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  • Staci Neustadt

Embracing Neuro-Strengths: A Therapist's Journey to Connect with Autistic Clients

In my early twenties, fresh out of UW-Madison, I embarked on a cross-country move (to get out of the cold WI winters:).  I quickly got a job as a Speech-Language Pathology Assistant and picked up a second job as a habilitation provider.  Little did I know that this journey would profoundly shape my perspective on therapy.

Assigned to work with a family with an autistic son, I vividly remember my supervisor advising me to use a water bottle if the child engaged in stimming or hand flapping. The very thought of controlling a child in such a manner felt unsettling and left my gut and heart aching.

At that moment, I made a conscious decision – I didn't want to be that kind of therapist. Instead, I wanted to connect with the child, to step into his world rather than force him into a neurotypical mold.

Fast forward to 2019, when Susan Golubock, an autistic Occupational Therapist I had worked with before her retirement, reached out to me. She had crafted a program designed to educate therapists on supporting autistic clients in ways that resonated with them. Armed with incredible tools that accentuated their strengths, Susan shared insights into the workings of the autistic brain based on her personal and professional experiences as an Occupational Therapist and Assistive Technology Specialist.

At that moment, it clicked for me – THIS.IS.IT. This program was the solution to empower therapists to support autistic clients authentically without trying to fit them into a "neurotypical" box.

Over the past five years, Susan and I have tirelessly refined the Neuro-Strengths-Based Support for Autism framework. With 16 Occupational Therapists (OTs) and Speech-Language Pathologists (SLPs) participating in our training sessions, the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, with 100% of participants expressing their recommendation.

Working with families using this framework has been transformative. It's not just about educating them on how their child learns; it's about understanding their motivations and connecting with them in a way that makes sense to the child.

Seeing the joy in a client's smile and hearing them say, "Finally, someone who gets me," is a testament to the therapist I aspire to be. Witnessing families share that the framework worked immediately and their child seems happier confirms that we are building connections and giving autistic individuals a voice.

So, I pose a question to fellow therapists – what kind of therapist do you want to be? One who dictates instructions, focuses on deficits, and enforces compliance? Or one who forges genuine connections, where clients can express, "You get me"? 

The choice is clear; for me, it's about embracing the Neuro-Strengths framework and making a real difference in the lives of those I work with.

*Picture Below: CEO of Making Sense of Autism Staci Neustadt, me, 20 years ago:) with her mom. In graduate school, I received an award of excellence for my clinical skills. I loved and still love connecting with those I support.

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