. This lecture reframes autistic people as a social minority, presenting their thoughts on labels, communication, and therapy in the wake of Patten’s 2022 Slagle lecture.

Full Abstract:

Presented by an autistic occupational therapy student, this lecture will focus on the autistic community as a socially-distinct minority group within the disability community, noting language preferences, acknowledging a history of marginalization, and focusing on the assumptions we as occupational therapy practitioners make about our clients. With this knowledge, we can recognize the need for increased understanding to help bridge the gap between practitioners and the autistic community.

Since the 1990’s, the Neurodiversity Movement has understood conditions like autism as differences to be understood and accommodated for, seeing these disabilities as a normal part of humanity, if disadvantaged because of societal structures. In the past, this mindset was in opposition to medical models, which saw autism as a problem to be fixed or hidden. OTP’s traditionally adhered to this model, but adapting mindsets became more evident with Patten’s Slagle lecture in 2022. OTP’s are coming to a new understanding of autism and neurodiversity, recognizing the importance of identity-first language and the detriments of functioning labels, and rethinking deficit-based models of autism (Patten, 2023). Recent studies on double empathy recognize two-sided communication difficulties between autistic people and neurotypical peers, rather than one-sided deficits (Crompton et al., 2020), and this knowledge changes how we approach autistic people as a community. Our approaches can have tangible impacts on self-esteem for autistic clients, and older practices’ emphasis on behavior over wellbeing are correlated with negative mental health outcomes for this community (Kupferstein, 2018).

In prioritizing effective communication, we will discuss the implications of this shift, and how occupational therapists can apply this knowledge in developing communication strategies and identifying barriers to participation for this community. In addressing this community’s perspectives, we will focus briefly on topics such as behavioral modification and commonly misunderstood autistic behaviors (Sandoval-Norton & Shkedy, 2019). By framing the autistic community as a marginalized social group, we can understand how adverse social stigma contributes to mental health issues for autistic people, as understood within the Minority Stress Model (Botha & Frost, 2020). In learning about the cumulation of this community’s struggles to understand and be understood, we can facilitate acceptance of this community, learning to listen to their voices in practice, research, and teaching. 

This presentation focuses on the importance of strength-based and neurodiversity-affirming OT interventions in the aftermath of Patten’s 2022 Slagle lecture, focusing on the professional issue of contemporary trends and issues in OT practice. This presentation builds foundational knowledge of autism spectrum disorder, and it will include slides with speaking notes as well as time for questions at the end.

Learning Objectives:
  1. Participants will be able to identify language preferences within the autistic community
    2. Participants will be able to identify concepts related to neurodiversity and double empathy to improve clinical practice
    3. Participants will be able to identify the benefits of strength-based OT and identify harmful mindsets when working with autistic clients
Company Affiliated With: Member of AOTA, Graduate student at Idaho State University
Financial Disclosure: N/A
Non-Financial Disclosure e.g. Member of; or, No Non-Financial Disclosures:  Member of AOTA, Grad student at ISU