Therapist Neurodiversity Collective


Cite this article: Roberts, J. (2021, May 27) Nothing about Social Skills Training is Neurodivergence-Affirming – Absolutely Nothing. Therapist Neurodiversity Collective.
Cited in: Skaletski, E., Chakraborty, S., Travers, B. Occupational Therapy and Autistic Females. (2021) American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA).

In February 2021, a large Social Skills training company published an article on “Respecting Neurodiversity,” promoting educators and therapists as “builders and supporters of inter/intrapersonal intelligences.”[1] The company’s founder was recently featured on a “neurodiversity” podcast as well.

Autism therapy, including “social skills intervention,” is a multibillion-dollar industry, so it’s comprehensible that ‘Social Skills Training’ companies would want to “rebrand” by hopping on the neurodiversity bandwagon in the pursuit of maintaining their cash cow at all costs, even at the cost of human dignity.

But, training the autism out of an autistic person is neither ethical nor accepting of neurodiversity. Deficit-driven clinicians and educators, as well as social skills training businesses, continue to attribute any autistic social difference as “deficient” while flat-out ignoring the fact that social communication reciprocity is supposed to be a two-way street.[2] 

Nothing about Social Skills Training is neurodivergence-affirming therapy. Absolutely nothing.

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Social skills training companies can’t simply repackage their ableist interventions and ethically advertise as “pro-neurodiversity” while maintaining the status quo by:

  • Selling educational materials that label neurodivergent communication styles as demons or monsters, deficient or aberrant.
  • Promoting therapy models that shame neurodivergent social differences and ‘extinguish’ diversity in social intelligence through training autistic people to mask and camouflage.
  • Holding up neurotypical styles of communication as superior and the gold standard for therapy outcomes.
  • Slapping a rainbow infinity symbol on a “neurodiversity article’ or website and then proclaiming that said company (or practice, or therapist) is a valid neurodivergence-affirming therapy option.

Therapists and companies have profited for decades through pathologizing autistic social communication differences, including replacing monologuing with turn-taking, extinguishing direct and literal communication styles by training both masking and hypervigilance about the audience’s feelings and ignoring one’s own, extinguishing a tendency for pointing out facts and inaccuracies by labeling this behavior “rude,” coercing neurotypical joint attention and replacing autistic play preferences with “appropriate play skills,” enforcing compliance for whole body listening, and eye-contact, forcing autistic people to “tolerate” sensory overwhelm, and extinguishing their stimming. Autistic social skills are “atypical, not aberrant.”[3]

Social skills training inhibits authenticity, leading to a lifetime of living with chronic anxiety, incessant self-consciousness, self-doubt, self-shaming, and hypervigilance in social interactions. It creates an “us vs them” mentality in homes, and in educational and work environments, ‘othering'[4] an entire neurotype in the pursuit of conformity and the almighty dollar. Social skills training starts with the premise that autistic and other types of neurodivergent social skills are disordered, deficient, wrong, bad… and, therefore, must be corrected with “skilled therapy.”

Except autistic social skills are just… different.

Therapist expectations for autistic people to mimic neurotypical social communication through masking autistic traits are unrealistic at best, and disrespectful and ableist at worst. It’s a completely biased therapy model – that is, non-autistic people imposing their non-autistic standards on a neurominority.

And it’s not even research-based. “The evidence for social skills training is pretty thin and not proven to be generalized.”[5].

Social Skills Training Blatantly Disregards

  • The Double Empathy Problem research
  • Diversity in Social Intelligence research
  • Autistic Masking and Camouflage research
  • Monotropism and monotropic styles of communication
  • Lived Autistic Experiences

Contemporary research, including research co-produced with autistic people and conducted by autistic scholars, is increasingly demonstrating that “the difficulties in autistic communication are apparent only when interacting with non-autistic people, and are alleviated when interacting with autistic people” [6]. It’s the mismatch between autistic and allistic communication styles that contribute to problems with social interactions between the two neurotypes[7] [8].

The ongoing investigation into The Double Empathy Problem, originally theorized by autistic researcher Damian Milton in 2012 [9], argues that “intersubjective problems between autistic and non-autistic individuals are rooted not in one individual’s deficient cognitive system but, rather, represent ‘a disjuncture in reciprocity between two differently disposed social actors.”[10] Milton found that “when people with very different experiences of the world interact with one another and struggle to empathize with each other” communication breakdowns occur due to differences in lived experiences – autistic versus allistic lived experiences.[11]

In addition to being ableist and prejudiced, the social skills training model into which autistic children, teens, and adults (see this social skills training for adults CEU event by Social Thinking®) are conscripted in the majority of schools, clinics, and private practice settings has been shown to be a failure, because, surprise (!), forcing oneself to turn-take like a ping-pong ball, imitate facial postures or fake enthusiasm with a communication partner about superficial or irrelevant topics doesn’t make the autistic person look any less autistic.  In fact, in 2017, Sasson et al. found that even after years and years of social skills training, “…given that (autistic) individuals generally receive the greatest amount of social skills intervention during this developmental period (the school years), and …despite being at an age when intense attention is often paid to social skills training, the (autistic) children are nonetheless rated poorly by both adults and same-age observers”.[12]

A tremendous amount of wasted time and effort is spent teaching autistic people that their social interactions are subpar, deficient, and “in need of intervention,” but the harshest lessons of social skills ‘intervention’ teach autistic people that unless they learn to successfully hide their autistic traits, they are inherently subpar human beings.

An entire social skills training industry is successfully marketing ableism to the masses while clinging to the ridiculous stance that all human neurotypes need to think, feel, and behave in the same way, or else they are in dire need of intervention (and ‘these products’ and ‘this treatment’).

Social skills training communicates superficial and conditional acceptance based on subjective and discriminatory standards of performance that non-autistic people determine for autistic people.

In a real-life example of how subjective and shallow clinical standards are surrounding neurodivergent social skills, a recent 3-subject research study, published in the ASHAWire in 2021, involved the use of ABA as a social skills intervention. With “undesirable” being the baseline of the three autistic subjects, the measurement of clinical success was whether or not a “similarly aged neurotypical peer” would want to talk with the autistic person again! ( “desirability as a social partner”.)[13]

Are contemporary researchers and clinicians really this gross and one-dimensional? Sadly, it would seem that the answer is yes.

Think about this for a moment…

Would you, Reader, want to be subjected to this kind of uncompromising scrutiny? Being continually judged for how well you are able to hide your neurotype (essentially, the essence of YOU) for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week?

It’s no wonder that autistic people have higher-than-average rates of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation secondary to continually camouflaging their autistic social characteristics.[14] And therapists and social skills companies, rather than helping the people they purport to serve, are directly contributing to the potential emotional and psychological harm of other human beings in the pursuit of neurotypical conformity and revenue.

Companies that profit from pathologizing diversity in social intelligence, such as Social Thinking®, argue that autistic and neurodivergent people (direct quote),

“do not have the option to pass on the societal and communal requirements or expectations of work, home, school, or community environments”[15].

But evidence from recent world events does not support this incredibly discriminatory position.

Work environments and entire company cultures can adapt and change when they need to. The world watched in 2020 as corporation after corporation rapidly shifted to allow employees to work from their homes – a reasonable accommodation that disabled people have been requesting since the invention of high-speed internet, yet were, more often than not, denied. For years, CEOs have insisted that working from home was not possible due to productivity demands. They insisted that such accommodations would disrupt the workforce entirely, that it simply could not be done. And yet, as we all observed, businesses and government entities alike, including schools, medical practices, and public services, swiftly and readily adapted during Covid19 lockdown so that their revenue trains would not be derailed.

Workplace cultures are also evolving in regard to neurodivergence acceptance, so why is the clinical world unwilling to retire their ableist and harmful therapy models?

It’s pretty clear that there are serious financial incentives for therapists, educators, and social skills training businesses to continue pathologizing diversity in social intelligence (Autism Industrial Complex[16]), as the rest of the world is in a sea change to accommodate neurodivergent needs and accept and even embrace neurodivergent social communication differences.

Here is a small sample of multinational corporations making sweeping changes in their company cultures as well as HR policies to incorporate neurodivergent people into their workplaces:

  • SAP
  • Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE)
  • Microsoft
  • Willis Towers Watson
  • Ford
  • EY(Ernst & Young)

Many others, including “Caterpillar, Dell Technologies, Deloitte, IBM, JPMorgan Chase, and UBS, have start-up or exploratory efforts underway”[17].

Did these industry leaders make their workplaces more inclusive by providing all of the autistic and other neurodivergent employees with ‘Social Skills Intervention’?

No, they did not.

What these companies did was change the workplace environment. What they did was to bring in neurodiversity educators and advisors, and provide neurodiversity-affirming training to educate everyone about how interactions between neurotypical and neurodivergent people may differ, so the onus isn’t solely on autistic employees to adapt to a neurodiverse workforce. (Because reciprocity and empathy are a two-way street!) Additionally, these companies are routinely providing modifications, accommodations, and supports for sensory issues and executive functioning, as well as training HR teams to change interview social communication expectations, for things like eye contact, monologuing, and turn-taking. Companies now actually take advantage of (and profit from) their autistic and neurodivergent employees’ differences such as monotropism, enabling their workers to focus on their interests and passions and generally do what they do best.

Rather than continuing to train autistic and other neurodivergent people to mimic neurotypical social skills, ethical and humane therapists and educators must shift their autistic narrative from an antiquated, deficit-based paradigm to one of inclusion, acceptance, empathy, and respect and strive to teach all neurotypes about The Double Empathy Problem, Diversity in Social Intelligence (differences in social communication styles across neurotypes), and the harms of Autistic Masking and Camouflage.

  • Now is the time for clinicians, researchers, and educators to cease judging social communication deviations from the “norm” as a deficit.
  • Now is the time for clinicians and educators to stop “training” neurominority populations to comply with arbitrary social standards (through consciously masking their natural autistic social traits) – especially as contemporary research continues to demonstrate that “neurotypical social skills” aren’t even consistently practiced by the neuromajority.  
  • Now is the time for Social Skills Training companies and therapists to stop selling the ableist idea that there is only one way for all humans to engage in social interactions (their way). It’s time to stop “othering” human beings for a living!
  • Now is the time for therapists, educators, and social skills businesses to enter the 21st century, and start practicing with therapy models that respect diversity, including neuro-diversity.

Social skills training is a pseudoscientific and archaic model of therapy that is on par with other harmful therapies of the past, such as Gay Conversion Therapy.

The highly biased clinical expectation for neurominority populations to conform to neuromajority social standards are naïve at best and ableist, domineering, and elitist at its core.

[1] Respecting Neurodiversity by Helping Social Learners Meet Their Personal Goals. Pamela Crooke, PhD, CCC-SLP and Michelle Garcia Winner, MA, CCC-SLP. Feb 12, 2021
[2] Gernsbacher MA. Toward a Behavior of Reciprocity. J Dev Process. 2006;1(1):139-152.
[3] Sasson, N. PhD, Lecture Series: The Comet Corner Series, created by the UT Dallas Office of Research, May 26, 2021
[4] Michael, Cos. Autism in Adulthood. ahead of print: Online Ahead of Print: April 20, 2021.
[5] Sasson, N. PhD, Lecture Series: The Comet Corner Series, created by the UT Dallas Office of Research, May 26, 2021.
[6] Crompton CJ, Ropar D, Evans-Williams CV, Flynn EG, Fletcher-Watson S. Autistic peer-to-peer information transfer is highly effective. Autism. 2020;24(7):1704-1712. doi:10.1177/1362361320919286
[7] Davis R, Crompton CJ. What Do New Findings About Social Interaction in Autistic Adults Mean for Neurodevelopmental Research? Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2021;16(3):649-653. doi:10.1177/1745691620958010
[8] Crompton CJ, Sharp M, Axbey H, Fletcher-Watson S, Flynn EG, Ropar D. Neurotype-Matching, but Not Being Autistic, Influences Self and Observer Ratings of Interpersonal Rapport. Front Psychol. 2020 Oct 23;11:586171.
doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.586171. PMID: 33192918; PMCID: PMC7645034.
[9] Damian E.M. Milton (2012) On the ontological status of autism: the ‘double empathy problem’, Disability & Society, 27:6, 883-887, DOI: 10.1080/09687599.2012.710008
[10] ibid
[11] ibid
[12] Sasson, N., Faso, D., Nugent, J. et al. Neurotypical Peers are Less Willing to Interact with Those with Autism based on Thin Slice Judgments. Sci Rep 7, 40700 (2017).
[13] Lynn Kern Koegel, Zak Koplen, Brittany Koegel, & Robert L. Koegel (2021). Using a Question Bank Intervention to Improve Socially Initiated Questions in Adolescents and Adults With Autism. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 64(4), 1331-1339. doi: 10.1044/2021_JSLHR-20-00534
[14] Cassidy, S.A., Gould, K., Townsend, E. et al. Is Camouflaging Autistic Traits Associated with Suicidal Thoughts and Behaviours? Expanding the Interpersonal Psychological Theory of Suicide in an Undergraduate Student Sample. J Autism Dev Disord 50, 3638–3648 (2020).
[15] Respecting Neurodiversity by Helping Social Learners Meet Their Personal Goals. Pamela Crooke, PhD, CCC-SLP and Michelle Garcia Winner, MA, CCC-SLP. Feb 12, 2021
[16] Broderick, Alicia & Roscigno, Robin. (2021). Autism, Inc.: The Autism Industrial Complex. Journal of Disability Studies in Education. 1-25. 10.1163/25888803-bja10008.
[17] Neurodiversity as a Competitive Advantage – Why you should embrace it in your workforce by Robert D. Austin and Gary P. Pisano. Harvard Business Review. From the Magazine (May–June 2017)

IEPs, Ableist Goals and Parents’ Rights

A neurodiversity-affirming parent’s anonymous post to Therapist Neurodiversity Collective requested information that might help them advocate for their special education student in the IEP meeting. From the information contained in the post, it appeared that the school, although possibly unintentionally, was not aware of IDEA and Supreme Court decisions, and therefore violated parental rights to meaningfully participate in and contribute to the IEP meeting. Additionally, it is clear that our public school system is lagging in knowledge and application of contemporary research evidence about autism, and as a result, the kids are paying the consequences with poor mental health outcomes. 

Read More »
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

5 Responses

  1. What a fantastic article, Julie! I appreciate your advocacy for autistic individuals and for non-ableist clinical practices within our field of speech-language therapy.

  2. This is an excellent article Julie.

    I coauthored Is That Clear? Effective Communication in a Neurodiverse World with the purpose of neurotypical people better understanding autistic (and some other neurodivergent people’s) communication differences. Lots of autistic people contributed their thoughts and experiences and it’s very much based around Double Empathy, and allistic people taking more responsibility for inclusive communication and not expecting autistic people to make all the effort.

    In my consultancy work and training with schools I always ask how a social skills group helps develop neurotypical staff and pupils’ understanding of neurodivergent pupils, and for examples of what neurotypical people have then learned in order to be better, clearer and more inclusive communicators. It has to be 2-way, and certainly never about teaching a neurodivergent person how to appear more neurotypical.

    It is saddening, maddening but not unsurprising to hear of some companies’ cultures, but great to read of those companies leading positive change in celebrating neurodiversity. Thank you for your article.

  3. I have been running through the same thinking as a late diagnosed adult. This article is summarily why I’m starting a Master of Arts in counselling psychology to push the fields in the right direction from the front lines. Of course, in a framework applied by and for neurotypicals, those who are neurodivergent are going to appear to not measure up. Thank you for this article.

  4. This is a powerful article that needs to be shared! I am a new special education teacher and am doing a lot of reflecting on the way in which I have been trained to support students. My experience has taught me that teaching a child to ‘fit in’ is more harmful than beneficial and that our society needs more support to learn to appreciate neurological differences. I would like to deepen my understanding of how to support students to succeed in school and make strong, lasting friendships when they struggle to connect with other students or access the curriculum due to the nature the public school environment.

  5. I simply hope that there emerge an alternative ‘innovatively holistic intervention’ in lieu of ‘Social Thinking’ that truly respects the neurological integrity of neurodivergent individuals like myself.

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