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  • Writer's pictureShannon Kelly

What is Meant by Neurodiversity? How Can We Support Neurodiverse Children?

Updated: Feb 26


Neurodiversity. Change our Words, Change the World! A Neurodevelopmental Psychologist Weighs in on the New Shift in Language!


“Neurodiversity” has become a broad term that can be used to capture differences in how an individual's brain works. Neurodiversity is a term that can also be used to describe individuals with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Specific Learning Disorders. There is no right way for the brain to work, and variations of brain development should be thought of as "uniquely typical". 


So why does this matter?? Although there is no right or wrong in brain development - maladaptive behaviours often do stem from living with a Neurodiverse brain. Maladaptive behaviours are those that can cause disruption, poor academic and social performance, and even harm to self or others. As a Child Psychologist, I often tell kids that my real job "is to keep them out of trouble with the adults". Consider the real-life example of a child who is constantly overstimulated by lights and noises in the classroom and becomes disruptive as a behavioral response. This child might yell out, poke at kids, run out of the room, and even throw objects, hit or bite. Guess what? Not a bad kid (that doesn't actually exist) - rather a child that is actually having a continuous "sensory meltdown" and is attempting to self-regulate in the worst way possible. It may look like attention seeking, however I would reframe it as emotional expulsion. The child feels awful 24-7 and needs to rid themselves of such internal awfulness!! Due to behaviours beyond their fault or understanding, this child may get kicked out of school, not invited to birthday parties, left out on the playground, and disciplined harshly by adults. Imagine how this child feels internally. They will tell an adult in an honest moment that they are "bad, stupid, and have no friends". Without support it is difficult for a shift to occur. These children often grow into teenagers who exhibit significant anxiety, often not wanting to leave their house. Video games may become their BFF’s. As adults, many variations of functioning can occur, however a Neurodiverse child is at significant risk of not reaching their full potential. Awareness and intervention are key!!! 


We grow and develop through our connections with other people. Neurodiverse children and teens are at risk of weakened social connections due to maladaptive behaviours arising from emotion regulation, sensory, and social challenges. Good news! Children and teens who learn about their unique brains and get the right support (tailored to their needs) can change their world and have a positive life experience. Here's how the chaining occurs! A positive internal dialogue changes behaviour. Having positive behaviours will change one's experience of the world. Having a good experience creates healthy successful outcomes! So, what does the right support look like? It first involves some investigation to determine the underlying challenges. After discovery work, interventions can be implemented using a child's strengths to boost areas of challenge. A child having meltdowns could be anxious, struggling with challenges related to ADHD, ASD, or experiencing learning difficulties, social challenges, sensory issues, OCD, or a unique combination of some or all of the above. Diagnostic clarity matters. I highly recommend engaging with a professional who specializes in Paediatric Psychology when evaluating a child who is Neurodiverse, especially for investigating the root cause. It is a complex process that involves investigation of presenting and past concerns as well as the potential differential causes. 


I practice Narrative Therapy with Neurodiverse Children and Teens. Narrative therapy involves changing our inner dialogue. Words matter, and with the right environmental supports combined with solution focused patterns of thinking, a child's life can change exponentially. Once changes occur and children feel good, they feel highly motivated to do more. They become their own little therapists. I often see major shifts in children and families after both diagnosis and intervention. A dramatic shift often occurs and can be heard in some variation of "ok, so this is how my brain works". When we talk about strengths and challenges - and educate children about their unique brains, they do better. This feeling alone begets more motivation and success. Build upon your child's unique strengths and interests. If a child is more left brained, I get them excited about solving problems. Right brained kids often benefit from creative enrichment.


As a Neurodevelopmental Psychologist that works with children and teens, I see a wide range of how individuals respond to their environment. When differences are normalized and encouraged, the way a child or teen experiences their world can absolutely change. When we ask children to conform to a perceived "norm" - internalized feelings of shame and feeling "less than" can too easily creep in. Often children are told to make eye contact, behave better, keep quiet, be polite. Over a period of time these comments erode away self-esteem until there is little left. Children with Neurodiverse brains are often being told to do better in some way. I can assure you that if they could do better, they would! When we shift the language to encompass strengths and challenges related to Neurodiversity, a child's experience of themselves will begin to change. Awareness and language are both key. When children learn about their unique brains, they find their unique way of doing better. It's so f***ing cool! 


Tools To Support Neurodiverse Children


1.Change your language - avoid negative words such as lazy, bad, manipulative, and attention seeking. These words are behavioural, dated, and frankly untrue!!! 


2. Offer regulation tools that may help with calming or focus, however, keep in mind that they may not work. It's a process of trial and error and what works for one kid may not work for another. Tools may include calming activities, a break, or distraction activities. 


3. Educate yourself - we don't know what we don't know - and when we know better, we do better! When we learn about our child's unique needs, we can support them to become the amazing humans they are meant to be. They may need social supports or sensory supports. They may need professional support for building skills and self-esteem. 


4. Ages and stages are different. Remember that all children develop differently and across different domains. You may have a child who is chronologically age six, cognitively at the age of eight, and emotionally around the age of three!! A child who is Neurodiverse will need support that is tailored to their needs and strengths. 


5. Get involved. You are your child's best advocate. Ensure they have the best supports. It makes a huge difference. A good team can also make a difference. This could involve having a Paediatric Psychologist, Occupational Therapist, Speech Pathologist. Ensure they have training and experience with Neurodiversity. In every profession there are specialists and generalists. Choose the specialist. They are up to date on the latest in research and intervention. 


Creative Sky Psychology specializes in providing assessment and treatment for children and teens with Neurodiverse challenges. Our team of Child and Teen Psychologists specialize in working with children who may have struggles.


Visit https://www.creativeskypsychology.com for additional information or to book an appointment with a Child or Teen Psychologist.  

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