A Beginner's Guide for Parents
Hopefully, if you read part one of this article, you now have a better understanding of the terminology behind the neurodiversity movement. Now I’d like to discuss ways to apply this knowledge to real-world action.
Here are four ideas to incorporate acceptance and understanding of neurodiversity into your home.
1. Embrace sensory preferences within your home design and decorating.
Your neurodiverse child may react to their environment in ways that feel unexpected. For example, you may have noticed that your child can swing on the playground for hours. Or perhaps they appear to be in pain when the fluorescent kitchen lights are on. You can use a sensory checklist to help you and your child better understand what their sensory needs are. If your child is very young, you will want to play “detective” and carefully observe how your child responds to your home environment, as well as other places you visit in the community. If your child is older, work with them to talk through what distresses them and brings them joy.
Once you’ve identified what your child both seeks and avoids, take a hard look at your home environment. Are there ways you can modify, decorate or restructure your home with your child’s sensory needs in mind? Here’s a shortlist of ideas that work for some neurodiverse people, but since everyone is different, you may have to try other options to find the right fit for your child.
- Identify safe and appropriate places for your child to engage in their preferred activities. For example, if your child loves water play, identify an area in your home (e.g., a patio, bathtub, etc.) where your child knows they can always go to engage in their favorite activity.
- Decorate your child’s room with their favorite color and special interests. Many neurodiverse folks report having a strong affection for a particular color or a strong love of a specific item, media franchise, character, etc. Lean into your child’s preferences and celebrate their unique interests by allowing them the freedom to decorate their room with their favorite color and interests.
- Think about the lighting in your home – this guide provides some great ideas on how to think about how lighting may be affecting your neurodiverse child.
2. Change how you play.
Sometimes the way we play needs to change.
- Do you often find yourself telling your child what to do during play?
- “Put the doll in the bed, not on the table!”
- “Stop scribbling. Look, this is how you draw a circle.”
- Do you often find yourself asking your child questions at a rapid-fire pace during play?
- “What color is the ball?”
- “Where’s mommy’s nose?”
- “Show me the circle!”
- Do you often find yourself annoyed that your child prefers to engage in the same play routines or activities?
- For example: lining cars up over and over or filling up a water bucket and dumping it out over and over
If so, you may need a play-style overhaul. While it’s true that play is a primary vehicle for learning and growth in young children, we want playtime to be fun and stress-free. Playtime is an opportunity to build your relationship with your child and help view the world from their perspective. Placing constant demands and asking frequent questions (especially when they are questions your child already knows the answer to) can be incredibly stressful for neurodiverse children.
So how exactly do you overhaul your play style?
Terra Vance is an autistic adult who has already written an excellent article, “How to Play with Your Autistic Child,” on how to pivot your play to focus on quality time that supports your neurodiverse child’s brain. I highly recommend giving it a read.
Terra advises the following “If your autistic child is playing by lining up toys or doing something repetitive, bring your own toys, assume a reasonable distance, and play happily and silently. Use sparkly toys, blocks, cars, spinning toys, pots and pans, kinetic sand, magnets, canned food, stickers, dry pasta, colorful dough, etc. Make a craft. Spin something that sparkles. Meditate and quiet your mind. Find contentment in not worrying, fixing, controlling.”
3. Help your other children understand neurodiversity in kid-friendly ways.
If you have other children in your home, you may have found it challenging for them to accept and understand their neurodiverse sibling differences. These types of statements below may sound familiar.
These are real concerns that siblings may have as they watch you modify your home and parenting approach to accommodate a neurodiverse sibling’s needs.
I recommend checking out this fantastic children’s book, “My Brother Otto,” to read with all your children. It explores the love and acceptance an older sibling has for her younger, Autistic sibling Otto while explaining some of the things Otto does. For example, Otto has unique interests, he stims, and he has sensory dislikes and preferences. His sister loves him for who he is and explores his world without judgment. You can find a read-aloud Youtube video version here.
4. Learn more about “stimming.”
You’ve likely heard the words “stimming” and “self-stimulatory behaviors” before, but you may not have had an opportunity to learn more about the purpose that self-stimulatory behaviors serve. On the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network’s “About Autism” page, they describe stimming as, “We might do the same movement over and over again. This is called “stimming,” and it helps us regulate our senses. For example, we might rock back and forth, play with our hands, or hum.”
You may have noticed your child engaging in these self-stimulatory behaviors. You may be worried that stimming is harmful or dangerous or means something is wrong with your child. Self-stimulating behaviors always serve a purpose, though; they might be a way for your child to calm themselves, express their happiness, or communicate a message.
Many stims are more accepted by society and therefore may not even be noticed by neurotypical people. Some examples include popping of knuckles, running fingers through hair, rubbing hands on thighs, and more.
Stims that are less widely accepted, such as hand-flapping, rocking, significant body movement, etc., may be viewed as behavior that needs to be stopped. However, as long as your child’s stim is not injuring themselves or others, encourage your child’s self-stimulatory behaviors! Make a point to celebrate stims in your home and help to educate your friends and family on the importance of stims.
Changes and modifications that support your neurodiverse child do not have to be cumbersome or expensive. Start with these ideas first and ensure that your child is an active partner in the conversation around how your home can be most accommodating to their brain chemistry. Your neurodiverse child will thank you and you just might find some changes the whole family prefers along the way!
Thank you for taking the time to learn more about neurodiversity. Together, we can build a more inclusive world and remove society’s barriers for our neurodiverse children to have a better future!
Common Questions about Autism
If you have insurance, a great place to start is with your pediatrician. Discuss your concerns with them and ask for a referral for a developmental evaluation from a pediatric psychologist and speech-language pathologist.
If you live in the United States and your child is under the age of three years old, contact your state Early Start program and ask for a developmental evaluation from their team of professionals. These services are state-funded and free of charge.
If you live in the United States and your child is under the age of three years old, contact your local school district and ask for a developmental evaluation by the school psychologist. These services are state-funded and free of charge.
Contacting a licensed professional in your area is the best way to get answers, but of course, this process takes time. I'm sure you are feeling worried and want to start something right away to help your child. That's why I've created the online course for parents called How to Teach a Toddler to Talk.
Yes! As a speech-language pathologist, I’ve helped scores of autistic children learn to communicate. Waitlists for evaluations can be quite long, and speech therapy is not as accessible during the covid-19 pandemic, so while you pursue in-person services, enroll in my online course for parents.
One of the critical skills that autistic children struggle with is communication, and that is what speech-language pathologists are best at treating! I specialized in this autism speech therapy during my master's program in Speech-Language Pathology and Audiology. In my DIY online course for parents, I share my step-by-step process for helping your child from home.
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Disclaimer: This information is meant for general education and not to diagnose. Every child is different, and Autism Spectrum Disorder is a complex developmental disorder that can manifest differently in other people.
1 I am electing to use identity-first language to describe the Autistic community in this blog because it is the preference of many Autistic people to be referred to. For more information on identity-first language versus person-first language, please visit this blog.