The Triple Intersection of Trauma, Neurodiversity & Gender Diversity – Part 1

Neurodivergent youth and young adults, including those with autism, and gender-expansive youth face more adversity and are at a greater risk of trauma, such as abuse and neglect, as well as experiences like rejection, isolation, and bullying than their peers without those differences. Those living at the intersection of both neurodivergence, and gender expansiveness are at even higher risk. Join Cassie & Kelly Smith as they explore this triple intersection.

Guest Info: 

Kelly Smith, LICSW, has worked with families since 1986. She has a private practice specializing in attachment, trauma and loss, in Concord, New Hampshire. Her goal has been to bring passion, honor, and respect to all individuals involved with foster care and adoption. Kelly has been named Outstanding Therapist by NAMI New Hampshire and recognized by Governor Maggie Hassan for her leadership in improving the lives of people affected by mental illness and emotional disorders.

Host Info: 

Cassie Gillespie, LICSW, is a full-time faculty member in the University of Vermont’s Social Work Department, and the host of the SOCIAL WORK LENS podcast. Cassie is a former child welfare worker, and training team lead at the Vermont Child Welfare Training Partnership (VT-CWTP) with over 15 year’s experience serving children, youth, families, and helping professionals.


Kelly Smith (00:00):

One in four individuals who have autism identify as LGBTQIA.

Cassie Gillespie (00:06):


Kelly Smith (00:07):

So the intersection of all of this is very real and it really does matter, and we really do need to pay attention to everyone we interact with.

Cassie Gillespie (00:20):

Hello, I am Cassie Gillespie, and you’re listening to the Social Work Lens. A podcast produced by the University of Vermont’s Child Welfare Training Partnership and the State of Vermont. Today we are beginning a brand new series with licensed clinical social worker, Kelly Smith on the triple intersection of trauma, neurodiversity and gender diversity. This will be a multi-part series, and today we’ll begin by exploring what we actually mean by triple intersection. So Kelly, welcome to the podcast. We’re so happy to have you.

Kelly Smith (00:52):

Thank you, Cassie. I’m glad to be here.

Cassie Gillespie (00:54):

Would you mind telling us a little bit about yourself?

Kelly Smith (00:56):

Absolutely. So as Cassie mentioned my name’s Kelly Smith and my pronouns are she, her or hers. And I live in Hopkins, New Hampshire and work in New Hampshire. I specialize in the areas of attachment, trauma, loss, and grief. And I would say not only do I specialize in it, but it really has become my passion over the last 35 years. In particular, this triple intersection of trauma, gender identity, and neurodiversity. So I’m excited to be here today. Thank you.

Cassie Gillespie (01:25):

That’s so cool. I think we should tell them how we met, maybe. Because I, as a social worker, I’m sometimes at various conferences, and these days I find myself at conferences really just kind of keeping an eye out for anyone who’s doing something interesting that might make a really great story to share. And I ended up in a workshop that Kelly was leading and immediately decided we needed to bring her and her program’s information to the Social Work Lens. So we made it happen.

Kelly Smith (01:51):

We did <laugh> and, and I’ll say more about that. So I love Brene Brown and always use a quote of Brene Brown. And Cassie also loves Brene Brown, so when she heard me use Brene Brown, she’s like, oh, this is definitely a deal.

Cassie Gillespie (02:06):

This is perfect.

Kelly Smith (02:07):

So I will, I will share some Brene with us today.

Cassie Gillespie (02:09):

Okay <laugh>. It’s a little teaser there.

Kelly Smith (02:11):

Yeah. Yeah.

Cassie Gillespie (02:12):

<Laugh>. All right, well, let’s delve in. So where should we start when we’re talking about this?

Kelly Smith (02:16):

Well, I think the first thing I’d like to say is I’m really gonna ask us all to lean into any discomfort that you may experience as you’re listening to this today. I really want you to notice and explore that discomfort because our trans and our non-binary and our neurodivergent youth really deserve, and they need us to learn from our discomfort and embrace inclusivity because they live every single day in the world with discomfort. And I like to think about inclusivity through this lens of, it’s about a person feeling like they matter. And today, probably every day, but today in our society, it’s so important that that all of us feel like we matter. So I think that’s important to start with. And if, if it’s okay, I’m just gonna go to Brene Brown, because you can’t, you can’t do anything without quoting Brene and.

Cassie Gillespie (03:13):


Kelly Smith (03:14):

You know, I started using Brene, reading Brene and following her and, and using her quotes in my trainings, particularly around trauma and vulnerability. ’cause That’s her area of specialty. And then when I moved into this world of neurodiversity and gender identity, I’m like, oh my goodness. Brene was speaking to that group too. So the quote that I use all the time now, so, Brene, thank you for this quote. Love and belonging are the needs of all adults and children. We are hardwired for connection. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The absence of love, belonging, and connection always leads to suffering. So I think of our individuals who are neuro divergent. I think of our trans, our non-binary. I think of our kids in foster care. All of us and every single one of us. You know, when there’s the absence of love and belonging and connection, there really is suffering.

Cassie Gillespie (04:14):

I, that’s, it’s such an important place to start. And as I’m listening to you, I’m wondering if it makes sense to, I think lots of folks listening will be familiar with these various terms, but in case some folks are new, would you mind defining what we mean by neurodiversity and gender diversity and, and even trauma to a certain extent?

Kelly Smith (04:33):

Yes. Absolutely. And there are definitions that, that I use in training, but it’s really important to know that language matters. But really what matters more is the meaning behind it or that you’re attempting or inclusivity matters because everyone’s language is different. So there’s first person language and third person language, and people are very passionate about how they identify. And it really isn’t up to us to master the language. What’s more important is we say who we are and then be curious who that other person is and what language they use. But let me give you some definitions of language, but please hear that everyone defines this in their own way. So really neurodiversity is the range of diversity that exists in human neurodevelopment, which is so awesome because the way my brain functions is different than Cassie’s. It’s different than Joey’s and Mary’s. And it really then gives us opportunity for all of us being different and our brains being different. And the perfect example I give is, I have this thing called misophonia, which is funny, Cassie, because it’s gonna play itself out a little bit in our time this morning.

Cassie Gillespie (06:02):


Kelly Smith (06:02):

So misophonia is when I overhear things, it’s like microphones on every little thing that Cassie’s doing across the studio right now.

Cassie Gillespie (06:13):

Which is pouring more coffee in my mug. In case you are wondering, <laugh>,

Kelly Smith (06:17):

I can sit in a movie theater and somebody can be eating some popcorn from up in the front row. And I look at my spouse with these evil eyes, like if they eat one more piece of popcorn, I’m taking ’em down.

Cassie Gillespie (06:30):


Kelly Smith (06:30):

So how my brain processes sounds is different than how other people process sounds and experiences and language and processing and everything.

Cassie Gillespie (06:41):

Yeah. Yeah.

Kelly Smith (06:42):

So, so then neurotypical, and I don’t think we really have neurotypical anymore because we really are embracing this neurodiversity.

Cassie Gillespie (06:49):


Kelly Smith (06:49):

But neurotypical really is a person or people whose neurodevelopment falls within this kind of typical development. Neurodivergent is a person or people whose neurodevelopment falls outside of what’s considered typical. And Neurodiverse then is the collection of terms for groups, including people who are neurodiverse and neurotypical. But I think where I land is we all just are neurodiverse.

Cassie Gillespie (07:22):

Yeah. Yeah.

Kelly Smith (07:23):

So that’s where I land.

Cassie Gillespie (07:26):

But the world tends to be built in these ways to expect people to function in quote unquote neurotypical ways. Yeah.? Does that.

Kelly Smith (07:33):


Cassie Gillespie (07:33):

Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>.

Kelly Smith (07:34):

And our society and movie theaters and classrooms and gymnasiums. And really most of the things are set up for this neurotypical world. And I know just in the last couple years and specializing in this a little bit more, I’ve become more and more aware of woo, how my brain processes is different than my spouse or my kid or anybody else. So it really is quite freeing and I believe that’s where we’re moving to. And that’s where, where I want us to move to.

Cassie Gillespie (08:06):

And if if we’re thinking about the way these terms are kind of used in common parlance, I feel like there’s a collection of diagnoses or ways that you hear the term neurodiverse used or neurodivergent used either in the school system or in the mental health system. What are some of the diagnoses that people might carry who are kind of grouped under that umbrella term?

Kelly Smith (08:28):

Autism would definitely be one of them. ADHD could be one. Anxiety, definitely sensory integration disorder. And I will talk a a lot more about sensory as we talk more about the, the specifics of neurodiversity. So I would say those are our major diagnosis.

Cassie Gillespie (08:48):

And that, you know, diagnoses in of themselves are kind of a complicated idea, but I just wanted to make sure we’re painting the picture connecting some dots for you listening, if you’ve heard some of those terms. And not been clear about how they connect to each other. So how then do you think about gender diversity?

Kelly Smith (09:05):

Yeah, boy, there’s a lot of there’s a lot of opinions right now.

Cassie Gillespie (09:09):

Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>.

Kelly Smith (09:09):

About gender diversity.

Cassie Gillespie (09:10):

Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>.

Kelly Smith (09:11):

And you know, I wish, I wish it could go back to just inclusivity again.

Cassie Gillespie (09:17):


Kelly Smith (09:18):

That, that we all matter. So gender identity is how I experience my gender identity. How do I experience that in my brain? So really in the core of who I am, do I identify more masculine, more feminine? And then what happens though is it’s how do I express that?

Cassie Gillespie (09:39):

Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>.

Kelly Smith (09:40):

So in my brain, I might experience who I am to my core as a man, but I may choose, and this is where there can be choice. So the identity there isn’t choice.

Cassie Gillespie (09:54):

Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>.

Kelly Smith (09:55):

But where there is choice, and guess what, we all made a choice this morning when we got up and got dressed.

Cassie Gillespie (10:00):


Kelly Smith (10:00):

So I made a choice this morning to express my gender as a woman on a snowy day in Vermont.

Cassie Gillespie (10:09):

It is so snowy today.

Kelly Smith (10:10):

Snow, so snowy. And I have boots on and a sweatshirt and a pair of pants. I would never dress like this going to work. But that’s how I decided to express myself. And tonight, if I go get to go out tonight in snowy Vermont, you know, I probably will dress much differently than I am right now. And, you know, in a couple weeks I’m going to a funeral. So I absolutely will dress. I probably will have a skirt on and a, you know, and a jacket and a pretty blouse and things like that. So when I wake up in the morning, I know I’m a woman. And then I look at the closet and I look at the weather and I think about what I’m doing today. And then I’m like, ah, this is what I’m gonna, how I’m gonna express myself today. Yeah. How I’m gonna express my gender today. And I wish that’s where folks could maybe understand that better. And, and we all, we all have gender expression, we all are gender in terms of how we express ourselves. It, it’s fluid based on what our thoughts and feelings are that day, but the identity is not fluid or a choice.

Cassie Gillespie (11:20):

Thank you. That’s super helpful. Alright, so when we think about a triple intersection of trauma, neurodiversity and gender diversity, I mean, let’s just kind of define like what does that mean? What is a triple intersection of those three kind of big words that we’ve been trying to unpack?

Kelly Smith (11:36):

Maybe it would be helpful if I also defined trauma.

Cassie Gillespie (11:41):

Sure, sure.

Kelly Smith (11:41):

Which you asked me to before <laugh>. So there are many definitions of trauma. The framework that I use for thinking about trauma. And I’m a trauma therapist, so I’ve been thinking about this for 35 years. But the framework that I like to use comes from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, better known as NTSN. And their definition, or the frame that you, they use is a traumatic event, is a frightening, dangerous, or violent event that poses a threat to a child’s life. Or bodily integrity. Witnessing a traumatic event that threatens life or physical security of a loved one can also be traumatic. So there’s a lot that can fit within and under that definition.

Cassie Gillespie (12:32):

Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>.

Kelly Smith (12:33):

So let’s think then about the triple intersection. And I want to talk about just intersecting identities in general first.

Cassie Gillespie (12:41):


Kelly Smith (12:41):

So identities run in a linear way. I’ll start with that. So I am a social worker. I’m a woman. I’m married to a woman. I’m a mom. I love theater, I love travel. So those are some of my identities. I’m getting older, well, I would call it myself. I’m getting more mature.

Cassie Gillespie (13:05):


Kelly Smith (13:05):

Seasoned. So those are my identities. Okay. And they run in this linear way for a moment. But then as soon as I, let’s say I get outta bed, I got outta bed this morning and I was a woman and I was a social worker. ’cause I know I was coming here to meet with Cassie and Joe. And as soon as I took a breath and, and got ready, my identity started overlapping because I was a woman, I was a social worker, I was dressing for the snow. I live in New England, my back hurt a little bit ’cause I’m older and I wasn’t in my bed.

Kelly Smith (13:40):

So all of my identities immediately started interacting with one another. So that’s important for us to think about. And as you’re listening to this, I really have fun with this, you know, do this at a dinner party, do this while you’re driving to work, what are your identities? And then we start to think about how do they intersect with one another because they do immediately they start intersecting with one another. And what we know about intersecting identities, and I really recommend Dr. Webster or Kimberly Crenshaw’s work on inter intersectional identities. What happens is I can start to overemphasize and make assumptions about people who maybe look like me, share the same gender, our social workers, our white female. So I can make some assumptions about those people because it appears that we share the same identities.

Cassie Gillespie (14:38):

Like you think you know something about them. ’cause You know something about how that works for you.

Kelly Smith (14:42):


Cassie Gillespie (14:43):

Mm-Hmm. <Affirmative>.

Kelly Smith (14:44):

And then what happens is I make assumptions that are wrong, and I make assumptions that my way of doing, it’s the right way of doing it. And what is more helpful to do is to know what my identities are and then be curious with someone else about their identities and how do they intersect versus making assumptions. So we may know one person with autism, we may know one person who’s white, who’s a male who’s 16 with autism, but then we only know that one person.

Cassie Gillespie (15:19):

Right. Right. Right.

Kelly Smith (15:20):

And we can’t make assumptions. So that’s what I wanna say about intersecting I identities is figure out who, what yours are, and then be curious and open to learning what others are. And the other piece about it is that when we are stressed, so let’s, let’s say I know what my identities are and I go into a situation where someone else has completely different identities, and I do, what can happen is my brain becomes stressed and then I can choose to not engage because I’m making assumptions about those other people have nothing in common with me, or I’m uncomfortable with those people.

Kelly Smith (16:01):

So it, it does both things. It makes me make assumptions, and it also stops me from being curious and getting to know other people.

Cassie Gillespie (16:11):

And that goes back to what we said at the beginning, that that love and connection and belonging is so important. And if we’re leaning in or not leaning in or guarding ourselves because we’ve already decided that we don’t have it with someone else, we really lose that opportunity to see people as human. Right?

Kelly Smith (16:27):


Cassie Gillespie (16:27):

Awesome. I mean, not awesome <laugh>, but powerful.

Kelly Smith (16:32):

So some folks may be listening and say, well, you know, why’s this matter? You know, I know one person with autism, you know, why are we spending all this time? And I know, well, I know one gay person. Ooh, I know it all. No, the numbers really do tell the story. And the numbers also underestimate because numbers are based on stats, which are based on information we have, which is based on information we’ve received. So here’s some numbers for us to really know that all of this matters. So nine in a thousand children are maltreated in the US annually. So those are the ones with open abuse and neglect cases.

Cassie Gillespie (17:13):

Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>.

Kelly Smith (17:14):

And we all know that there’s more than that. But nine in a thousand, that’s a lot. One in 44 youth have an intellectual disability. One in 36 children are diagnosed with autism. And 1.6 million youth age 13 plus identify as transgender. And one in four individuals who have autism identify as LGBTQIA.

Cassie Gillespie (17:41):


Kelly Smith (17:42):

So the intersection of all of this is very real and it really does matter. And we really do need to pay attention to everyone we interact with.

Cassie Gillespie (17:53):

All right. Well, that’s so powerful. So one of the questions I have and was really excited to hear more from you about is how we should be thinking about kiddos experience with trauma when we’re talking specifically about these populations.

Kelly Smith (18:07):

It’s a big question. Thanks for, thanks for asking it and really thinking, allowing us to think about it. So I think it’s important because these youth are so marginalized and walking through their world at school or home or their neighborhoods, their sports teams, there are so many opportunities for them to not be understood or worse, which, and the worst would be traumatized. So our youth are traumatized in so many different ways. So I think we need to make the assumption that there is trauma that these kids have experienced and still do experience. And the types of trauma that a kid with neurodiversity might experience is bullying, being excluded, cut off relationships and isolated. They’re not often invited to school dances. They often struggle playing on school teams, football teams, and I’ll talk a little bit more about that. From a sensory perspective, transitions and changes are really hard and a lot of these traumatic experiences or events happen as a result of a sense, a neurological sensory experience and how they experience the world differently than other kids.

Kelly Smith (19:30):

So there’s something called sensory integration disorder. And it, it really is a part of neurodiversity and autism. And what that means is that our kids and all of us, but our kids experience sensory experiences in different ways. So bright lights can be too bright and noises can be too loud, and textures can feel like sandpaper. So if you think of a kid at school who’s expected to go to the lunch room at 10, at 1110, and the lunch room’s a loud place, that can be an absolutely overwhelming experience for them.

Cassie Gillespie (20:07):

Mm-Hmm. <affirmative>.

Kelly Smith (20:08):

And the example I have is, so I have a nephew who’s 26 with with autism. And again, that’s a language issue. So what he likes to be called is he is my nephew with autism versus he is autistic. So that’s a perfect example of how language matters to him.

Kelly Smith (20:28):

So my nephew’s 26 and has autism and he has high levels of support need. In the old days, even two years ago, we called it high functioning, low functioning. That is not correct language anymore. It’s the level of support needs that they need. So my nephew needs high level support needs. So he’s at school and he’s in the lunchroom. And every single day, Cassie, I am not kidding still. Today, he eats a cheeseburger with a bun. No sesame seeds.

Cassie Gillespie (21:03):


Kelly Smith (21:03):

It has to be the right ketchup. And oh my goodness, the school district decided to use a different brand of cheese.

Cassie Gillespie (21:12):


Kelly Smith (21:13):

I know. Oh, wow. You know, it was for budgetary reasons. Right.

Cassie Gillespie (21:16):

Yeah. <Laugh>.

Kelly Smith (21:17):

No one in the whole world would’ve known the difference about the cheese on the cheeseburger, but no.

Cassie Gillespie (21:23):

But he did.

Kelly Smith (21:24):

My nephew did.

Cassie Gillespie (21:25):


Kelly Smith (21:25):

He took one bite of it and he lost his noodle because it tasted different to him.

Kelly Smith (21:31):

And he’s saying it’s, it’s the wrong cheese. It’s the wrong cheese. And he’s backing up and he’s throwing his thing down because his sensory experience and his neurological sensory makeup was off as a result of that cheese. And then what happened in the rest of his body because of that silly piece of cheese. And it was important for us to listen and really learn from him. What is up buddy? The cheese. The cheese. So I’m having school meetings over a piece of cheese and no kidding, come to principal didn’t know what was going on. Sped director didn’t know what was going on. Come to find out they had changed the cheese.

Cassie Gillespie (22:08):

And he knew.

Kelly Smith (22:08):

It and he knew it. But if we didn’t stop and listen to him, who has high support needs, who doesn’t have a lot of language, but we really needed to stop and listen to him in order to figure out what the heck was happening at lunchtime.

Cassie Gillespie (22:24):


Kelly Smith (22:25):

Because he was refusing to go to school and it could have been seen as a behavior.

Cassie Gillespie (22:30):


Kelly Smith (22:31):

And instead we had to stop and really think about it. And that episode could have, could have led to seclusion, could have led to isolation, could have led to restraint, and a lot of other traumatic experiences that could have happened for him if we wouldn’t have stopped and listened.

Cassie Gillespie (22:49):

Yeah. Yeah. That’s such a great example. It’s really about what’s underlying the behavior. Right?

Kelly Smith (22:54):


Cassie Gillespie (22:55):

And how that makes sense to that individual.

Kelly Smith (22:58):

Yep. And you know, another example for our kids with who are neurodivergent and we don’t think about this at all, are they have a higher, usually a higher number of medical appointments. So it could be the therapist, it could be occupational therapy, it could be they have to go to three dentist appointment because it’s a difficult sensory experience. So what, what I can do in one appointment, they need three appointments and they can experience significant traumas from these very routine procedures that maybe Cassie you and I can do or our children can do.

Cassie Gillespie (23:33):


Kelly Smith (23:34):

So my nephew has to have blood drawn every three months and the process of getting him to have blood drawn, you know, our listeners can’t even even imagine, you can’t even think through this. But it’s taking the coat off and then putting that rubber band around you and then putting your arm out and then sticking with blood and then it, they didn’t find the right vein.

Cassie Gillespie (23:57):

Vein. Yeah.

Kelly Smith (23:58):

And then, and then you take that rubber band off and that whole 15 minute experience can take us an hour. And then do I send him back to school or do we go out for a soda or a snack to regulate him?

Cassie Gillespie (24:14):


Kelly Smith (24:15):

Before I send him back to school. But we’ve experienced some judgment about, well, he was only, it was only a 15 minute lab appointment and yet you were gone for three hours.

Cassie Gillespie (24:26):


Kelly Smith (24:26):

Well, I can send him back to school. Yeah, absolutely. But he’s gonna end up isolated, excluded, potentially in a sensory room.

Cassie Gillespie (24:36):


Kelly Smith (24:36):

And a lot of other traumatic experiences for him.

Cassie Gillespie (24:39):

That follow. Yeah. All right. Well I really appreciate you making that visible to us. Those are really powerful examples about things we might not consider. If you sort of have the privilege to move through the world in a neurotypical kind of framework, raising neurotypical kiddos. Is there a framework that you suggest when we talk about the, I feel like I’ve just used the word framework five times, but when we talk about working with neurodiverse or gender diverse kids who have experienced trauma, is there a framework you suggest that is, can be helpful?

Kelly Smith (25:11):

Absolutely. I think a lot of us as clinicians or as educators, we are listening for the behaviors and trying to shift behaviors. And my perspective as a trauma therapist and now really specializing in these three areas in the intersection of them, I think it’s super important for us to understand the behaviors who tell a story. But what we really need to do is we just need to look at these individuals, our individuals. They’re all of us. They’re, they’re our kids, they’re our nephews, they’re all of us as, and I really, there’s a couple words here that I use to describe, it’s important for us to see these individuals as amazing, unique, strong, creative, courageous, funny, resourceful, and they want to be connected. And often you’ll hear in the autism world, oh well, you know, because they can’t make eye contact, they don’t wanna be connected or because they read social cues differently.

Kelly Smith (26:17):

Oh, they, they don’t wanna be connected, they don’t wanna have friends, they’re not able to have friends. And it’s the opposite of that. They want to be connected in very important ways, but they do it differently. So I need to show up and we need to show up instead of seeing them as bad or weird or odd or special or anything like that. It really is, you are amazing and unique and creative and strong and courageous and resourceful and, and you wanna be connected and I want to be connected to you. So help me understand how to be connected with you.

Cassie Gillespie (26:56):


Kelly Smith (26:57):

And I think it’s a really different framework than, than how we typically see our neurodivergent youth.

Cassie Gillespie (27:04):

Okay. And is that the same, would you say for the way people tend to engage or not engage with youth who are also expressing gender diversity?

Kelly Smith (27:12):

A hundred percent. I think I, what I would add with those youth would be they want to be accepted and loved.

Cassie Gillespie (27:20):

Yeah. They need to.

Kelly Smith (27:21):

They need to and we’ll talk maybe in a different part of the series around what happens when we don’t have acceptance.

Cassie Gillespie (27:30):


Kelly Smith (27:30):

And love with gender identity. So the other thing I wanna say about the framework though, so who are these individuals? You know, I, I listed off all those words that are important to really to think about. But then it’s about how do I show up? Who am I and how do I show up versus how do I change them so they can be successful? It really is, how do I need to show up every single day when I’m working with or living with or loving an individual who is neurodivergent?

Cassie Gillespie (28:03):

And that’s really changing the status quo, right? Because the world is built in such a way we want these youth to show up to our neurotypical structures and be functioning. And, and so you’re suggesting a total flip on that?

Kelly Smith (28:15):


Cassie Gillespie (28:16):


Kelly Smith (28:17):

And we are charged with, I think charged is a good word, but I also think we are given the opportunity and the honor to really look for opportunities to practice and teach and be patient and just be over and over, over again. There with them. And it’s important for us to be regulated. And I’ll talk about that a little bit too. There’s so much to talk about. So we’ll talk a little bit about the window of tolerance, but it’s vital for us to be regulated. We need to engage with the individual. If something happens, we are the ones to need to lead, lead the repair and what happened and, and reconnect. So let me break those down a little bit for us, Cassie, if that’s okay.

Cassie Gillespie (29:02):

Yeah, let’s do it.

Kelly Smith (29:02):

So, so we’ll take my nephew who is losing his noodle over a piece of cheese, right? And the chairs are going everywhere and he’s crying and all this kind of stuff. So what, what I need to do in that situation is I need to be regulated. And what I mean by regulated is my tone of voice, my heartbeat, my heart rate, my how I approach him. I need to just be calm and regulate. ’cause He’s losing his noodle.

Cassie Gillespie (29:30):


Kelly Smith (29:30):

And if I lose my noodle and he’s losing his noodle, we’re gonna have noodles everywhere and it’s not gonna be pretty.

Cassie Gillespie (29:36):


Kelly Smith (29:36):

Okay? So I had to stay regulated. And then what happens, and our goal is to help him become regulated, but the way you do that is to engage with him in a low and slow sort of way. I don’t scream and say, what’s wrong with you?

Kelly Smith (29:53):

Pick up those chairs. Instead I say, Hey buddy, what’s going on? Or I say, Hey buddy, you’re having a tough time. I’m just gonna hang out here with you. I’m just gonna hang. We’re gonna figure this out. I’m right here and we’re gonna hang out. We’re just gonna hang out. And what you will see, it’s beautiful to see actually what you will see by you being regulated and just being in presence of this other individual, you will see their brain become regulated. You’ll see their body start to calm down just by your presence of being with them and you being regulated.

Cassie Gillespie (30:29):

That’s some beautiful co-regulation.

Kelly Smith (30:31):

It is really awesome to be a part of that and to see. So then, okay, so then we’re engaged and he’s back in, you know, he’s back regulated and you know, I’m not gonna ask about the cheese. I’m not gonna ask about what happened in the lunchroom. I’m gonna say something like, buddy, oh my gosh, I noticed you’re wearing your purple socks today. Dang it. I don’t have my purple socks on, but I’m gonna wear mine tomorrow. And then you’re gonna say, Hey, he loves the Red Sox. So hey, what happened with the Red Sox last night? So we’re just reengaging with him.

Cassie Gillespie (31:05):

And you’ve learned what works for him over time, right?

Kelly Smith (31:09):


Cassie Gillespie (31:09):

Because of his sort of unique who he is as a person. And then you’ve been able to figure out what is more, I don’t know, soothing.

Kelly Smith (31:17):


Cassie Gillespie (31:17):


Kelly Smith (31:17):

Because I see him as amazing, unique, strong, resourceful, creative.

Cassie Gillespie (31:22):


Kelly Smith (31:22):

So I’ve learned that about him. And then this is a piece where I think a lot of adults miss it. So the next step in this process is the repair. And often when we think of repair, we’re thinking of, oh, he needs to apologize and pick up the chairs and write an apology note. And he needs

Cassie Gillespie (31:40):

Show respect.

Kelly Smith (31:41):

He needs to show respect and he needs to blah, blah, blah. And instead what happens in this framework is I say to him, Joey, I am so sorry we’ve had a tough lunchtime today. Ah, that was a bummer for both of us. And by doing that over time and over time Joey will learn when I say, ah, this is a tough lunchtime and let’s figure this out together, Joey will learn to be able to say, ah, miss Kel, yeah, I’m sorry, I threw a chair. And that’s what you’re looking for. And then it’s the reconnect. So the repair and then the reconnect. And the reconnect is Joey, you pick up the chairs over there. I’ll pick up the chairs over here. Let’s have a race to see who picks up the most chairs the fastest. Maybe the janitor can even time us to pick up the chairs. Let’s get this done. Oh, so we can go back to art class.

Cassie Gillespie (32:32):


Kelly Smith (32:33):

And we just avoided isolation, restraint, seclusion, and a six hour nightmare by just regulating, engaging, repairing, and reconnecting. And I think the last thing I’ll say about kind of the framework and how do we show up is be curious, compassionate, and kind.

Cassie Gillespie (32:53):

You know, one of the things I just wanna say about this is the sort of ubiquitousness, is that too big a word? The universal application of this framework to all people, you know? So last series we were talking about youth suicide and the public health crisis that is youth suicide. But one of the things that our amazing guests kept sort of centering was actually one of the most impactful things that we can all do is be regulated with youth when we come to that conversation. Like, you know, have your own steady breathing, have your own reactions under control, and then just be curious about what’s going on for that kiddo and be there, right? It’s the same. It’s this absolutely regulate yourself and then be curious and connected. And, you know, in a separate role that I have, I do organizational consulting and the amount of repair and reconnect conversations. We’re coaching workplace leaders to do. I mean, we, we term it a little differently, right? It’s like feedback and conflict resolution, <laugh>, but it’s the same conversation, it’s the same skillset. So I just really appreciate as always, that’s what’s so vital for our most vulnerable folks is also applicable and literally every part of adulting.

Kelly Smith (34:05):

Absolutely. <laugh>. Yep.

Cassie Gillespie (34:07):

Thank you for humoring my kind of soapbox rant there.

Kelly Smith (34:11):

Well I think we both have rants, right? ’cause We’re so passionate about this and so yeah. Passion and rants.

Cassie Gillespie (34:17):

Okay. So one of the things we have to do is sort of or listeners that we try to do is dose our episodes here, titrate them so that there’s, there’s good information, but not too, too long. So we’re gonna create two more episodes. The next one we’re gonna talk about the intersection specifically between trauma and neurodiversity. And then we’re gonna come back and do a third where we talk more specifically about the intersection of trauma and gender diversity. Kelly, is there anything you wanna go a little deeper into or give a little more context on before we wrap this one up?

Kelly Smith (34:48):

Absolutely. one thing that I mentioned very briefly that I said I’d get back to, so thank you for the reminder, Cassie. I wanna talk a little bit about window of tolerance. I was describing it there in that example. But the window of tolerance is really important for us. And this can save marriages, this can help in parenting. This can help you with you and your in-laws or your boss. So the window of tolerance is this concept of we all have a window where we have the capacity to be frustrated and sad and mad. And, but we’re still regulated. You know, we’re not cussing and screaming, we’re not going to bed for six hours. We’re just, we’re just regulated and we’re able, able to modulate those various emotions within a window. But then what happens for all of us, we can go out of the window and that’s where we experience an emotion or a situation and we become dysregulated. So our heart rate will change, our breathing will change. We become really preoccupied with what it is that’s upset us. And what happens then is our frontal lobe really kind of shuts down.

Cassie Gillespie (36:00):

Yeah. You get into that fight flight, right?

Kelly Smith (36:03):

Yeah. So what we wanna do as parents and professionals working with or loving someone who’s in the moment, dysregulated and out of the window, as I was saying before, we just wanna be with them. We just wanna sit with them and be with them. And we wanna use very little language and we want to go low and slow. And our only goal there, and again, this is cool brain stuff. The only goal is to get that person back in their own individual window of regulation. And you do that by, as I’ve already said, and as we’ve already talked about, Cassie, you do that just by being present and helping them become regulated. So I may mention in fut in the future series about window of tolerance, and it’s important that you understand what that is.

Cassie Gillespie (36:48):

Yeah, yeah. We we have a 6-year-old and we talk about this a lot and we use the phrase, can I share my calm with you? And depending on how dysregulated everybody is, you know, sometimes it’s a yes and sometimes it’s a no <laugh>, but ultimately, you know, whether we’re using those words or not, that’s what we’re doing, right?

Kelly Smith (37:08):

Absolutely Yeah.

Cassie Gillespie (37:08):

We’re, we’re sharing our calm.

Kelly Smith (37:10):

Absolutely. And then they’re taking it on and their brain is able to self-regulate, and then their body shifts as a result of that. So it’s, it’s quite beautiful.

Cassie Gillespie (37:18):

That’s awesome. All right, well that’s probably a really powerful place to leave it. So listeners, be sure to rejoin us for part two and part three to get more from Ms. Kelly Smith.

Cassie Gillespie (37:32):

The Social Work lens is produced by the University of Vermont’s Child Welfare Training Partnership and the State of Vermont. Our theme music is composed and performed by local band Brick Drop. And our sound production and engineering has been brought to you by Egan Media Productions. We’d also like to give a special thank you to our in-house administrative production assistant Emma Baird. For the Social Work Lens, I’m Cassie Gillespie, and we’ll see you next time.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *