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Connection, Not Compliance

Let's pretend that you're a kid again.

You're bored, so an adult hands you a toy to play with -- a pretend cash register. You like the noise that it makes when you hold the button on the scanner. There are lots of buttons, actually -- ones that make the digital screen light up with numbers, and one that makes the drawer sproing open. You press all of them. It's really satisfying.

Then that adult appears again.

The adult says: Let's play pretend. I'm the customer and you're the cashier. No, you can't open the money drawer, you have to scan my food first. Do it like this. Here, now take my money. Say, Have a nice day!

The adult hands you a printed checklist of all the steps you should be doing to play out this pretend scenario. They ask you, kindly, to stop pressing buttons repeatedly because that's not how you do it.

Now, if you were that would you feel? What would you do?

What Happened Next

Two years ago, I was That Adult.

I'd been seeing an autistic girl, 12 years old, for around nine months. Let's call her Amy. I wanted to help her connect with others, and one of the ways I pursued this goal was through play. I'd noticed that Amy had trouble engaging in cooperative and pretend play. So, thinking that I was helping her, I brought some pretend play sets to our sessions. I showed her how to ring up groceries on a pretend cash register; I modeled the steps to bake pretend cookies or cake. When she continued to have trouble, I thought a visual aid might help. I printed out a checklist.

And what did she do?

She ripped it up.

Now, I'd been a speech therapist for long enough that I wasn't offended or even surprised. I just thought to myself, Okay, that didn't work. Moving on.

But I kept coming back to that moment over the next few days, even years. There was so much more going on there than Amy not liking the checklist. So much more that I was doing wrong.

That day, Amy helped me learn something that would change my entire approach to treatment forever.

Honoring Neurodiversity

Have you heard of neurodiversity?

If you haven't, I strongly encourage you to check out the list of resources at the end of this blog post. There are many people who have dedicated their entire online presence to educating others about neurodiversity, and the best way to learn about it is directly from autistic and other neurodivergent voices. But I'll do my best to summarize here:


refers to the idea that the world is filled with people who look, think, and act differently. The word "neurodiversity" specifically describes how our world is filled with people whose brains work differently. Different, but not wrong or broken. The neurodiversity movement encourages us to acknowledge, respect, and accept these differences as something to celebrate rather than as something to correct.


refers to a person whose brain functions differently than how most people's brains work. Autistic people and people with ADHD, dyslexia, and stuttering are all considered neurodivergent.


refers to the process where neurodivergent people are pressured to hide their natural way of existing in the world through suppressing stims, forcing eye contact, staying in uncomfortable or even painful sensory situations, practicing facial expressions and body language, studying others and rehearsing conversations, and much more. In short, masking is when neurodivergent people are trained to comply with social rules by acting like neurotypical people, thus quashing their differences. Masking is often encouraged by well-meaning individuals, including family members and even trained therapists.

Now that we've reviewed all this, let me ask you this: when I introduced that pretend play checklist to Amy, was I honoring neurodiversity?

If you answered a big, giant, mega-phone amplified NO, then you're on the right track.