Taking a strengths based approach with occupational therapy for neurodiverse individuals

As an individual who is exploring her own neurodiversity, while practicing as an occupational therapist with children and adults who are neurodiverse, I often reflect a lot on the practices that I use in my work and what we learned in school. I also have the opportunity in my job to be a preceptor to placement students which allows me to reflect on my practice daily.

To be honest, I have had this blog post in my drafts for almost a year because it is something that I am still passionate about, but did not know how to approach in a written document. I originally was inspired to share about my practice as a strengths based therapist when I listened to the podcast below regarding the importance of using a strengths based approach with autistic individuals. Then two weeks ago at my nature program in the city, I facilitated a parent group, where I open the floor for parents to discuss their children, to ask questions, and to find peer support amongst others that share similar experiences. I had planned to discuss what their children were learning in program including emotional regulation, social connections and gross motor/fine motor skills. What I had planned for a 45 minute session, actually took the entire two hours that the children were playing! In this time I was able to share information and education, but more importantly, the parents were able to connect with peers who understand them, and talk about the gaps in their knowledge.

And this is where the inspiration to finish this post finally came from. During our conversation parents were talking about how they were given the diagnosis for their child of autism or ADHD, but they were expected to figure everything else out on their own. One of the frustrated parent exclaimed “ everyone just throws words around without meaning, I was asked to explain my child strengths, and I don’t even know what that means.

I find that this is a very common trend among parents of children who have neurodiverse diagnoses, as they are given the medical information, and expected to do the rest of the work on their own. And one thing that society does not work with often, is a strength based approach.

All of the work that I do, we take a strength based approach with our clients. For us that looks like highlighting the individual as a person, and not only acknowledging their diagnosis, but also getting curious about their strengths and their interests. When I was in occupational therapy school, we talked about assessments and all the important information that you should gather in order to inform your intervention. Once I started working with children, I realized that a big piece that is missing is the question of what are their strengths and their interests. Being able to understand this, we are able to empower our clients to engage in our therapeutic sessions so that they can feel successful. For me this may look like asking a parent or family member what their child’s favourite tv/book/video game characters are, what they love to do, what things they really feel proud about themselves for etc. This allows me to inform my practice not only in an evidence based way but in a collaborative way as I can bring in activities that my client would engage in that work towards the goal.

As a parent, of course you’re not going to be doing therapy with your child on a regular basis, but being able to celebrate successes and recognize your children, strength and interest can open up a window into your child. One of the examples that I used for the parent that I asked about the strengths was when we celebrate the tiny things at my other job. At the end of the day we have a team meeting and we celebrate successes, and I shared with his parents that sometimes our celebrations might be about client who usually doesn’t usually eat lunch and maybe that day they finished their whole sandwich for lunch! This was mind blowing for the family and got the parents really excited! Perhaps if they celebrate their child eating his lunch, he will eat lunch more regularly! It also opened up a beautiful conversation with all of the families about society’s expectations and how we can change our expectations to help our children feel successful, and be motivated to grow.

Before I go any further, something I want to clarify is the idea of changing your expectations. The clients I work with are absolutely incredible. I believe that if they have the proper support and accommodations and are motivated to work towards a big goal, they can achieve amazing things. But in my eyes, society has told parents of children with neurodiversities but if they don’t meet the successes that society has put in place by a certain timeline, that their children are not successful. Friendships is a big ones that I hear a lot about from my parents where doctors and teachers will tell them that they are not playing with other children collaboratively, or that they don’t have a main friend in the classroom and this is a delay/concern. This brings a lot of stress the parents because they think that their child will never make a friend, but in reality, perhaps our children are not ready or don’t have the skills. Often times the children I work with don’t know how to make friendship, or are not motivated to make friendship with the people that are in that one classroom. Or maybe they’re introverted and they need a little more quiet time. So in this case, when I say, change your expectation, I don’t mean, give up on the idea that your child will ever have a friend. What I do mean is celebrating the time that your child does interact with other children, and facilitating more of these opportunities! This may look like enrolling your child in a social activities outside of school, or if you know another family with a child of similar age and interest, perhaps organizing play dates where you and the other parent can facilitate a shared activity.

For myself as a therapist, this looks like celebrating our children strength by setting them up for success. For example, a lot of my children do not fit the mold of someone that would be successful with the McMaster handwriting assessment, so I will use the skills from the assessment. Depending on their interests I may weave the skills into creation of a story book involving characters that I know they love, or playing an imaginative game, where they need to write things out as part of the game. This gives them the opportunity to have fun, and be proud of the work that they do without having the pressure of being in a traditional assessment.

As a parent, this may look different, depending on what your child enjoys, and who they are! Trying to think out of the box to highlight their strengths can be challenging, but very rewarding. If a child is having a hard time with reading or writing at school, perhaps you change the expectation of what they should be reading and look for comic books or picture books about their favourite topic, and put subtitles on their favorite YouTube videos! If you’re working on a task, that may be frustrating, such as getting dressed, or eating certain foods, break up the task into little parts so that they can do some of the stuff they’re really good at and then work on adding one challenging part each time. So, for example, if they can put their socks on by themselves, but can’t put their pants on, get them to put their socks on first and celebrate that success! As they practice with you, you can challenge them to take more of a role with putting on their pants and eventually move towards more independence.

If you are reading this post and thinking, “this is common sense this is literally what I do every day”, congratulations you are living in a strength based way! Perhaps this post is not for you, perhaps you could head to the comments and share some things that you do in a strength based way to support your children or your clients for others to learn! If you are reading this, and feel like this is a new concept, you are not alone! Our world is so focused on the gaps, and what people don’t have, it is not common to celebrate small wins. Our medical system and education system are so curriculum-based and diagnostic that often times we don’t get those positive stories or celebrations, because we are so focused on the person not fitting into a “normal life”.

So similar to other posts of mine where it’s pretty surface level, I hope that this post can get some gears turning in your brain, and hopefully open conversation about a strength based approach to supporting our neurodiverse kids! My life has become very busy lately, but I am hoping that I can also write some more posts about this topic even if it is just sharing some wins from the clients that I see at work to give examples of how we can work from a strength based approach!

Please let me know if this is an interesting or helpful topic as I hope to continue writing in the most beneficial way possible 🙂

Published by maiiflowerr

Pronouns She/Her/they/them. I'm a millennial just trying to make a difference in the world, and create space for people to accept themselves and live their best lives. My fiancee, Sydney, and I are mothers to our two goofy cats, and the queens of creative adventures. I am an Occupational therapist, a dancer and a yoga instructor with a passion for supporting people and creating community.

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