What is Neurodiversity?

Between 15-20 % of the population have brains that developmental psychologists would identify as neurodiverse. A neurodiverse (or neurodivergent, as it’s sometimes called) brain is one that develops, works, learns or processes differently than the typical brain. These individuals often have different strengths and different struggles than someone whose brain functions similarly to the dominant population.  Some types of neurodivergence include the autism spectrum, ADHD, dyslexia, and conditions like Tourette’s or obsessive compulsive disorder.  

if we break down the definition of neurodiversity, in it’s basic form we have two words: neuro, which means nervous system and diverse which is the act of showing a great deal of variety, or different. The term encapsulates forms of brain wiring that are different than those of the dominant population, but it’s important to note that there isn’t a “right” or “wrong” way for a brain to work. Rather, there is just a type of wiring that generally functions smoothly within the cultural standards.  For example, in some cultures it’s viewed as rude to look people in the eyes, which is something many autistic individuals struggle with doing. Yet here in the US, it can be seen as rude or “shady” to avoid eye contact.

There are challenges that come with being neurodiverse or parenting a child whose neural wiring differs from the dominant culture’s expectations. However, a paradigm shift occurs when we view neurodiversity as just another form of diversity in general—a difference that is beautiful and much needed.  In fact, the creativity that comes with ADHD and the attention to specificity that oftentimes accompany autism are traits that are needed in society. If they weren’t, from a purely evolutionary standpoint, people with neurodiversity would not reproduce and their traits would not continue. Harvey Blume noted, “Neurodiversity may be every bit as crucial for the human race as biodiversity is for life in general.”   

Parenting a Neurodiverse Child

Parenting a neurodiverse child can be difficult and feel lonely at times. It’s frustrating when your typical parenting styles don’t intersect with your child’s needs. Here are a few tips, expanding upon the principals from Debbie Steinberg Kentz, LMSW, and founder of the group, Bright & Quirky, an online community for parents of twice exceptional children.

Become a Self Scientist: In our home, we like to run experiments to determine what works in parenting, schooling, friendships and life. One size doesn’t fit all and one parenting approach or learning approach doesn’t fit all—especially in neurodiverse brains.  If neurodiverse brains are in the minority, the parenting approaches given for the majority may miss the mark for these children.

Sometimes we don’t know what works until we give it a try.  We may find that pieces of one approach are helpful but other pieces cause complete shutdown.  This is why we become “little scientists” for our kids, constantly seeking to evaluate, hypotheisize, test and re-assess, together, as we listen and learn what they truly need. 

Celebrate 1 % gains: If you child has a learning challenge, it’s important to remember that their processing speed may differ, and their type of processing (auditory, visual, experiential) may need to be altered based on their individual needs. A learning difference, by nature, means that they may not learn skills in the same way or with the same speed as expected.  Sometimes, this means they learn certain things faster, other times it may require extra patience on our part as they develop and grow.  Many kids with learning differences are what psychologists call “twice exceptional”, meaning they are gifted in some areas and have extra needs in other areas. Therapists have a term for this: “asynchronous development”.  This is why a child may understand quantum physics but has difficulty transitioning from one activity to the next or reading social cues. 

This is also why 1% gains are so important.  We can get so fixated on trying to fit a diverse brain into a typical environment (square peg in a round hole, if you will) that we become overwhelmed and give up.  What would a 1% gain look like in an area that causes challenges in your neurodiverse child? If they struggle with transitions, what would it look like to have just 1% smoother shift?  If attention or executive functioning  (organizing thoughts, time-management, etc.) is a challenge, what would it look like to increase their ability to manage their day by just 1%?

Don’t Respond to Complexity with Rigidity

Oftentimes, out of fear and a desire to control, we respond to a complex situation with a rigid response.  We erroneously believe that we can make the complex simple. Responding to complexity with rigidity only brings confusion and frustration. This is important to remember if you have a loved one who is neurodivergent. Oftentimes, their wiring is complex, nuanced and simply not responsive to a 1,2,3 magic style of parenting or typical social relatedness.  If we respond to complexity with rigidity, we will fail to connect with our kids because we aren’t addressing the true need, which may be very complex in nature. It is possible, however, to break things down to see what your child needs right now, at this moment, and address that first. As Maria Edgeworth so aptly says, “If we take care of the moments, the years will take care of themselves.”

You, the Parent, May Need Extra Support  

Parenting a neurodiverse child can feel lonely. You may feel misunderstood or have fight the urges to constantly explain your child’s behavior to onlookers. You may have to set boundaries with loved ones who offer unsolicited advice.

Learning how to make small gains in caring for yourself, the parent, is a crucial part of your parenting plan. Parenting a neurodiverse child takes more energy (mentally, emotionally and physically) because you are constantly making provisions for them. You are either seeking environmental accommodations for them (IEPS, 504 plans, etc) or teaching them skills to adapt to the environmental demands of a neurotypical world, a process that doesn’t come naturally to them. Either way, it’s energy consuming and, by nature, an uphill battle. You may need to take more breaks than your peers. You may need more therapeutic support. Neurodiverse children work harder than a neurotypical child to field the expectations of their environment. You, the parent, will require more comprehensive support as you support your child.  

A Unique Life

Parenting a neurodiverse child provides parents with the opportunity to see the world through a creative, albeit complex, lens. Parenting doesn’t come easily, but a powerful bond is forged through attentive love, support and openness to try different ways to connect with your uniquely wired child. Many parents are neurodiverse themselves, and perhaps they didn’t feel understood or heard as a child. The opportunity to parent differently can be healing for both parent and child– if we have the courage to embrace it.