Shifting to Affirming Practices with the SEA Bridge

by Emily McCullough on November 21, 2022

Twelve years ago when I became a pediatric speech-language therapist, I had such good intentions to do only helpful, positive things for my clients in my career. I wanted to help children who had trouble communicating learn to express themselves and connect with other people. I am proud of a lot of what I’ve done in my career. But when it comes to working with autistic and neurodivergent clients, especially social-emotional learning, I’ve had to reflect a lot on the things that I got completely wrong.

Like many speech therapists, I was trained to do my job within the framework of the
medical model of disability.

The medical model of disability focuses on an individual’s perceived deficits and assumes that the problem lies with the disabled person. In school, I learned that my job as a speech therapist was to find out what deficits there were with an individual’s communication skills and put a plan in place to “fix” it. My title is officially speech language pathologist, indicating my role as someone who can discover and diagnose a “pathology.” The medical model is present in my professional title.

For the past couple of years, I’ve been on a journey of listening to autistic and neurodivergent adults speak about their experiences, including in speech therapy. I heard that many autistic adults experienced trauma in speech therapy during childhood, and this made me examine my own speech therapy practice. I also learned about the social model of disability, which recognizes that the most significant barrier for disabled people is not the disability itself, but the society in which the disabled individual interacts. After starting this journey of listening and being open to the ways in which my speech therapy practice, steeped in the medical model of disability, could be doing harm, I started seeking out ways in which I could start doing things differently.

One of the therapies that I have been a part of in the past is social skills training for autistic and neurodivergent clients. As a neurotypical person, I was teaching autistic and neurodivergent kids to communicate in the way that was most familiar to me and what I considered at the time to be the “right way.” I never felt great about telling autistic children to basically not be themselves – to keep their whole body still to show they were listening and to make eye contact with others since that’s what “most” people do and that is what is “expected.” But I thought I was helping them understand how to be in the world to keep them safe, help them make (all neurotypical) friends and to survive in a world not built for them. It turns out it’s more complicated than that.

After listening to some autistic adults speak about their experience in social skills training, I learned that I was teaching my clients that performing neurotypical “social skills” was the only way to be with others in the world. I was teaching them to always accommodate neurotypical people at all times and to ignore their own needs and hide their way of being in the world. I learned the term masking, which means hiding one’s authentic self in order to survive and fit in with what society expects of you. I learned that masking can be necessary at times for safety reasons in our society depending on factors such as race, sexuality and gender presentation. I also learned that there are studies that link masking to negative mental health outcomes for autistic and neurodivergent people.

At first, I was in denial. I told myself, ‘Well I certainly haven’t been doing anything that would be harmful to autistic people. I’m not promoting masking. I’m here to help!’ But the more I listened to autistic adults and the more I reflected on my speech therapy practice, I started to accept it. Teaching kids to make direct eye contact with others even though it might have been uncomfortable or even painful for them is teaching masking. Teaching autistic kids that the only way to be with others is to ask wh-questions that they may not have wanted to ask during a conversation or to minimize talking about their favorite interest to make neurotypical people feel more comfortable is teaching masking.

Then I learned about the “Double Empathy Problem” study (Milton, 2012) which turned everything I’d been taught about autism and social skills on its head. In the study, autistic people communicated effectively with other autistic people and neurotypical people communicated effectively with other neurotypical people. The breakdown in communication occurred between autistic and neurotypical people. This study dispels the idea that is the very basis of traditional social skills training–that autistic and neurodivergent people lack empathy or social skills or that they have a social or pragmatic language disorder. Since there is misunderstanding on both sides, the burden to learn neurotypical social skills should not just be on autistic and neurodivergent people. Neurotypical people should learn also about autistic and neurodivergent communication styles so that neurotypical people can increase their understanding and empathy for autistic communication styles and ways of being.

Once I finally accepted that the way I was approaching social-emotional learning was encouraging autistic and neurodivergent clients to hide their authentic selves at all times and was one-sided to favor only neurotypical social interaction, I wondered, ‘How should I be doing things? Where are the materials I can use that would be affirming? How do I know what to do now?’

As I was searching for a neurodiversity-affirming social-emotional curriculum, I came across the SEA Bridge, made by and for autistic and neurodivergent people.

The SEA Bridge celebrates and affirms all ways of being, thinking and learning. The SEA Bridge teaches kids of all neurotypes about many different ways humans communicate, and that all of those ways are valid.

When I did a demo of the platform, I thought, ‘Here are these amazing characters who are all expressing themselves in authentic ways. I have never seen anything like this before!’ I knew I wanted to try it out with my clients and I bought a subscription. Katrina Martin, founder of Bridges Learning System, recently let me know that I was their first ever subscriber! Here are five characteristics that make the SEA Bridge such a valuable part of my neurodiversity-affirming speech therapy practice:

1. Made by autistic and neurodivergent people.

The makers of SEA Bridge are autistic and neurodivergent themselves, and many other autistic and neurodivergent adults were consulted throughout the creation of the curriculum to make sure that the content truly is neurodiversity affirming. Since I do not have lived experience as an autistic or neurodivergent person, it is important to me to have a curriculum designed for and by autistic and neurodivergent people.

2. Provides representation for autistic and neurodivergent characters that kids can seem themselves reflected in.

The SEA Bridge is the first educational curriculum that I’ve used that my autistic and neurodivergent clients have reacted to in a way that seems to really resonate with them. For example, for neurodivergent kids to hear that learning about manatees is a need, not a want, for one of the characters or that another character enjoys watching quarters spin is nothing short of revolutionary. All of the SEA Bridge characters have different ways of thinking and learning and different sensory needs. Their learning styles and needs are taken seriously and are not brushed off or minimized.

3. Affirms all ways of thinking, learning and interacting with others as valid and accepted.

The old way of speech therapists and other providers teaching neurotypical social skills to autistic and neurodivergent clients as the only correct way to be and interact with others is wrong. All kids should get to learn about all the different ways to be in the world. The SEA Bridge is a great platform for kids of all neurotypes to learn about different ways to communicate and learn. The characters talk specifically about the ways to learn that work best for them, how they feel most comfortable interacting with others, and how they like to feel cared for and show care to others. Each character has a different way of thinking and learning and all ways are accepted and celebrated.

4. Teaches about intersectionality – how neurotype, disability, race, class, gender identity and other factors impact an individual’s experience in society.

In the society we live in, none of us are just made up of one identity. Autistic and neurodivergent clients are no different. When we don’t address and affirm all of the identities of our clients such as race and gender identity, we aren’t able to take in our clients as whole people. As providers, it is our responsibility to learn about the ways in which our own identities carry privilege and continually examine our own biases and educate ourselves on how things like internalized racism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia affect our work with our clients. The SEA Bridge can help you talk with your clients about intersectionality. There is material dedicated to talking about anti-racism. Most of the SEA Bridge characters use they/them pronouns and each character has a different way of being and moving in the world.

5. Includes informative, digestible handouts to educate parents and caregivers about neurodiversity-affirming concepts and supports.

Since using the SEA Bridge, I have found that the parent/caregiver handouts are such an integral part of the curriculum. So many parents and caregivers of autistic and neurodivergent youth have been told that something is wrong with their child and that they need to take their child to hours of therapy to fix them. The SEA Bridge parent/caregiver handouts help caretakers understand neurodiversity concepts and learn more about autistic and neurodivergent ways of thinking, learning and being with others. When caretakers start to understand their child from a perspective informed by autistic and neurodivergent adults, this can help shift their thinking from “Something’s wrong with my child,” to “How does my child learn? What support can I put in for my child’s learning style?” It can be life-changing.

I am so glad I came across the SEA Bridge when I did. I didn’t know where to turn for a full social-emotional curriculum that would affirm neurodiversity. Now I can lean on the SEA Bridge to guide me through talking about these topics with kids and to expose them to autistic and neurodivergent characters. To quote a line from one of the songs from the curriculum, “I wish everyone could be exactly who they are.” With the SEA Bridge, I feel like I’m able to affirm autistic and neurodivergent ways of thinking, learning alongside kids and their caregivers on this journey one step at a time.

*Milton, D. E. M. (2012). On the ontological status of autism: The ‘double empathy problem’. Disability & Society, 27(6), 883-887.


Emily McCullough is a pediatric speech therapist with 12 years of experience supporting kids and teens with communication skills. She is passionate about providing a safe space for all individuals on their communication journey. Emily is committed to continually learning about neurodiversity-affirming and strengths based approaches to better serve her clients in her speech therapy practice. She is proud to offer the SEA Bridge curriculum to support neurodivergent youth in developing a positive self-identity and sense of pride in who they are. Find out more about Emily at Parade Speech.

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