The most effective way to support a neurodivergent child is to understand what makes them different, says Dr Gemma North
Neurodiversity is a term increasingly used to describe cognitive variations in the population such as autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia and Tourette syndrome (Judy Singer 1999). The term neurodiversity enables us to talk about difference in a strength-based way thereby focusing on what makes neurodivergent people unique.
The experience of a neurodivergent child or young person navigating the world is different to that of a neurotypical one.
Thinking about neurodiversity in more depth can help social workers and carers gain an appreciation of how life is experienced by the children or young people they work with and support them in feeling understood, settled and secure. This blog focuses on meeting the needs of autistic children and young people.
Neurodiversity in adoption and fostering settings
Approximately 40% of children waiting for adoption, kinship care or a temporary foster placement, have a disability or special need, with a large proportion of these children being autistic or having learning difficulties. Applying to become a foster carer or adopter can be a lengthy and intrusive process. The possibility of caring for a child with differences may present additional uncertainties.
Support and care provided to care experienced children should be tailored to their specific needs. For example, those who experience differences in their sensory experiences. Potential carers may be concerned about the need for additional resources.
However, the most effective way of supporting a neurodivergent child is to understand what makes them different. With relevant information and insights about why neurodivergent children are different potential carers can be ready and open to making this commitment.
Sensory sensitivities in autistic children
Sensory sensitivities are common in autistic children. This may apply to being more sensitive to sounds and lights than neurotypical people.
Neurodivergent people will often talk about or describe the sensation of feeling overwhelmed. This is not the same as a neurotypical person’s feeling of having a lot going on. Sensory sensitivities may be one aspect of being autistic that contribute to that feeling of overwhelm.
The bright lighting and loud noises in retail outlets and shopping malls are rarely designed with neurodivergent people in mind. The over-stimulating environments can just be too much to cope with. This may lead to people with sensory sensitivities who may be autistic to become overloaded by the exposure to this experience.
A child or young person’s reaction to this may be misinterpreted if a carer does not appreciate how they are experiencing this. By checking out a local shopping centre’s ‘Autism Aware’ session, carers can notice how changes such as reduced lighting and lowered music can enable autistic children and young people to go shopping in ways that are more manageable.
Other sensory sensitivities which may be indicators of autism include taste, touch, and textures—a child or young person might avoid or seek out intense flavours, heavy blankets, tight hugs, or close-fitting clothing.
In the case of children and young people who have experienced trauma early in life the possibility of co-existing mental health concerns should be considered. It could be that anxiety or stress may also be contributing to their experiences.
Neurodivergent young people and children who have well informed professionals and carers to support them are more likely to flourish. Developing insights about neurodiversity is particularly important in preparation for and maintenance of adoption and fostering placements so children and young people are enabled to be their best selves and achieve life enhancing outcomes.
Neurodiversity in adulthood
Increasing numbers of adults, particularly women are receiving diagnoses for neurodivergent traits such as autism and ADHD in adulthood. They may consequently be learning about and reflecting upon their own neurodiversity. It is possible their differences were overlooked, or they may recall experiences of being singled out for their neurodivergent traits at school for example.
Social workers and carers who have lived experiences of being different offer great potential to be understanding and accommodating in addressing the needs of neurodivergent children and young people. Those who have a good awareness of neurodiversity are better equipped to identify key areas in which their knowledge and support can be increased. One such area to consider is that of sensory sensitivity.
Learning and support in practice
There is an enormous amount of information available about neurodiversity, particularly in relation to autism. Well-intentioned information about parenting neurodivergent children and young people that is created by neurotypical adults often falls short in representing their needs and voices.
Take a critical approach to knowledge encountered and question everything you know about neurodiversity! When trying to make sense of it all consider if the information provided is a good fit with the enablement of neurodivergent children and young people. How would it feel to have your differences referred to or talked about?
In the autistic community, for example, a lot of literature generated by non-autistic people uses person-first language (“person with autism”) even though research with autistic people shows a clear preference for identity-first language (“autistic person”). It is often the case that simple changes can make big differences.
Taking advantage of expert support and guidance to explore case work approaches and working practices are essential steps towards creating neuro-inclusive homes, schools, workplaces, and social spaces. Training opportunities and discussion forums offer space to explore and deepen knowledge about neurodiversity.
Some social work practitioners may find it helpful to engage in support that develops awareness about the nature of their own neurodiversity and advises how workplace adaptions may improve their working conditions.
Resilient environments for neurodivergent and disabled children and young people are ones that are accessible to them. Carers who are well informed and supported to recognise and respond to neurodiversity can in turn enable the children and young people they care for to thrive and grow into adults who will shape a world that embraces difference.
Dr Gemma North is a Neurodiversity Consultant with extensive experience of working with individuals, groups and organisations as a researcher, trainer and coach.