Neurodivergent Children: What Parents Need to Know

Raising a child is a challenge—and that is assuming your child’s brain is wired in the way most other children’s brains are. Neurodivergent children have brains that are wired differently. Because of this, traditional parenting methods might result in consistently frustrated parents and a child who isn’t receiving the care they need. 

However, by changing the way you think about parenting and neurodivergency, you might be able to reach your child in ways you once thought impossible. This article will explore the concept of neurodivergency and help you better understand your neurodivergent child.

The History of Neurodivergency

Three decades ago, autism rights advocate Judy Singer had a novel idea that would challenge the concept of the “normal brain.” The standard practice in the medical community at the time was to devalue and pathologize people with neurological expressions that deviated from an arbitrarily defined “normal.”

The act of medical classification created an unequal power distribution between those who were neurologically “normal” and those who were neurologically atypical. As a result, the enforcement of this unequal power distribution had real-world implications. People who were considered neurologically atypical were more often passed over for jobs and thought to have less agency than “normal” people.

To fight this medical paradigm, Singer argued that there can’t possibly be one “healthy” or “normal” human neurology, with the rest being pathological. Instead, each individual has a unique set of varying cognitive functions, perceptions, and abilities.  

From there, the concept of neurodiversity was born. It’s not that neurodivergent people couldn’t learn, instead, they learned differently. Neurodivergent people weren’t disabled but were abled differently. 

This was an important paradigm shift in the medical and psychological communities—because it restored agency to neurodivergent people.

When It Comes To Raising Neurodivergent Children…

It’s essential to keep the history of neurodivergency in mind. Not too long ago, the medical community wrote off the agency and independence of many neurodivergent children because they required a different sort of parenting, education, and upbringing.

The fatal assumption was that there was only one way to parent, teach, and discipline, just as there was one way to be a child, to be taught, and be disciplined. If children acted outside of the boundaries of accepted, “normal” behavior they were punished, and often brutally so. 

When your neurodivergent child is acting out, you need to ask yourself, “what are they saying by this behavior?”

What Does Their Behavior Mean?

Just because the behavior seems disproportionate or out-of-place to you, doesn’t make it disproportionate or out of place to your child. Remember, all children act out at times. Getting to the root of the cause for acting out of place is hard to figure out even with neurotypical children.

As parents of a neurodiverse child, you have to become behavior detectives to try and discover what your child is trying to say by acting out. By getting to the root cause, you are best prepared to address the real issue underlying the behavior.

Here are some common reasons why your neurodivergent child may be acting out:

  • Avoidance or Escape: a child may act out to avoid having to do a task, go to a place or meet with a person. 

  • Sensory Overload: sense averse children might act out when they become overwhelmed by noises, lights, smells, or touch. 

  • To Achieve Something: a child might act out because they’ve learned that doing so grants them access to an item (like a toy) or a location (parent’s bedroom). 

  • Social Attention (Positive or Negative): a child might learn that a particular type of behavior creates a certain response from caregivers, teachers, or parents. 

  • To Feel In Control: a child who feels powerless or unable to communicate might feel some sort of agency by acting out.

The Spectrum of Neurodivergency

We have to try hard to avoid the sort of black and white thinking that left us assuming there were “normal children” and “bad children.” This binary thinking can creep back into our minds in unexpected ways. One way this often happens is thinking that we’ve figured it out with the split between neurodivergent and neurotypical children.

This split brings us right back to the binary we had before, only the names are more politically correct. To truly revolutionize your thinking on the matter, you have to throw out the binary altogether. Binaries are useful for quick and easy classifications of things—light and dark, or hot and cold. 

However, binaries lose their value entirely when dealing with people. Look at the spectrum of gender or sexuality. Binary thinking simply doesn’t represent the reality on the ground. It’s the same with neurotypical and neurodivergent categories of people.

In truth, thinking of the two as parts of a spectrum fits our lived realities much better than fixed binaries can. This is why many mood disorders and neurological disorders are thought of as spectrums. We now recognize autism spectrum disorder, for example.

Neurodivergent Learning, Behavioral, and Developmental Disabilities

Many learning, behavioral and developmental disabilities have been redefined to reduce the stigma of medical classification. Some of these disabilities associated with neurodivergency are

  • Autism

  • ADHD

  • Dyslexia

  • Tourette’s

  • Dysgraphia

  • Sensory Processing Disorder

  • Depression

  • Anxiety 

It’s a Journey: Raising Neurodivergent Children

Understanding neurodivergency will help you recognize certain patterns in your child’s behavior and increase your empathy in regard to what they are going through. It’s not easy for you, certainly, but it isn’t an easy experience for them, either. 

Our world is still quite biased in favor of neurotypical people. As parents of a neurodivergent child, you are like ambassadors. You are the bridge between the neurodivergent world and the neurotypical one. As advocates, you can help to erase the strict delineation between these two worlds. 

Are you up for the task? 

Jenn Walker is a freelance writer, proud mother, and avid beachgoer living unapologetically in recovery. She writes for Affinity Health Clinics, methadone clinics in Southern New Jersey.

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