Parenting can be confusing, lonely, frustrating, frightening, sad, demoralising, funny, wonderful, and intensely passionate, says Alicia Drummond.
As the neurodiversity movement has evolved, the focus has shifted away from the negative impact these conditions might have on a person’s life towards the positives and strengths they might bring. As the parent of a neurodiverse child, you will know what these are, but you will also be aware of the challenges, and that neurodivergent parenting is not always easy.
How much better would all our lives be if we subscribed to the viewpoint that brain differences are normal? Some of us have blonde hair and others have black hair, and we all have different cognitive traits. How useful, or helpful is it to refer to neurodivergences as ‘disorders’? They undoubtedly bring difficulties, but they do not make a person ‘less than’ others. They are simply a different way of perceiving and experiencing the world.
For most parents the road to assessment and diagnosis can be a long and frustrating one, even when they recognise early on that support is going to be needed. In some settings, experienced Early Years practitioners identify ‘possible’ neurodiverse traits and adopt appropriate strategies, working together proactively with the family. This early support system may not, however, continue as the child moves through the school system.
The assessment process is complex, especially as many neurodiverse people have more than one condition, and yet this process may lead to long and tortuous waits between assessments and associated support packages. Girls are also frequently under-diagnosed in terms of neurodiverse conditions. This is sometimes attributed to their masking skills, but some boys are also good at masking and their neurodiversity may go undiagnosed as a result.
When anxiety becomes overwhelming
Parents are well aware that anxiety is a regular bedfellow of any neurodiverse condition and until we are better as a society at meeting the needs of our neurodiverse members, they are likely to feel ‘othered’, and anxious about many aspects of school and daily living.
When a child’s needs are not being understood, or met in school, they may often escalate their behaviour to trigger the caregiving they need. Frequent temper outbursts, refusal to follow instructions or rules, defiance, or oppositional confrontations need to be seen through the lens of a young person who has strong personal and emotional needs rather than behavioural issues.
Getting cross with the child, or giving in to the behaviour,is unhelpful for everyone involved and, for progress to be made, the child needs to feel understood, to be given consistent boundaries and clear instructions that support on-task behaviour.
It is exhausting living in a world designed for the neurotypical, so, consequently, meltdowns or other emotional outbursts often happen on arriving home, when the child can finally relax in the safety of their own space. As a parent, talking with a child or young adult to explore what helps them wind down and relax (and what doesn’t) can be a useful strategy to improve the transition into a calm home environment.
If a young person is anxious, we can explore ways to help them manage their anxiety such as introducing them to the Clear Fear app. Stimming (the repetitive performance of certain physical movements or vocalisations) is most associated with autistic children, but it can also be a sign of high anxiety so we can recognise that they might be stimming to calm themselves. Equally, drawing attention to Tourette symptoms, even if our intention is to help, will increase a young person’s anxiety and the frequency of their tics.
Schools need to educate their peers, normalise the behaviours such as tics and let them tic away free from judgement and protected from bullying. When schools also provide safe spaces for children to take time out when they are feeling overwhelmed and can acknowledge that ear defenders can be supportive when the outside world is too intrusive, the message is that we all experience reality in our own way.
Neurodiversity has an impact on executive functioning. Planning, organisation, starting tasks, and time management can be challenging. In his excellent webinar, Colin Foley, Director of Training for the ADHD Foundation, gives lots of simple ideas that can be used to help children overcome these challenges.
Parenting can be confusing, lonely, frustrating, frightening, sad, demoralising, funny, wonderful, and intensely passionate, with these emotions potentially changing from one moment to the next. Parents worry about their child’s future, their ability to socialise and their emotional development (most neurodiverse children are two or three years behind their peers),as well as their school progress and relationships with siblings.
Pick your team and your tools wisely
- Surround yourself with people who are on your team.
- Reach out to organisations and join support groups.
- Educate yourself and look after yourself. Put your oxygen mask on first before helping others.
- Do less and be more. Sometimes what a child needs is simply our calming presence. Listen to our podcast (link below) with Tessa Morton from Act for Autism.
- It might not always be easy to have a neurodiverse sibling, but what they gain from the dynamic may be infinitely more than they lose, particularly when they know that they too can have needs and ask for them to be met
Finally, next time you find yourself worrying about the future as you struggle in the present, remember that neurodiversity is increasingly seen as desirable by businesses who recognise and appreciate the competitive advantage to their companies of having a neurodiverse workforce. Your child’s unique skills and qualities are precisely what will be most valuable to many employers.
Alicia Drummond is a BACP accredited therapist, parenting expert and founder of Teen Tips and The Wellbeing Hub.
The Wellbeing Hub: https://teentips.co.uk/club/