Therapist Neurodiversity Collective


Cite: Roberts, J. (2023, Feb. 16). Not allowed to say, “I can’t”. Therapist Neurodiversity Collective.

“My students are not allowed to say I can’t.” I’m in an IEP meeting for a young neurodivergent student who’s struggling in class. The committee is talking about all the reasons why this student should not be struggling because their standardized cognitive and language scores show that they have the ability. The group’s conclusion is that the problem is escapism behavior. The kid is not doing the work because obviously, they have “motivation issues” (laziness) and just give up too easily (manipulative).  The classroom teacher interjects and says, “I don’t ever allow my students to say ‘I can’t’ in the classroom. They have to try first, and then after they’ve made an effort, they can ask for help. I teach them to say, I can’t do it, yet.”

Everyone else in the room nods and smiles and they think this strategy is fabulous. 

Picture of the backs of students sitting at desks with their hands raised.

Alarm bells go off in my brain and I wrestle with keeping my face neutral, waiting for the opportunity to weigh in when it’s my turn to present the speech therapy goals for this kid’s IEP. I read them out loud one by one. The last goal is to learn to effectively self-advocate. I read it and then say,

“Sometimes a neurodivergent kid really can’t do something. They just can’t. And they know they can’t. And telling them that they aren’t ever allowed to say “I can’t” is a form of gaslighting.” 

Photo of child with curly brown hear, head on desk with face not observable.
Photo of girl with pony tail and read shirt with open book in front of her. Hands covering face.
Photo of young boy with brown hair with head on desk, face turned to side.

I go on to add…

“When we teach neurodivergent and other disabled students to self-advocate in the therapy room and they learn how to do it, and they try it out in the classroom and it’s not effective, we say the therapy isn’t working or the student’s not doing it right. But, it’s not within a student’s control whether the adult responds to the self-advocacy attempt with empathy and action or by shutting down or ignoring it. Everything that happens after a student has made an effort to self-advocate is in the adult’s control. A better way to respond to ‘I can’t do it’ may be to say something along the lines of, ‘I hear you and I understand. Let’s try to figure out what we can do to solve this problem together.’”

No one else says a thing. Uncomfortable, awkward silence. And then they just move on with the meeting.  I can see I’ve ruffled some feathers, but it’s not as important to me as it is for neurodivergent students to have their self-advocacy efforts honored. I leave the meeting hoping that even though there was no response, at least I gave them something to think about. 

Photo of teacher pointing at student and scolding them.
Student turned away from desk, with head on arm.
Student having meltdown in classroom

What happens after a student who’s learned to self-advocate in the therapy room tries to self-advocate in the classroom using spoken words or by pointing to a self-advocacy button with their ACC, and the adult responds with, “You need to try to do it first, and if you still need help, ask me again.”?

  • The student hears and internalizes that their needs are not important. Trivial, Inconvenient. Unnecessary.
  • The student gives up trying to self-advocate with language because they now know that even if they can communicate the right things in the therapy room, it won’t actually work for them in the classroom.
  • And perhaps the student has a meltdown, which is labeled non-compliant, “tantrum behavior”.
  • Perhaps the student’s meltdown triggers a staff response of restraint and/or seclusion.
  • Or perhaps the student shuts down, which is labeled non-compliant, “manipulative behavior.”
Teacher with black hair and brown skin crouching beside student with black hair and brown skin, sitting at desk, upset.

Saying “I can’t,” or, “this is too hard,” or “it’s too much,” is sometimes the only way a kid has to self-advocate, other than with their behavior, especially if that kid doesn’t have a lot of ability to effectively communicate to begin with. So, if they aren’t allowed to self-advocate using the only words they may have, or by using the iPad AAC app, or the picture symbol boards and lanyards with the words “too hard,” “too much,” and “need a break,” my assistant and I give out to many of our speaking students who sometimes struggle to do so,  then guess what? That kid is either going to stop trying to communicate at all when they have a problem, or the kid is going to resort to self-advocating with behavior.

And of course, then that kid’s behavior is deemed “non-compliant,” and their refusal, “attention-seeking,” or, “escapism.” or “manipulative.”

What happens next? The IEP committee writes a behavior plan for the student to comply within one minute when they are directed to do something, without complaint. And to reinforce compliant behavior, the student will be love-bombed with accolades every time they do it.

“When given a task or direction, XYZ will begin within 1 minute and remain on task for a minimum of 15 minutes, independently, with no more than 2 verbal prompts.”

The behavior plan or some version of it follows the student from year to year until they are finally broken, immediately complying with whatever they’ve been told to do the first time by anyone in an authoritative position. Or, they’re not broken and they still check out, shut down, and meltdown in the classroom when they have a need that’s not met, but on the inside, they know that everyone thinks they are a failure or a bad person, and whatever else years and years of hearing negative things about yourself makes you believe about yourself.

What are we doing to kids when we repeatedly praise them for denying their own reality?

We are indoctrinating kids in self-abandonment.

Self-abandonment: in the moment, instantaneously rejecting, suppressing, or ignoring one’s own needs, wants, feelings, boundaries, authenticity, and values, and prioritizing people pleasing.

When we shower kids with praise for

  • hiding negative feelings and thoughts, and only allowing positive language for self-expression. (I regularly see IEP goals written by SLPs and LSSPs for “will communicate negative feelings and thoughts using positive language”),
  • refraining from authentic self-advocacy attempts because the words the kid used aren’t the ones we want them to use, (or we don’t want them to self-advocate at all – a reality in PBIS schools),
  • shutting their eyes to the bullying they know is happening to them (even if the adults don’t think it’s bullying), or to “responding appropriately” to being bullied or otherwise victimized,
  • disregarding or tolerating what their sensory system is screaming,
  • discounting their body sensations, or their gut instincts,

we are training them that immediate compliance and people-pleasing always take precedence over their own needs. This is why autistic, ADHD, wider-neurodivergent, and other disabled kids grow up to be adolescents, and then adults who are exploited, victimized, and abused.

For further reading:

Kerns CM, Lankenau S, Shattuck PT, Robins DL, Newschaffer CJ, Berkowitz SJ. Exploring potential sources of childhood trauma: A qualitative study with autistic adults and caregivers. Autism. 2022 Nov;26(8):1987-1998. doi: 10.1177/13623613211070637. Epub 2022 Jan 24. PMID: 35068176; PMCID: PMC9597164.

Libster N, Knox A, Engin S, Geschwind D, Parish-Morris J, Kasari C. Personal victimization experiences of autistic and non-autistic children. Mol Autism. 2022 Dec 24;13(1):51. doi: 10.1186/s13229-022-00531-4. PMID: 36566252; PMCID: PMC9790117.

Weiss, J. A., & Fardella, M. A. (2018). Victimization and Perpetration Experiences of Adults With Autism. Frontiers in Psychiatry9.

Kassandrah Cooke, Kathryn Ridgway, Elizabeth Westrupp et al. The Prevalence and Risk Factors of Autistic Experiences of Interpersonal Violence: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, 23 November 2022, PREPRINT (Version 1) available at Research Square []

Gibbs, V., & Pellicano, E. (2023). ‘Maybe we just seem like easy targets’: A qualitative analysis of autistic adults’ experiences of interpersonal violence. Autism, 0(0).

Nunno, M.A., McCabe, L.A., Izzo, C.V. et al. A 26-Year Study of Restraint Fatalities Among Children and Adolescents in the United States: A Failure of Organizational Structures and Processes. Child Youth Care Forum 51, 661–680 (2022).

Cazalis, F., Reyes, E., Leduc, S., & Gourion, D. (2022). Evidence That Nine Autistic Women Out of Ten Have Been Victims of Sexual Violence. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience16.


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IEPs, Ableist Goals and Parents’ Rights

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Picture of young student with brown hair, head in hands, sitting at desk.

Not allowed to say “I can’t”

“The kids in my class aren’t allowed to say I can’t.” I’m in an IEP meeting for young neurodivergent student who’s struggling in class. The committee is talking about all the reasons why this student should not be struggling because their standardized cognitive and language scores show they have the ability to learn and do the work.

Read More »
Julie Roberts, M.S. CCC-SLP

3 Responses

  1. This is a fantastic article! Thank you for so clearly articulating this way that children (and adults as well, in some settings) are oppressed and also gaslit. I will be sharing this article with clients, with school staff, and also with my husband for he and I to reflect on as we continue working on our own parenting skills and strategies.
    Thank you!

  2. What a powerful and insightful article! It’s crucial to shift our mindset and language when working with individuals with autism. Instead of focusing on limitations, we should embrace their unique strengths and abilities. By adopting a person-centered approach and providing appropriate support, we can help individuals with autism reach their full potential. Thank you for sharing this valuable perspective and promoting positive communication with neurodivergent individuals.

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