Raising a Neurodivergent Child

Written by:
Julie Walters, M.A. Special Education
Updated:
11/3/23 10:17 pm
Written by:
Julie Walters, M.A. Special Education
Updated:
11/3/23 10:17 pm

Raising a Neurodivergent Child

The role of a parent is one of the most challenging roles a person can choose to play in their lives. You are taking on the responsibility to raise a person in the best way you know how, and hope that you are making the right choices. Watching a child explore the world, learn, and develop into themselves, parents can’t help but be thankful for this new person. Of course, parenting comes with incredibly challenging and important decisions to be made for and with your child. These decisions can be magnified when blessed with a neurodivergent child. 

When parents first notice signs their child may be neurodivergent, it can bring a wave of questions, such as:

  • How do I recognize if my child is neurodivergent?
  • What does it mean to be neurodivergent?
  • How will I be an effective parent to a neurodivergent child?
  • What are all the signs of a neurodivergent child?
  • How do I support and accommodate the needs of my neurodivergent child?
  • How do I nurture my neurodivergent child? 
  • And many more

There is nothing wrong with feeling overwhelmed at first, but by reading and learning all you can and consulting with professionals and other parents, you will grow to understand and parent your child in a way that supports and celebrates their neurodiversity. We refer to this neurodiversity-affirming parenting. We have compiled a quick and short guide for parenting and supporting your neurodivergent child. 

What Does It Mean to Be A Neurodivergent Kid?

If it feels like neurodivergence is a new term, then you aren’t alone. There are plenty of new parents asking the question: “What is a neurodivergent child?” The term “neurodivergence” was initially coined in 1998 by sociologist Judy Singer but only recently gained mainstream use. Singer coined neurodivergence as an umbrella term for the varying minds of conditions like autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and other similar conditions and neurotypes. The self-advocacy of the autism community drove the idea in the 1990s, inspiring Singer to dream of a movement where everyone could come together. 

In other words, neurodivergence itself is not a condition but the heading under which other conditions fall. The exact definition of neurodivergence is “differing in mental or neurological function from what is considered typical or normal (frequently used with reference to autism); not neurotypical.” Or as Dr. Sandra Friedman from Children’s Hospital Colorado describes, “It’s just saying, the way you approach things, the way you think, is different.” 

Neurodivergent children have variations in brain chemistry and development compared to neurotypical children; therefore, neurodivergent children think and approach many things differently, which can vary greatly even between children with the same diagnosis.

The dictionary definition of neurodivergence is a bit limited, as the understanding of neurodivergence has increased and changed rapidly in recent years. It used to be approached as a problem or abnormality that needed to be addressed. Today, mental health professionals view neurodivergence as a combination of unique strengths in certain areas and areas where additional support is needed.

Different Conditions Under the Term "Neurodiversity"

Since neurodivergence was initially coined, many conditions have been found to fit under the heading. There is no definitive list of the conditions under this heading, but some of the most common examples of neurodiversity include:

  • Autism 
  • Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Learning disabilities (dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, and dyspraxia)
  • Down syndrome
  • Prader-Willi Syndrome
  • Sensory processing disorders
  • Tourette syndrome
  • Williams syndrome
  • Social anxiety
  • And more

In many cases, a neurodivergent individual may have co-occurring conditions or multiple diagnoses. This is highly common between autism and ADHD, as according to Children’s Hospital Colorado, up to 60% of those with autism also have ADHD. Another common connection is with anxiety, where 42% of people with autism also experience anxiety. 

Understanding the Causes of Neurodivergence in Children

Parents need to understand that most cases of neurodevelopmental disorders are not a result of anything they have done. Several of these conditions have genetic components contributing to their development, including autism and ADHD. In fact, some parents even find out they are neurodivergent themselves in the course of their child getting diagnosed. Neurodiversity tends to be more prevalent in males, which could be due to several factors, such as genetics, biology, and risk factors. 

Some individuals may develop neurodevelopmental disorders over time or as the result of environmental factors, such as:

  • Trauma
  • Traumatic brain injury
  • Pesticide exposure
  • Infectious disease

These factors can contribute to forming conditions like PTSD/C-PTSD and intellectual disabilities. 

Realistically, humans have been evolving and will continue to evolve as time goes on. Some scientists have even suggested that certain aspects of neurodiversity may have been evolutionary advantages in prehistoric times. 

A study of ADHD using ancient human and Neanderthal samples states, “One of these theories, the hunter-farmer theory, states that ADHD traits specific to hunter-gatherers would have been environmentally beneficial well into the Neolithic Revolution when non-ADHD traits characteristic of agriculturalism spread.”

What are some signs your child may be neurodivergent?

It can be challenging as a parent to not doubt yourself when you notice signs of neurodiversity or when your child isn’t thriving the way you expect. This often starts as a gut feeling that may get brushed aside for a while. Of course, this is until signs keep showing themselves or the child isn’t developing or behaving similarly to many kids of the same age. 

Some of the signs that your child may be neurodivergent may not be incredibly apparent until the child is in social settings with other children. Let’s look at some of the common signs of neurodivergence. 

Autism

The signs  of neurodiverse children with autism are typically within four categories, which are:

  • Social Interaction: Autistic children may have trouble socializing or identifying social cues. 
  • Special Interests: Autistic children often have specific subjects or items they are intensely interested in. 
  • Repetitive behavior: May exhibit repetitive movements and behaviors. It can also manifest in a strong desire to maintain a routine. 
  • Sensory issues: Children with autism can become easily overstimulated by sensory inputs like sounds, lights, smells, and more. 

Here are some examples:

  • May not make eye contact or stare deeply
  • Trouble making friends
  • Not understanding when someone is joking
  • Taking jokes or analogies literally
  • Speak very little or not at all
  • Averse to specific clothing because of the feel of it
  • Overstimulated by loud or repetitive noises, bright lights, and other sensory input

ADHD 

The signs and symptoms of ADHD, often related to attention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. These can include: 

  • Trouble listening or remembering
  • Difficulty paying attention or focusing
  • Very talkative
  • Impulsive behavior without considering the consequences, like climbing dangerous objects or jumping off higher areas
  • Blurting out words when they should be quiet
  • High energy even at times the child should be tired

Dyslexia

Dyslexia is a learning disorder that can affect how a child processes information. This can affect reading, writing, and learning. Common red flags of dyslexia include:

  • Trouble remembering or understanding during reading
  • More difficulty with school work than neurotypical children
  • Avoiding school
  • Not understanding or remembering something they read despite rereading it multiple times
  • Behavioral issues at school (often due to frustration or difficulties related to dyslexia)

The above is far from a comprehensive list of all the signs of neurodiversity; but, it provides a solid groundwork of what to look for with some common conditions. 

Early Diagnosis and Intervention: What You Need to Understand

An essential factor in neurodiversity is early diagnosis and intervention. This gives your child the best chance of understanding their mind and having the highest quality of life. Realistically, many neurodiverse people live relatively normal and incredible lives. Although, early intervention can help them learn how to adapt to the social world and receive the support they need. 

Identifying neurodiversity early on gives neurodivergent kids access to governmental programs for support. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act lays a legal mandate that children with disabilities are entitled to a free and appropriate education at no cost. This makes several programs available to neurodiverse children, including:

  • Early Intervention services
  • Individual education programs
  • Extra support while in school

All of the above can make an incredible difference for neurodiverse children and allow them to thrive. 

There is no cure for autism or other neurodiverse conditions, and there is no need to view them as something to be cured. Neurodivergent children are different, but they are also incredible human beings with incredible thoughts, skills, and abilities. However, early intervention programs can help them understand and embrace their differences  while receiving the support they need. Early intervention can also help neurodivergent children:

  • Adapt to social settings and expectations
  • Reduce symptoms
  • Allow for more independence
  • And more

Furthermore, early diagnosis can help parents as well. Instead of worrying and stressing about whether something is wrong with their child, they can get answers and support to allow them to help their neurodiverse children whether it be in their social skills, education or other goals the child and family desire.

Things Parents Should Know About Raising Neurodivergent Children

At the end of the day, neurodivergent kids are just kids, but there are extra factors to consider while raising them. It takes a lot of patience, as well as emotional, physical, and strength throughout this journey as you learn how to best support and help your child. 

Since so many conditions fall under neurodiversity, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Each child will have specific behaviors, challenges, symptoms, and strengths. However, some general guidelines can help parents raise their children the best they can. 

Manage Your Expectations

It can be frustrating when neurodivergent kids are not listening or meeting the expectations in the way you expected when becoming a parent. This is understandable, but managing your expectations requires a perspective shift. You need to understand that your child is different and requires a different approach to understanding and empathy. 

Treat Yourself a Break

Neurodiverse children can have a long list of needs and support needs. This can lead to parents jumping straight to interventions and doing everything they can to care for their neurodiverse child. However, it is crucial to take a breather before making important decisions. Parents must give themselves time to understand the information and what it means. This will also let you make a more informed decision on your child’s care moving forward. 

Your Child's Diagnosis Doesn't Define Them

No matter how long you have been having parenting difficulties with your child, it is important not to view a diagnosis as the “answer.” It is not a way to “fix” neurodivergent kids, and it does not define who they are as a person. It is only an insight that helps you to understand your child better and support them moving forward. 

Find Experts Who Can Help

Experts and professionals can help support your child’s needs, but they are not the final word. Parents should find experts to help their child thrive and be supported, but not seen as the complete authority. You are the expert on your child, and no one else will know what is better for them than you. If professionals give recommendations that you disagree with, you need to be the advocate for your child and get a 2nd opinion. 

Good and Bad Behavior is a Communication

Behavior is fundamental when it comes to understanding neurodivergent children. Good and bad behavior can be telltale signs that needs are being met or not. In her book Brain-Body Parenting, Dr. Mona Delahooke says, “What we once understood as misbehavior is now understood as a stress response.” Pay attention to your child’s behavior, as they may be trying to tell you something. 

Know Your Neurodivergent Child's Strength

Neurodivergent children can have difficulties and weaknesses, but these are not the only place to focus. Be sure to emphasize and encourage your child’s strengths. These positive strengths can become the base to build on. 

You Are Not Alone

Parents of neurodivergent children can sometimes feel isolated when they don’t have a community. It can make it feel like no one else understands what you and you’re child are going through. Joining a community of other parents and families of neurodivergent children, like The Connected Parent, can make a huge difference. 

Join a Community of Parents and Families of Neurodivergent Children

Hopefully, the tips above helped relieve some of the uncertainty of parenting your neurodivergent child. There will be difficulties and hurdles, but it is also an incredible experience. This is especially true when you can interact with a community of other parents and guardians of neurodivergent children. 

This is precisely what we aimed to create with The Connected Parent - a community of families with neurodivergent children. You will be able to access recommendations, reviews and ask any questions. You may even end up making some incredible friends. Feel free to browse our site to learn more, and then head to the register page to join. 

FAQs About Neurodivergent Child

We have put together some of the most commonly asked questions about neurodivergent children below. 

How do I know if my kid is neurodivergent?

The signs and symptoms of neurodiversity can vary depending on the condition, but some common signs include:

  • Social difficulties
  • Speech and language troubles (stuttering or repetition)
  • Not making eye contact
  • Difficulty listening
  • Trouble paying attention
  • And much more

See the above list for more signs of common neurodiverse conditions. 

What is a neurodivergent child with ADHD?

ADHD describes neurodiversity that affects attention, focus, and concentration. Children with ADHD can exhibit signs like: 

  • Trouble following instructions
  • Difficulty paying attention or focusing
  • Difficulty listening or remembering
  • Impulsivity
  • Hyperactivity
  • And more

Do neurodivergent people struggle in school?

Neurodivergent children can potentially have troubles in school because they think and process information differently. The precise difficulties they face can depend on their particular condition, but it can cause them to struggle in certain areas, such as: 

  • Executive function
  • Organization
  • Time management
  • Sitting still
  • Reading and responding to social cues
  • And more

What are some the most common neurodivergent diagnosis?

Several neurodivergent conditions tend to be more common than others, including:

  • Autism
  • ADHD
  • Dyslexia
  • Dyscalculia
  • Dyspraxia

What are neurodivergent traits?

Every neurodiverse person is different, as will be the traits they display. However, some of the observable traits include:

  • Social communication troubles
  • Difficulty maintaining eye contact
  • Repetitive or restrictive behavior
  • Inattention or hyperactivity
  • Impulsivity
  • Executive function difficulty
  • Sensory processing overstimulation
  • And many more
Written by:
Julie Walters, M.A. Special Education
Updated:
11/3/23 10:17 pm