A Beginner's Guide for Parents
If you’re reading this article, it’s evident that you care about your child. If your child has received a diagnosis like Autism or ADHD, you’ve probably spent countless hours scouring the internet, talking to professionals, and trying to make life better for your child. Maybe you’ve joined a parent group online or in-person, or perhaps you’ve been reading books about your child’s diagnosis in the hope of better understanding your child and their needs.
You may have encountered the term “neurodiversity” in any one of these places, and often it’s a term discussed and used without much explanation. It’s become evident to me that parents need more access to resources to help them understand what the neurodiversity movement means. As a neurotypical person myself (I’ll explain that term in a bit), I can only share the information I have gathered from years of working with families and individuals with a variety of brain-based differences. I cannot speak personally to lived experiences; thus, this article is only a beginning guide for parents who want to understand more about the neurodiversity movement. I encourage all parents to continue their journey by exploring the voices of those with lived experiences to be better informed when interacting with and making parenting decisions for their child.
What is neurodiversity?
The word “neurodiversity” itself gives us a starting point in understanding the movement. It combines two words: neurology and diversity. In short, neurodiversity is the belief that all humans and their brain chemistries are all a part of the range of the human experience.
Suppose your child has a diagnosis of Autism, ADHD, or another brain-based condition. In that case, you may have been told by a professional that the way your child processes information, experiences the world and reacts to others isn’t “normal” or “typical.” You may have been provided with goals, treatment plans, or suggestions from professionals in an attempt to make your child act or appear “more normal.”
However, under the lens of neurodiversity we believe that all human experiences are valid, even if those experiences differ from what a person’s society and/or culture perceives as “normal.” Those who believe in neurodiversity strive not to make anyone “more normal.” Instead, they seek to understand an individual’s unique needs and skills and help the individual leverage their strengths and access tools and resources so they can better navigate their world. The neurodiversity movement also strives to support individuals and change society itself to become more understanding and accepting of a range of neurological differences.
What do the terms “neurodivergence” and “neurotypical? mean?
These terms refer to the understanding that there are commonly accepted ways of interacting with one’s environment that are considered to be “typical” or “normal.” For example, in American culture, it is expected that people make direct eye contact with those they are having a conversation with. Direct eye contact indicates that an individual is paying attention and engaging with others. Neurotypical people engage in direct eye contact with others without issue and generally don’t even notice they are doing so (but certainly notice when others aren’t.). Their brain chemistry allows them to fulfill society’s expectations without any discomfort, and these expectations are relatively easy for them to meet.
A neurodivergent person, by contrast, is someone whose neurology and brain chemistry diverge or differ from what is expected in society or what is classified as “typical.” This divergence is not viewed as a disorder but rather a difference. However, it may be challenging for a neurodivergent person to meet some or all of society’s expectations without modifications and a removal of barriers. A neurodivergent person may feel physically uncomfortable when making direct eye contact. Instead, it may be more natural for them to show they’re listening when they are rocking back and forth and focusing on an object rather than the person.
Where can I go to learn more about neurodiversity and autistic people’s experiences in their own words?
In addition to resources created by other professionals, there are many great resources created by Autistic1 adults and young people that can help parents gain insight.
- Carly Fleishmann’s video, which is a visual and auditory representation of her sensory experiences at a coffee shop with her family. After watching, ask yourself this: what type of supports could Carly’s family implement in order to make future visits to the coffee shop more inclusive of her unique brain chemistry needs?
- Terra Vance’s article on how to play with autistic children gives great insight into the joy of enjoying your child’s world without placing demand on them. This article by Dr. Tasha Oswald has some great ideas for beginning your journey in supporting your neurodiverse child, specifically in a COVID-19 world.
While the Therapist Neurodiversity Collective is aimed at professionals, there are many wonderful resources available to parents on their website.
How can I identify if my child’s professional/s operate under the lens of neurodiversity?
Ask them! Ask your child’s professionals if they operate under a lens of neurodiversity and about their neurodiversity philosophy. I recommend reading the “8 Signs of a Respectful and Empathetic Therapist” compiled by The Therapist Neurodiversity Collective and examining if your professional/s exhibit these characteristics.
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.
An estimated 60% of autistic people learn to talk in some manner through intervention. I'd love to share my expertise with you in my online program, How to Teach a Toddler to Talk! and give you tangible steps to start today with your child.
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.