It’s easy to get lost in the sea of terms, words, diagnoses, and opinions. One term that has been talked about a lot lately is neurodiversity. Although it may seem like a trending term occurring only in the last few years, the term neurodiversity was first used in the late 1990s by Judy Singer, an Australian sociologist.
As a pediatric psychologist, I work with children, teens, and young adults to help them better understand their brain, emotions, thoughts, behaviors, and interpersonal relationships. As a parent coach, I help parents better understand their kids and teens so that they can respond differently and maybe even break a few unhealthy generational cycles along the way. Parenting neurodiverse children can present unique challenges.
Neurodiversity and neurodivergence are terms that describe a range of conditions and diagnoses. These include autism, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), learning differences (dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia), and Tourette’s. Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety disorder, and sensory processing disorder are often cited as neurodiverse conditions. Neurodiversity also includes highly sensitive people. Of course, this list isn’t extensive and as new evidence emerges, we learn more.
Being neurodiverse isn’t negative, but rather states that a child’s brain differences affect how their brain works and how it functions differently from the larger neurotypical group.
Here are five things that are important to know about parenting neurodiverse children based on my 17 years supporting parents and their neurodiverse children as a pediatric psychologist:
- Identify whether an actual neurodiverse condition or diagnosis exists. Kids don’t need labels. However, sometimes identifying the challenge going on within and around the child sets them up for success in all the environments they occupy. Speaking to your child’s pediatrician and possibly getting an evaluation with a developmental pediatrician, child psychologist or neuropsychologist can help rule out and identify exactly what’s going on. Overall, trust your gut if you sense your child isn’t functioning or developing based on their chronological age.
- Learn more about your child’s condition or diagnosis. I am a huge advocate in educating and learning about why we do, think, feel, and behave the way we do. When you come from a place of understanding, you can better understand why your child responds to things the way they do and why they resist. The behavior or attitude you see may not be about disobedience. Rather, it may be that their brain is processing and reacting differently than you expected.
- Educate your child on their neurodiversity. Now that you’re equipped, educate and equip your child too. Name their challenge, condition, diagnosis, or personality style. Help them understand their strengths and superpowers. Talk to them about what makes things worse and what makes it better. Ask them what they have noticed and where they need more support. Make this collaborative, listen to what they have to say, empathize with their worries and concerns, and express your support.
- Communicate expectations in various ways. Now that you understand their brain better and so do they, the way you communicate your expectations needs to align with this understanding. Neurodiverse brains process and think about the world differently than a neurotypical brain. If you have certain expectations about chores, homework, screens, or bedtime, then discuss these things based on various learning and processing styles. This might look like a short list (visual), speaking it out loud (verbal), or practicing the steps (kinesthetic) to name a few. Most importantly, find out what works best for your child. What helps them remember? What gets in the way of meeting the expectation? Is the expectation developmentally appropriate?
- Have clear routines and be flexible. Kids tend to thrive when they know what to expect. Their brain doesn’t have to work as hard to figure things out or fill in the gaps. However, sticking to a rigid schedule or routine isn’t good for a neurodiverse brain that can tend to get “sticky”. If they get too stuck on a particular cereal brand, certain movie theater, or morning routine then it can be hard for them to go with the flow when things change. So, have a routine and introduce small changes in the routine as well. Even if they have a “preferred” thing, their brain will begin to learn they can also do things differently too.
Parenting neurodiverse children can be very challenging. It may not be the parenting life you planned or expected. You might feel pressure from others to “just enjoy the process” or ‘remember they grow up fast”. It may not feel fun. You might even see others parenting differently and not understanding why you can’t seem to get the same results or the same fulfillment. These are all common thoughts and challenges for parents who have neurodivergent children. Be patient with yourself. Give grace to your kids. Find ways to calm your nervous system and take care of yourself. Reach out for support when needed. A parent coach who has experience working with neurodiverse children and their parents is a great place to start.