crop field under rainbow and cloudy skies at dayime

❤️ The Answer: Reframing, Respectful Connection, and the Presumption of Competence

The notion of Neurodiversity can allow you to embrace your child for who they are, and it can empower you to look for respectful solutions to everyday problems. It can also help you to raise your child to feel empowered and content in their own skin.

Respectfully Connected | Neurodiversity Paradigm Parenting FAQs

The Need

Space without Behaviorism, Segregation, or Ableism

The Answer

Reframing and Respectful Connection

The Feeling

Electric Belonging and Soaring Inclusion

The Learning

Passion-Based, Human-Centered Learning Compatible With Neurodiversity and the Social Model of Disability

Young girl in headphones plugged into a paper book, evoking ear reading and multi-modality learning.

The Gift

We have created a system that has you submit yourself, or your child, to patient hood to access the right to learn differently. The right to learn differently should be a universal human right that’s not mediated by a diagnosis.

❤️ The Answer: Reframing, Respectful Connection, and the Presumption of Competence

Ableism is ingrained in our thought processes due to the very nature of the field of speech-language pathology.

Ableism in Speech-Language Pathology—It is Not Just Autism: Part 1 — Rachel Dorsey: Autistic SLP, LLC

When your kid is DXed as autistic, almost all of the professional advice you get from education and healthcare is steeped in deficit ideology.

The message to parents of the neurodiverse kid is that their child is deficient, and that their job is to fix their child. We are in a sort of remediation industrial complex, where there’s all sorts of services and treatments and interventions to make the square peg fit the round hole. Parents are relentlessly told that that’s their job.

Normal Sucks: Author Jonathan Mooney on How Schools Fail Kids with Learning Differences

The unhealthiness, unhelpfulness, and disconnectedness of this worldview leads some to consult autistic adults. Then, you discover neurodiversity and the social model of disability. And then, maybe, intersectionality, design for real life, and equity literate education. And then you find yourself in the healthier framing of structural ideology that is better for your kid and better for the systems and institutions that you’re now trying to improve.

Fix Injustice, Not Kids

Basic Principles for Equity Literacy

No matter how hard you try square pegs don’t fit in round holes.

Why is that simple fact so hard for the wider world to grasp?

Yes with tools you could round the edges of a square peg. You could take away the edges that don’t suit the round hole, or you could try forcing the peg with a hammer, problem solved?


You are forcing that square peg to be something it’s not, you are causing damage.

Why not accept the square peg and make a square hole?

Square Peg, round hole…. – A Different Neurotribe
I need some air to breathe
I need some space, just leave

Someday they'll see, someday I'll be
Unwanting of somewhere to hide
But for now, I'll take shelter
Deep in the back of my mind

Can it wait? Can't you wait?
'Cause I ain't ready to lay it on the line
I still shake, I still shake, I still shake
From this chill in my spine

Find a way, I found a way
I found a way
To cope with the everyday now
Raise your hands if you understand

--Through and Through

I could disappear into myself and hide in almost still silence. The tugging of my hair betrayed my perpetual anxiety and my yearning to scratch my scalp. In the head beneath the scalp I wanted to scratch and the hair I wanted to pull, a young mind churned: Scratching is not conforming; I must not break the envelope and compromise table readiness; that will rouse them. Hide in compliance. Don’t talk; don’t move; align your body on the auditor at the front of the room. The safe places are your head, books, and libraries. The books are waiting on the other side of compliance.

I sometimes close my eyes to better parse the speech coming at me. I swim in sensory overwhelm. I must pick a firehose. Eyes front preserves the illusion of compliance, so I’ll stop listening. I’m not interested anyway. The books are so much more. The books are waiting. The written word is where my soul abides. This place in which I layover is just where my body resides – an eyes front, knees front, raise your hand to piss layover that I secretly indict. I tell no one.

Within the constant overwhelm is a pilot flame of anxiety, burning always. Anxiety and overwhelm, the torrid pas de deux that belies the silent, almost still compliance. Their dance is steam and froth, resonance foam on the sensory ocean I swim beneath the almost stillness – still but for the tugging of my hair. Don’t disallow me that, but some of them will. Fidgeting is a threat.

CHAMPS and the Compliance Classroom

We need some air to breathe. Reframe.

I used to tell my students that ideology never announces itself as ideology. It naturalizes itself like the air we breath. It doesn’t acknowledge that it is a way of looking at the word; it proceeds as if it is the only way of looking at the world. At its most effective, it renders itself unassailable: just the way things are. Not an opinion, not the result of centuries of implicit and explicit messaging, not a means of upholding a power structure. It just is.

the shame is ours

✊🕸Instead of behaviorism, segregation, and therapies ingrained with ableism, we practice respectful connection.

Instead of intensive speech therapy – we use a wonderful mash-up of communication including AAC, pictures scribbled on notepads, songs, scripts, and lots of patience and time.

Instead of sticker charts and time outs, or behavior therapy – we give hugs, we listen, solve problems together, and understand and respect that neurodivergent children need time to develop some skills

Instead of physical therapy – we climb rocks and trees, take risks with our bodies, are carried all day if we are tired, don’t wear shoes, paint and draw, play with lego and stickers, and eat with our fingers.

Instead of being told to shush, or be still- we stim, and mummies are joyful when they watch us move in beautiful ways.

Respectfully Connected | #HowWeDo Respectful Parenting and Support
  • Be patient. Autistic children are just as sensitive to frustration and disappointment in those around them as non-autistic children, and just like other children, if that frustration and disappointment is coming from caregivers, it’s soul-crushing.
  • Presume competence. Begin any new learning adventure from a point of aspiration rather than deficit. Children know when you don’t believe in them and it affects their progress. Instead, assume they’re capable; they’ll usually surprise you. If you’re concerned, start small and build toward a goal.
  • Meet them at their level. Try to adapt to the issues they’re struggling with, as well as their strengths and special interests. When possible, avoid a one-size-fits all approach to curriculum and activities.
  • Treat challenges as opportunities. Each issue – whether it’s related to impulse control, a learning challenge, or a problem behavior – represents an opportunity for growth and accomplishment. Moreover, when you overcome one issue, you’re building infrastructure to overcome others.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. For many parents, school can be a black box. Send home quick notes about the day’s events. Ask to hear what’s happening at home. Establish communication with people outside the classroom, including at-home therapists, grandparents, babysitters, etc. Encourage parents to come in to observe the classroom. In short, create a continuous feedback loop so all members of the caregiver team are sharing ideas and insights, and reinforcing tactics and strategies.
  • Seek inclusion. This one’s a two-way street: not only do autistic children benefit from exposure to their non-autistic peers, those peers will get an invaluable life lesson in acceptance and neurodiversity. The point is to expose our kids to the world, and to expose the world to our kids.
  • Embrace the obsession. Look for ways to turn an otherwise obsessive interest into a bridge mechanism, a way to connect with your students. Rather than constantly trying to redirect, find ways to incorporate and generalize interests into classroom activities and lessons.
  • Create a calm oasis. Anxiety, sensory overload and focus issues affect many kids (and adults!), but are particularly pronounced in autistic children. By looking for ways to reduce noise, visual clutter and other distracting stimuli, your kids will be less anxious and better able to focus.
  • Let them stim! Some parents want help extinguishing their child’s self-stimulatory behaviors, whether it’s hand-flapping, toe-walking, or any number of other “stimmy” things autistic kids do. Most of this concern comes from a fear of social stigma. Self-stimulatory behaviors, however, are soothing, relaxing, and even joy-inducing. They help kids cope during times of stress or uncertainty. You can help your kids by encouraging parents to understand what these behaviors are and how they help.
  • Encourage play and creativity. Autistic children benefit from imaginative play and creative exercises just like their non-autistic peers, misconceptions aside. I shudder when I think about the schools who focus only on deficits and trying to “fix” our kids without letting them have the fun they so richly deserve. Imaginative play is a social skill, and the kids love it.
A parent’s advice to a teacher of autistic kids

I just want to do what is best for my child. Can this notion of Neurodiversity help me do that?

Yes, absolutely! The notion of Neurodiversity can allow you to embrace your child for who they are, and it can empower you to look for respectful solutions to everyday problems. It can also help you to raise your child to feel empowered and content in their own skin.

Do you think I am ableist? I thought I was helping my child…

Yes, I think you’re ableist. I think most of us are ableist (even if we are ourselves disabled), and because the social climate is ableist, it takes a lot to question ourselves. They way to be respectful is not about being perfect, but we can question our own ableism so as not to let it interfere with our children and their rights.

That is hard for me to hear. I didn’t think I was ableist and it hurts to be told I am.

That’s fair enough. However, if you want to do what is best for your child you will need to move past that in order to begin to shed this ableism from your everyday reactions and choices.

How does it feel to be autistic?

That is really complex and difficult to answer. I cannot explain that in as much depth as would give you a good knowledge of it, however there are so many autistic writers you can look to for guidance on that. If you are asking me to to describe how I experience life, as compared to how you experience life, this is a huge question.

Is there a quick way to understand all this?

No, not really. The hardest part is challenging yourself and dominant social assumptions. It is a long road but the great thing is that you’re already on it. You’ve started; because you’re questioning yourself.

Respectfully Connected | Neurodiversity Paradigm Parenting FAQs

1. Learn from autistic people

2. Tell your child they are autistic

3. Say NO to all things stressful & harmful

4. Slow down your life

5. Support & accommodate sensory needs

6. Value your child’s interests

7. Respect stimming

8. Honour & support all communication

9. Minimise therapy, increase accommodations & supports

10. Explore your own neurocognitive differences

Respectfully Connected | 10 ‘Autism Interventions’ for Families Embracing the Neurodiversity Paradigm

It’s people’s own attitudes that often lie behind alleged ‘autistic behaviour’.

Ann Memmott
Useful research. When parents are calm, their autistic children are more likely to be able to regulate & recover from brain events (meltdown, shutdown). Yep. As I often say, it’s people’s own attitudes that often lie behind alleged ‘autistic behaviour’.

Wouldn’t it be embarrassing if the answer to most autistic ‘behaviour’ was in fact for people to calm down, round us, instead of spending $billions on painful, exhausting and pointless stuff that does nothing but add profits to some companies? Mmm?

Meeting our children where they are doesn’t mean giving up on them. It means seeing them as a whole person, broadening their access to communication, helping them figuring out their unique learning styles, helping them figuring out their sensory profile, and putting accommodations in place. When we work with our children instead of against them, instead of trying to fix them, we end up with happier children. And that is a goal worth striving for.

Meghan Ashburn, I Will Die On This Hill
Empathetic and Respectful Therapy

Image source: Non-ABA Evidence Based Practice | Therapist Neurodiversity Collective

Applying ABA in therapeutic practice is entirely unacceptable to us. Therapist Neurodiversity Collective does things differently:

  • Zero ABA, including positive reinforcement
  • Zero desensitization, tolerance, or extinction targets or approaches
  • Zero neuronormative goals (masking of sensory systems, monotropic interests systems, anxiety)
  • Zero training neurotypical social skills

We are trauma-informed and respectful of sensory systems, diversity in social intelligence, autistic learning styles, including monotropic interest systems.

We take the research framework from developmental and relationship-based therapy models, use our knowledge of client and caregiver perspectives (no goals for masking, eye contact, whole body listening, appearing neurotypical, etc.), and apply our clinical background to implement therapy practices which are respectful, culturally competent, trauma-sensitive and empathetic.

Non-ABA Evidence Based Practice | Therapist Neurodiversity Collective

We presume competence.

We believe that AAC has no prerequisites.

We respect sensory differences.

We respect body autonomy.

Most importantly, we continually learn from our neurodivergent mentors as to what therapy approaches and methodologies are respectful and uphold human rights and self-determination.

Non-ABA Evidence Based Practice | Therapist Neurodiversity Collective

The target of intervention is not autistic children, but their social and physical environments. Autistic children [need to be] supported in families and communities to develop as unique and valued human beings, without conforming to the developmental trajectory of their neurotypical peers.

Briannon Lee

It’s pretty easy to tell if someone finds a therapy helpful or not, regardless of whether they are verbal. How is the person’s mood? Do they find therapy sessions distressing? If it’s the latter, maybe that kind of therapy isn’t the best fit. Being unable to speak and being unable to communicate at all are not the same thing. Listen to your clients, especially the ones who do not speak. They’re the ones who need you to listen the most.

So what kind of therapy is compatible with neurodiversity? The answer is surprisingly simple. Is your therapy designed to improve communication, reduce anxiety and/or redirect harmful behaviors?  That’s not in opposition to the neurodiversity paradigm at all. Neurodiversity does not mean that we want a hall pass to smash windows or bite our fingers until we bleed. It doesn’t mean that we are ignoring the reality of our lives. It doesn’t mean that those of us who are verbal and/or who need fewer supports aren’t thinking about our nonverbal peers. It means understanding, to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., that a riot is the language of the unheard. Listen to us. Please. 


The ways we relate are different. Push for the things your expectations tell you are normal, and you’ll find frustration, disappointment, resentment, maybe even rage and hatred. Approach respectfully, without preconceptions, and with openness to learning new things, and you’ll find a world you could never have imagined.

The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale: Timeless patterns of human limitations
Seadog, a Randimal that combines a dog and a sea lion
Difference is a teacher.

🖼💪Instead of deficit ideology and the pathology paradigm, we reframe.

Reframe these states of being that have been labelled deficiencies or pathologies as human differences.

Normal Sucks: Author Jonathan Mooney on How Schools Fail Kids with Learning Differences

And if having these different viewpoints within my study was important, understanding the perspectives and experiences of autistic children and adults in particular was essential. Time and again I found that issues aired say, by teachers, would be completely reframed when the autistic adults discussed the same points.

Inclusive Education for Autistic Children

Pretty much everything an autistic child does, says, doesn’t do or doesn’t say is pathologised and made into a way to invent a ‘therapy’ for it. It’s actually hell to experience. We should stop doing this and start learning about autism. Thank you for listening.


This small group of autistic pupils from a school in Chile reveal the important insights that can be gained from engaging with children and young people directly on how to facilitate their own educational inclusion (Humphrey & Lewis 2008).

Perspectives on Educational Inclusion from a Small Sample of Autistic Pupils in Santiago, Chile

In politics our frames shape our social policies and the institutions we form to carry out policies. To change our frames is to change all of this. Reframing is social change.

When we successfully reframe public discourse, we change the way the public sees the world. We change what counts as common sense. Because language activates frames, new language is required for new frames. Thinking differently requires speaking differently.

The ALL NEW Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate
Ellarilla, a Randimal that combines an elephant and a gorilla
Difference is not our deficit; it’s our operating system.

Resisting normal requires reframing who and what we call the problem. It wasn’t the ADD or the dyslexia that disabled me. What disabled me were limitations not in myself, but within the environment.

I came to reframe these disorders as social constructs, and the problem wasn’t in me but in the environment. I had hoped that this would be the end of it: if my so-called disabilities were social constructs that weren’t real, then I was normal, wasn’t I? At that point in my life, I still wanted to be normal, because not normal has always been less than, and to claim normal is an attempt to reclaim oneself.

But it doesn’t work that way. This act of reclaiming is really an act of self-negation. Every society has struggled to integrate and accept difference. Social systems have either corrected difference to make it disappear or included, even tolerated, certain types of differences as normal—differences that don’t require changes to the world of the same. Just declaring a love of diversity and renaming certain differences as normal, while the world stays the same, is to tell kids like me that we are all different and then set us loose in a social environment that tells us, compels us to stop being different.

Normal Sucks (p. 159, 165)
You have habits that define your kind
But deny me mine most of the time
And a soul is a soul is a soul

You say that I need to be trained
When I’m only doing what nature demands
And a soul is a soul is a soul

--Dog by Charlie Parr
Human cognitive diversity exists for a reason.

…the ways we have constructed our ideals of human flourishing unduly exclude neurodivergent modes of flourishing.

…minority forms of human flourishing have been blocked from view. In light of this we suggest that a shift toward what’s been called the neurodiversity paradigm (Walker, 2012) will place the possibility of autistic—and perhaps other forms of—flourishing on the map, making them visible and moreover salient through acknowledging that we are a neurologically diverse species. Beyond challenging dominant conceptions of normal functioning as it is standardly taken to (Chapman, 2019a; Singer, 1999; Walker, 2012), our argument will serve the further purpose of showing that neurodiversity also challenges us to radically broaden our conceptions of the good human life.

…given the diversity of preferences that comes with a neurologically diverse species, we should expect there to be a plurality of ways of flourishing within the human species, many of which diverge from species-standard thriving, and some of which may be rendered invisible due to overly restricted conceptions of human flourishing.

We’ve suggested that autistic individuals encounter testimonial injustice, when they claim to be happy or living good lives, and hermeneutical injustice, seen in the exclusion of neurodivergent modes of flourishing. But it is also vital to consider how these forms of injustice combine and interlock in practice. In day-to-day life, prejudiced stereotypes regarding autistic flourishing and wellbeing culminate in autistic individuals encountering a “catch-22”-like framing, whereby the possibility of being both autistic and living a good life is, to varying extents, unthinkable for many.

Neurodiversity, epistemic injustice, and the good human life – Chapman – – Journal of Social Philosophy – Wiley Online Library

We found neurotypical– neurodivergent encounters manifest this double empathy problem, with practitioners displaying limited capacity for neurodivergent intersubjectivity leading to misempathy and lack of relational depth.

This study has demonstrated a need for less focus on remediation and greater focus on shifting practitioner capacity for humanistic relating.

Practitioner experience of the impact of humanistic methods on autism practice : a preliminary study

The ‘double empathy problem’ refers to the mutual incomprehension that occurs between people of different dispositional outlooks and personal conceptual understandings when attempts are made to communicate meaning.

From finding a voice to being understood: exploring the double empathy problem

To be defined as abnormal in society is often conflated with being perceived as ‘pathological’ in some way and to be socially stigmatised, shunned and sanctioned. Then, if there is a breakdown in interaction, or indeed a failed attempt to align toward expressions of meaning, a person who sees their interactions as ‘normal’ and ‘correct’ can denigrate those who act or are perceived as ‘different’ (Tajfeel & Turner, 1979). If one can apply a label on the ‘other’ locating the problem in them, it also resolves the applier of the label’s ‘natural attitude’ of responsibility in their own perceptions and the breach is healed perceptually, but not for the person who has been ‘othered’ (Said, 1978).

A Mismatch of Salience | Pavilion Publishing and Media
I don't want to know
I don't want to know what they're saying about me
I don't want to know
I don't want to show that it devastates me

I'm living somewhere nobody goes to
I'm speaking in a language nobody talks
The window broken, a cold wind blows through
My soul a series of electrical shocks

--Trans Mantra by Ezra Furman

🧠Instead of presuming incompetence, we presume competence.

Presuming competence is nothing less than a Hippocratic oath for educators.

A Q&A about autism with Steve Silberman, author of NeuroTribes

“To not presume competence is to assume that some individuals cannot learn, develop, or participate in the world. Presuming competence is nothing less than a Hippocratic oath for educators.”

Never assume that the ability to speak equals intelligence. There are plenty of autistic people who have trouble speaking but who have glorious creative worlds inside them seeking avenues of expression. Never assume that an autistic person who can’t speak isn’t listening closely to every word you say, or isn’t feeling the emotional impact of your words. I’ve interviewed many autistic people who said they could hear and understand everything around them while people called them “idiots” or described them as “out of it” to their faces. Ultimately, presuming competence is the ability to imagine that the person in front of you is just as human as you are, even if they seem to be very impaired. If you understand that the autistic students in your class are just as complex and nuanced and intensely emotional and hopeful as you are, you’ll do everything in your power to help them lead happier and more engaged lives.

A Q&A about autism with Steve Silberman, author of NeuroTribes

Presuming competence is not an act of kindness.

Presuming competence is not something we do because we are a “good” person.

We do not get to pat ourselves on the back because we have presumed competence. If we believe we deserve a pat on the back and/or acknowledgement, then we are not presuming competence, we are more likely being condescending.

“Presume Competence” – What Does That Mean Exactly? | Emma’s Hope Book
My choice is my own
My body, my own
Opinion is my own
I own it, I own it
I don't want unsolicited advice
I might succeed, I might get in strife
But my choice is my own
My voice, my own
My life is my own
I own it, I own it

I can make my own choices
I ignore all the voices
Life has layers, it's lawless
Ah, stuff ya

--Choices by Amyl and the Sniffers

🌊 Instead of behaviorist control, we pursue self-determination, intrinsic motivation, and flow.

…we have this really uninformative literature, where studies are not measuring harms, they’re not reporting harms, they’re not considering harms broadly enough, that means that we have an interventional literature that is uninformative.

So, examples of the kind of harms that we might see would be, for example, encouraging autistic children to respond to the kind of commands and instructions of others that can lay down behavioral patterns, which are going to impact on autonomy and independence later in life, in terms of autistic people being decision makers and in control of their own kind of destinies.

And of course that could make them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse as well. So if you’re working with someone very, very young and teaching them that their role in life is to listen to the instructions of others and comply with those, that’s gonna potentially have significant harmful effects.

Developing a Top Quality Evidence-Base For Supporting Autistic People and Their Families

…the fact that we have a body of literature that is utterly disregarding even the possibility of harm being caused to autistic children is part of a broader narrative that can feed into the dehumanization of autistic people and that can underlie abusive practices.

Developing a Top Quality Evidence-Base For Supporting Autistic People and Their Families

Self-determination is a key value and outcome targeted in disability policies and human right treaties enacted over the past 30 years. The right to self-determination also continues to be a rallying cry in the self-advocate community.4 For example, the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN) states, ‘‘disability is a natural part of human diversity. Autism is something we are born with, and that shouldn’t be changed. Autistic children should get the support they need to grow up into happy, self-determined autistic adults.’’10 

Second, interventions to promote self-determination have been developed that can support people with disabilities to take steps toward self-directed lives. Such interventions can be personalized based on strengths, interests, and supports. There is the inherent diversity in the autistic community (e.g., ‘‘There is no one way to be autistic’’).11 Understanding each autistic person’s strengths and support needs, from their perspective, must be a focus of self-determination interventions particularly during the transition to adulthood when there are new and changing demands. 

Advancing the Personalization of Assessment and Intervention in Autistic Adolescents and Young Adults by Targeting Self-Determination and Executive Processes | Autism in Adulthood
Because we′re standing in the way of control
We will live our lives

-- Standing In the Way of Control
Gossip – Standing In The Way Of Control

Everyone should have the right to make choices. Some people make choices differently than others. Some people get help from a few friends or family members to make choices. Some people show other people what they have chosen through gestures or actions rather than words. But all people, no matter what disability they have or what support needs they have, can make choices. 

Supported decision-making is an idea about the right to make choices. Everyone needs help to make decisions sometimes. Disabled people might need more help. We might need a lot more help. But, needing help isn’t a good reason to take away someone’s choices. Supported decision making means that even if someone needs a lot of help, they still have the right to make their own choices.

We also have the right to communicate and tell people about the choices we make. We have the right to communicate in whatever way works best for us. Everybody communicates – whether using language, behavior, gestures, facial expressions, sounds, or other means. We have the right to use augmented and alternative communication (AAC) methods, like sign language, communication boards, and iPads. Effective communication is a key part of self-determination!

Self-Determination – Autistic Self Advocacy Network

How do we build learning environments that embrace intrinsic motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose?

The Gift: LD/ADHD Reframed

People need to feel appreciated and safe, to give themselves to an activity; and they need to feel like they are making progress to keep giving themselves to it. To get into The Zone, you need to know you’re getting somewhere, that you’re in the process of mastering a skill – you need ongoing feedback, whether from another person or another source. There is also something uniquely satisfying about working with other people effectively, towards a shared goal; in my experience there is no substitute when it comes to building a community.

Flow states are the pinnacle of intrinsic motivation, where somebody wants to do something for themselves, for the sake of doing it and doing it well.

Flow allows us to recharge, to feel a sense of achievement and satisfaction, and a kind of respite from the often-baffling demands of the school social environment.

Craft, Flow and Cognitive Styles

The first part is in my “native language,” and then the second part provides a translation, or at least an explanation.

But my language is not about designing words or even visual symbols for people to interpret. It is about being in a constant conversation with every aspect of my environment. Reacting physically to all parts of my surroundings.

In My Language

Many people with autism are stressed individuals who find the world a confusing place (Vermeulen, 2013). So how does someone with autism achieve a sense of flow? McDonnell & Milton (2014) have argued that many repetitive activities may achieve a flow state. One obvious area where flow can be achieved is when engaging in special interests. Special interests allow people to become absorbed in an area that gives them specialist knowledge and a sense of achievement. In addition, certain repetitive tasks can help people achieve a flow like state of mind. These tasks can become absorbing and are an important part of people’s lives. The next time you see an individual with autism engaging in a repetitive task (like stacking Lego or playing a computer game), remember that these are not in themselves negative activities, they may well be reducing stress.

If you want to improve your supports to people with autism from a stress perspective, a useful tool is to identify flow states for that person and try to develop a flow plan. Remember, the next time you see a person repeating seemingly meaningless behaviours, do not assume that this is always unpleasant for them – it might be a flow state, and beneficial for reducing stress.

What is ‘flow’?

Flow state is a term coined by Csikszentmihalyi to describe “the experience of complete absorption in the present moment” (Nakamura and Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). It is widely viewed as highly positive and many texts advise readers on how to attain it when performing tasks. Autistic people are sometimes puzzled that flow seems to be regarded as somewhat elusive and difficult to experience, since the common autistic experience of complete engagement with an interest fits the definition of flow well. Thus, it is not hard to find accounts of autistic detailed listening that seem to describe a flow state:

“When I work on my musical projects, I tend to hear the whole score in my head and piece every instrument loop detail where they fit. It relaxes me and makes me extremely aware of what I’m doing to the point that I lose track of time.”

Autistic listening

Embrace the obsession. Special interests are “intimately tied to the well-being of people on the spectrum“. “Special interests have a positive impact on autistic adults and are associated with higher subjective well-being and satisfaction across specific life domains including social contact and leisure.” “In my study, I found that when the autistic children were able to access their intense interests, this brought, on the whole, a range of inclusionary advantages. Research has also shown longer-term benefits too, such as developing expertise, positive career choices and opportunities for personal growth. This underscores how important it is that the education of autistic children is not driven by a sense of their deficits, but by an understanding of their interests and strengths. And that rather than dismissing their interests as ‘obsessive’, we ought to value their perseverance and concentration, qualities we usually admire.” “…the autistic children in my study were turning to their strong interests in times of stress or anxiety. And there has certainly been a lot of research which shows that autistic children and young people find school very stressful. So it might be the case that when this autistic trait is manifested negatively in school, it is a direct result of the stresses that school creates in the first instance.” “[E]nabling autistic children to engage with their strong interests has been found to be predominantly advantageous, rather than deleterious, in school environments.” “Furthermore, longer-term benefits have been associated with the pursuit of intense interests, with relatively few negative effects overall, which in themselves might only occur if autistic people are pressured to reduce or adapt their interests.” “Having intense or “special” interests and a tendency to focus in depth to the exclusion of other inputs, is associated with autistic cognition, sometimes framed as “monotropism”. Despite some drawbacks and negative associations with unwanted repetition, this disposition is linked to a range of educational and longer-term benefits for autistic children.” “Though they come with challenges, enthusiasms often represent the greatest potential for people with autism. What begins as a strong interest or passion can become a way to connect with others with similar interests, a lifelong hobby, or, in many cases, a career.

We’re Autistic. Here’s what we’d like you to know.

Time flows differently when children work together, the older becoming aspirational peers for younger children, no bells demanding that they stop what they are doing to move in short blocks of time from math to reading to science to history in a repetitive daily cycle. Instead, they work on projects that engage them in experiences across content areas and extend time as they see the need.

Timeless Learning: How Imagination, Observation, and Zero-Based Thinking Change Schools

The biggest practical thing to take away from this is the importance of meeting the child, or adult, where they are. This is not an insight unique to the monotropism perspective, but nothing else I’ve seen demonstrates with such clarity why it’s so crucial. Treat interests as something to work with. Recognise what someone’s passionate about and learn how to become part of the attention tunnels which come with monotropic focus, rather than trying to just reach in and pull the person out of the flow states that are so important to us. Never pathologise ‘special interests’, and don’t assume that autistic interests are ‘restricted’  – there are plenty of ways to get us interested in new things, it’s just that they mostly involve taking existing interests and building on them.

Me and Monotropism: A unified theory of autism | The Psychologist

When focused like this an Autistic person can enter a ‘flow state‘ which can bring great joy and satisfaction to the person experiencing it.

However it can make switching between tasks and other transitions difficult.


Monotropism provides a far more comprehensive explanation for autistic cognition than any of its competitors, so it has been good to see it finally starting to get more recognition among psychologists (as in Sue Fletcher-Watson’s keynote talk at the 2018 Autistica conference). In a nutshell, monotropism is the tendency for our interests to pull us in more strongly than most people. It rests on a model of the mind as an ‘interest system’: we are all interested in many things, and our interests help direct our attention. Different interests are salient at different times. In a monotropic mind, fewer interests tend to be aroused at any time, and they attract more of our processing resources, making it harder to deal with things outside of our current attention tunnel.

Me and Monotropism: A unified theory of autism | The Psychologist

Inform spaces with neurodiversity and the social model of disability so that they welcome and include all minds and bodies. Provide quiet spaces for high memory state zone work where students can escape sensory overwhelm, slip into flow states, and enjoy a maker’s schedule.

Classroom UX: Designing for Pluralism

⚡️🦅🌈 The Feeling: Electric Belonging and Soaring Inclusion

How can we cultivate spaces where everyone has that soaring sense of inclusion?

s.e. smith

Continue on to learn about crip space that evokes the electrifying feeling of access intimacy and belonging.