What to Know About Raising Neurodivergent Kids

Mom carrying baby boy on her shoulders

Image taken by Mayte Torres / Getty Images

Parenting is hard, and although there is an abundance of books, blogs, and articles about parenthood, there is no manual created for your unique child. For parents of neurodivergent children, this is especially true, as a significant amount of parenting advice focuses on neurotypical children.

What is neurodivergence, and what do parents of neurodivergent children need to know? This article explores what it means to be neurodivergent and describes how parents of neurodivergent children can support their kids and help them thrive.

What Does It Mean To Be Neurodivergent?

Neurodivergence is an umbrella term that refers to anyone whose brain functions, processes, behaves, and learns differently from what is generally considered “typical.”

Different neurotypes have different strengths, and neurodiversity is important for thriving communities.

Neurodivergence has traditionally been considered an “abnormality” or a problem to be fixed, but mental health professionals have been shifting towards a more affirming model that emphasizes the unique strengths that come with neurodivergence. At the same time, neurodivergent people might have difficulties or be disabled as a result of their atypical brain functions. It is important that they receive the support they need in order to thrive.

What Types of Neurodivergence Exist?

Judy Singer, Australian sociologist, used the term neurodiversity to describe individuals diagnosed with learning disabilities, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and autism spectrum disorder. However, the term can also refer to many other neurotypes, including Tourette’s syndrome, Down syndrome, epilepsy, obsessive-compulsive disorder, personality disorders, mood disorders, and anxiety disorders.

Any diagnosis that indicates a difference in a person’s brain can be considered neurodivergence.

What Causes Neurodivergence?

Human beings evolved to have a wide variety of strengths and brain functions, and neurodiversity is a natural and important part of the human race. Many types of neurodivergence, such as neurodevelopmental disorders, learning disorders, and ADHD, have genetic components. This means that people with these diagnoses are born this way.

Other types of neurodivergence can develop over time and can be the result of environmental factors including trauma and PTSD/C-PTSD. For example, a person can develop an intellectual deficit following a traumatic brain injury, and exposure to pesticides is linked to a higher risk of developing epilepsy.

What Should Parents Know About Raising Neurodivergent Kids?

Because neurodivergence is a broad term that refers to a huge range of symptoms, behaviors, strengths, and challenges, there is not one simple set of tips for raising a neurodivergent child. However, there are some general guidelines for parents with neurodivergent children.

Adjust Your Expectations

Many parents of neurodivergent children express frustration or even disappointment that their neurodivergent child does not meet the neurotypical expectations that they had going into parenting. Even if this is not expressed directly to the child, children pick up on their parents’ feelings and might feel unwanted or unloved if the parent has not come to terms with having a neurodivergent child.

In Welcome To Holland, Emily Perl Kingsley describes having a disabled child as planning a trip to Italy and then getting off the plane to find yourself in Holland. She acknowledges the possible stress of being somewhere you did not plan to be, taking a trip that does not fit with your expectations. “But … if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things ... about Holland.”

Ask the Community

Neurodivergent children grow into neurodivergent adults. Seek out communities of adults who share your child’s neurodivergence, and listen to them. These people have a lifetime of experience and can share tips for what helped them or what was harmful to them when they were young.

Often, information about parenting neurodivergent kids created by neurotypical adults misses the mark on the community’s needs and voices. In the autistic community, for instance, a lot of literature generated by non-autistic people continues to utilize person-first language (“person with autism”) even though research has indicated an overwhelming preference for identity-first language (“autistic person”).

Similarly, many providers who identify as “autism experts” refer to Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) as the “gold standard” to help and support autistic children even though many in the adult autistic community have described their experience with ABA as traumatic, and research has shown that ABA can lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

If your child is able to communicate their preferences, listen to them. For outside support, seek out your child’s neurodivergent community.

Consider Getting Evaluated

Neurodevelopmental disorders, including ADHD, autism, and learning disorders, are linked to genetics. This means that, if your child is neurodivergent, you might also be neurodivergent. You might benefit from an evaluation to determine if you are also neurodivergent. This can help you better understand your child and yourself, and it can give you access to resources and support for both of you.

What Does Neurodivergence Look Like in Young Children?

The many types of neurodivergence can look vastly different from each other. In addition, two people with the same neurodivergent diagnosis are still unique individuals who will not behave or think in the exact same way. In young children, it can be particularly difficult to identify neurodivergence because typical development has a wide range.

If your child’s learning, behavior, and development seem different from others their age, you might consider asking their pediatrician about an evaluation. Children who learn much more slowly or quickly than their peers might be neurodivergent. Difficulty with toilet training, sleeping through the night, or behavioral outbursts that are not developmentally appropriate can also indicate neurodivergence.

Sensory sensitivity is another indicator of neurodivergence: Does your child seem overly sensitive to sounds, lights, or textures? Do they avoid or seek out intense flavors, heavy blankets, snug clothing, or tight hugs? These things can indicate neurodivergence.

Sensory sensitivity is another indicator of neurodivergence: Does your child seem overly sensitive to sounds, lights, or textures? Do they avoid or seek out intense flavors, heavy blankets, snug clothing, or tight hugs? These things can indicate neurodivergence.

What to Know About Early Diagnosis and Intervention

Understanding how your child’s brain works, their communication style, and their support needs are important in ensuring that they have the best quality of life possible.

If your child’s neurodivergence causes developmental delays or disabilities, identifying this at a young age can allow your child to participate in Birth to Three programs, speech therapy, occupational therapy, and other services that can help them develop communication and functional skills that can allow them to be more independent later in life.

It can be scary to learn that your child might not have the neurotype that you expected, but appropriate support can help you understand and meet your child’s unique needs and help them have the best life possible.

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Amy Marschall, PsyD
Dr. Amy Marschall is an autistic clinical psychologist with ADHD, working with children and adolescents who also identify with these neurotypes among others. She is certified in TF-CBT and telemental health.