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An autistic educator shares her neuro-affirming approach by Melanie Dimmitt

Apr 5, 2024

Meet the founder of Thriving Minds Education – an early-education expert who’s supporting and empowering young members of the neurodivergent community.

For most of her life, Annabel Tannenbaum didn’t know why she was different. Growing up, she says she always felt like an outsider, struggling to get a grasp on learning and socialising while grappling with anxieties that couldn’t be explained. That is, until she began teaching in early education settings – and seeing similar traits show up in the children she was supporting.

Annabel was diagnosed with autism at 30 and ADHD at 31. But even before then, she knew there was a desperate need for more awareness and support around kids with developmental differences. A need that she was already working to meet through her business, Thriving Minds Education, where she offers workshops, resources and a vast array of books celebrating neurodivergence.

Speaking from her home in Perth, Western Australia, Annable delves into her childhood memories and shares why she’s determined to create a more neuro-affirming world for future generations.

The need for the work you’re doing is growing, as we’ve seen a significant increase in autism diagnoses, the world over, in recent years. Why do you think this increase is happening?

I think it’s a combination of lots of different things. We are now recognising that autism presents very differently than we thought it did in the ’90s. That’s why I wasn’t diagnosed as a child. I wasn’t intellectually disabled and, often, that’s what went along with an autism diagnosis. You were either intellectually disabled and autistic, or extremely gifted and autistic. And I’m neither. I’m kind of in the middle – or even on my own scale.

We are seeing that autism comes in so many different forms and that’s opening up the doors. That’s why people like me have started thinking, in their late twenties, perhaps I do have some autistic traits? Let’s explore that. And I think that’s why there are so many more people being diagnosed now.

However, I also know people are looking for an autism diagnosis because it gets you support services. If you only have an ADHD diagnosis or a learning disorder disability diagnosis, you don’t get as much support. So unfortunately, people are finding ways to get what is possibly the wrong diagnosis. But who’s to say what’s right or wrong here?

From a parent’s perspective, I’d imagine that when you can see your child struggling and in need of supports, you’d do anything possible to get those supports. It’s not right or wrong, it’s the system – and it’s heartbreaking.

From an adult perspective, as someone who’s regarded as “high functioning”, when I’ve tried to seek support for myself, I’ve been hit with, “No, you’re fine. You seem to have functioned for 30 years, so what’s your problem? You have a business and you’ve been able to be a teacher.” They probably think I’m trying to exploit the system and I can understand that, but I’m struggling in certain areas.

It’s a fraught and complex space, as you say, so why have you chosen to work in it? Why are you so driven to educate people about neurodivergence?

Sometimes I ask myself that question, when often I feel like I’m trying to draw blood from a stone! And what I come back to – why I will not give up – is because I don’t want other people to go through what I’ve gone through. I’m so sick of just being discriminated against and thought of as a lesser human being than other people – and seeing that same treatment of other neurodivergent or disabled people and children.

While working part-time in a daycare, I was lucky to be an inclusion support educator with the same child for two years. She’s got a rare genetic condition that affects muscle and bone development. She was three when I started supporting her at daycare and had just started walking a few months before, so she had a support frame and was also non-speaking at the time.

I’d never previously worked with someone who needed so much support and she totally changed what I thought a disabled, non-speaking person was capable of. I just loved her. I didn’t see her disability, I saw that she is a human being. And her smile would just melt hearts.

I learned to do some keyword signing with her and as time progressed, I learned to understand what she was trying to communicate through her sounds and body language. She loved music and she was so social. And the other children, even though they knew she was different, really treated her as an equal.

Some disabled children have fantastic experiences with educators like you – but many don’t. Why is this kind of inclusion not happening in all schools?

It’s a money issue, I think. And attitude, as well. I was lucky enough to be in a centre that was a community run, not focussed on making a profit. I had the most beautiful centre manager who’d been working there for many years and they’d had a lot of children similar to the girl I was supporting, or with different disabilities, coming in. They were very used to inclusion.

It was still a difficult process to go through – don’t get me wrong. They make it so incredibly difficult if your child needs support in daycare and I think it’s the same in schools, as well. A lot of education settings don’t have the time or money to go through all of these hurdles and they don’t see it as a priority. It’s a different mindset.

What are some of your own memories of early education as a child? What do you remember struggling with and, on the flipside, loving at the time?

I never went to daycare. I’m the youngest of three with two older brothers and our mum took us to things like music classes. She really immersed us in various kinds of interests, but she also knew I was different then my brothers. Once I started kindy, which was two half days a week, I remember quite enjoying it but I struggled with separation anxiety while away from mum. She was my support, my advocate, my safety net.

Then pre-primary was a big change, because it’s full-time. That’s when more struggles started coming out. I’ve been going through some of my old reports and saw that my pre-primary teacher was concerned about my language. I’d only speak in a few words and I wouldn’t really elaborate. I wasn’t a confident communicator or talker and this teacher also said I seemed to have some difficulty following multiple directions or instructions.

But I have good memories of pre-primary. In Year One I started doing drama lessons – my mum was very clever, because she’d read that drama was really good for language – and it promoted the skills that I was struggling with.

I was delayed with speaking, so I went to speech therapy for many years. A lot of therapy, especially in the ’90s, was focused on your deficits and improving those. Drama was different, because it wasn’t a criticism. It was fun – and the language and the learning was incidentally intertwined into it.

Anxiety was still a big struggle – and I was also struggling to read and having problems maintaining friendships. At six years old I was diagnosed with auditory processing disorder.

That was your only official diagnosis, for decades. It wasn’t until you were teaching yourself that you were diagnosed with autism. What compelled you to seek out this diagnosis?

I had many “aha moments” during Covid. Working at daycare, once we all started wearing masks, I really struggled to recognise the feelings behind what people were saying. I thought that one of my colleagues was angry, for example, but she was just being sarcastic and making a joke. I can’t rely on just verbal communication – I need all of the cues. I need so much more information in order to try and interpret someone’s feelings and intentions.

How did you feel once you got that diagnosis and learned that you’re autistic?

It was a big relief and a kind of grieving, as well, because it’s hard not to think that I’ve missed out on being supported, especially as a child and in school. But overall, it was the biggest feeling of elation. I’m not a broken neurotypical person, or defective. I have a different brain, a different neuro type. I learn differently – and I’m not alone.

At what point did you start Thriving Minds Education, your business supporting neurodivergent children and families?

In 2017, before I was diagnosed. The business has pivoted many times and it started as educational classes where parents would come with their babies and young children, like a playgroup environment. I’d teach them ways in which they could support their children’s development and social emotional awareness, talking about things like coregulation and the attachment theory, as well as the circle of security, which I did training in.

I’d set up activities and parents really liked the resources and books I was using and wanted to buy them, so that’s how I ended up launching the online shop with products. I could see that there was such a lack of quality resources that were diverse, inclusive and affirming. I find a lot of books, particularly ones about autism, quite offensive.

Many books about autism talk about deficits – there’s not a balance between the struggles as well as the strengths. Readers end up feeling sorry for autistic people and families.

You talk about taking a different approach – a “neuro-affirming” one. Can you tell me what that means?

I’m always reflecting on how language progresses because it changes very rapidly and it’s hard to keep up. For a long time I was using the word “inclusion” – and you can do inclusion in a really good, positive way. But I’ve also seen inclusion used in a not so good way when it does damage, or it’s just done to tick a box.

I think we need to look at inclusion differently because sometimes, no matter what you do, a certain environment isn’t going to work. There are some environments I cannot go into without being traumatised. It’s as simple as that. Forced inclusion can cause more trauma.

So I started looking at, what other word can I use? And I found neurodiversity affirming, or neuro-affirming, which is really about saying we’re all different, which is beautiful. There’s no normal and we are affirming our identities. Our experiences. How our brains are working and how everything is affecting our brains and our bodies. And we’re celebrating those differences and learning how to best support each individual.

It’s not about changing and it’s not about treating or trying to cure, either. I still use the word inclusion, but I feel more strongly about neurodiversity affirming and being a neuro-affirming advocate, rather than an inclusion advocate.

How can parents of autistic children be neuro-affirming – particularly those who are new to the space?

Listen to your child – and know that this is not the end of the world. Your child can thrive. Life will look different than what you expected and there’s nothing wrong with that. I know it’s hard, though, when you've had all these expectations and they totally change. But your child can thrive when you accept them for who they are, not what you want them to be, or what society wants them to be.

To borrow some words from advocate Stuart Duncan, who has an autistic son: “Nobody thinks less of the penguin because it cannot fly. It’s simply a different kind of bird. Different. Not less.”

You can follow Annabel’s work on the Thriving Minds Education website and Instagram account.

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