How to Support your Child’s Neurodiversity
Today, let’s talk about neurodiversity and why it’s important to move away from the medical model of disability that leans toward pathologizing differences rather than accepting and appreciating them. Read on if you’re interested in ways to tune into and build in accommodations for your child’s unique neuro-differences.
A few years ago, I started seeing families in my private practice where parents were struggling to raise kids who showed extreme avoidance behavior in the face of routine and everyday demands. As I tried to help parents support and understand their children better while reducing conflict at home, I happened upon the description of Pathological Demand Avoidance, or PDA, which is currently thought to be a profile of autism. I’ve talked about PDA before in an episode called opens in a new window“What To Do If Your Child Has An Extreme Need For Control and Autonomy.” As I delve deeper into working with parents whose children meet criteria for the PDA diagnostic label, I’m learning more and more about neurodiversity—and why it’s so important to not only support but affirm a person’s neurodiversity.
What is neurodiversity?
The term “neurodiversity” was coined by Australian autism rights activist Judy Singer in the late 1990s. A person on the autism spectrum herself, she used the term to describe the diversity of human brains and minds and to promote the idea that neurological differences should be recognized and respected as a natural part of human diversity, rather than being pathologized or treated as deficits or dysfunctions.
The concept of neurodiversity has since gained widespread recognition and has been embraced by activists fighting against societal dynamics that aren’t accepting of neurodivergence.
The term neurodivergence is typically used to describe people who have neurodevelopmental conditions that can affect how a person thinks, learns, and communicates. Being neurodivergent means that a person’s brain functions, learns, and processes information in ways that are significantly different from dominant societal standards for “normal.”
People who fall opens in a new windowunder the umbrella of neurodivergence include but aren’t limited to those with developmental, intellectual, psychiatric, or learning disabilities, and those who have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), dyscalculia, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and Tourette’s Syndrome.
Why does neurodiversity need a movement?
Led by autistic and other neurodivergent and disabled people, the neurodiversity movement advocates for the acceptance of neurological differences, autism/neurodivergence acceptance, equal opportunity, equitable inclusion, self determination, autonomy, and the end of discrimination.
In her guidebook called “A Parent’s Introductory Guide to Neurodiversity-Aligned Therapy and Educational Practices for Autistic Children,” opens in a new windowEmily Harvey helps readers understand what fueled the birth of the neurodiversity movement by contrasting the dominant perspective in today’s society—the more pathologizing medical model of disability—with the neurodiversity-affirming social model of disability.
The medical model of disability and the pathology paradigm perceives that there is only one “right” kind of brain: a “normal” or “neurotypical” one. Brains that diverge from normal are considered abnormal and deficient, which results in disability. The person is seen as broken and in need of “fixing”—and fixing them means making them learn to act more neurotypical. And sure, a neurodivergent person can “act” more neurotypical (this is called “masking”) but this won’t change their neurology. And it sends the message you have to change if you want to be accepted.
In contrast, the social model of disability and the neurodiversity paradigm stress the lack of acceptance of neurodivergent people and take the stance that the barriers created by society and the environment are what result in disability. Neurodivergent folks should have equal rights and access in society just the way they are without being “fixed” because they are equal humans with the right to autonomy and self-determination like everyone else.
If we look at neurodivergent folks through the lens of neurodiversity and the social model of disability, we can move away from deficit-focused perceptions of them as those whose developmental disorder is defined by social and communication difficulties and “abnormal” behaviors. We could instead see this population as having a developmental condition or disability that affects how they experience and therefore how they interact with the world around them.
What’s the best way to educate your child about their neurodevelopmental diagnosis? Dr. Nanika Coor gives seven tips for talking with neurodiverse kids about their diagnosis in a way that focuses on their strengths and abilities.
Supporting your neurodivergent child
The goal of a neurodiversity-affirming parent is to raise a child who accepts themselves in a world that isn’t always great at being accepting. To that end, the focus is on helping your child learn skills that will foster a positive self-identity, make their life easier, and help them live a joyful life.
Fostering self-acceptance and a positive self-identity involves accepting and appreciating your child for who they are, focusing on respect, empathy, and trust, and assuming that your child is capable and competent with the right support. It’s important to encourage your child to advocate for their needs and listen to them when they do. Spotlight what your child is skilled at, not only their challenges. Commit to learning from other neurodivergent peoples’ lived experiences.
opens in a new windowRadical acceptance can help you cope with challenging and upsetting situations that life and parenting bring. Dr. Coor explains radical acceptance and how it can help when things get hard. Head to that page, or listen to the episode with this player:
Another great way to set your neurodivergent child up for success is to focus on the ways your child’s environmental surroundings affect their neurodiverse characteristics. From a neurodiversity-affirming perspective, if your child is struggling, it’s likely that something in the environment needs to be adjusted.
opens in a new windowFoundations for Divergent Minds (FDM) is a nonprofit organization that offers training and education for parents and professionals who work with autistic and neurodivergent children. FDM recommends assessing 5 key areas to identify what environmental factors may be getting in your child’s way:
1. Sensory Integration
Understanding your child’s unique sensory needs allows you to modify the environment accordingly and helps your child advocate for their needs. Your child can fall anywhere along the hypo-sensitive to hyper-sensitive spectrum in each of the eight sensory system areas: Sight, Sound, Smell, Touch, Taste, Balance, Movement, and Internal State.
2. Executive Functioning
Does your child need help in an area of Executive Functioning (EF)? EF is made up of eight interconnected processes: Initiation, Inhibition, Working Memory, Planning, Organization, Self-Monitoring, Shift, and Emotional Regulation.
3. Respectful Communication
Communication comes in many valid forms—and behavior is a child’s earliest reliable tool. Neurodiversity-affirming parents respect and facilitate all forms of communication and support neurodivergent kiddos to communicate in the way that’s most authentic for them, i.e. through technology, ASL, speaking, etc.
Check out this opens in a new windowSavvy Psychologist podcast on how to communicate more effectively.
4. Operative Social Interaction
Social Interaction involves two or more people—each with their own style(s) of engaging interpersonally. It’s important not only for neurodivergent kids to understand how neurotypical people communicate, but also for neurotypical people to understand neurodivergent styles of thinking, feeling, socially communicating, and interacting.
5. Emotional Regulation
It’s hard for your child to regulate their emotional state when the environment isn’t a good fit for their specific needs. Identifying and resolving unmet needs promotes self-regulation and improves your child’s quality of life.
Practice makes progress
For the next couple of weeks, each day choose one of the FDM 5 key areas and tune in to your child’s needs and wants in that area. Where do they seem to struggle? When do they seem to thrive? What changes might you make in your home, at school, or to daily routines? What external accommodations would make their day-to-day lives and relationships easier for them?
Let me know what you learn by shooting me an email at opens in a new window