Is Your Child Neurodivergent? And What Does That Mean?
Takeaway: Neurodivergent children are those who think, feel, or behave differently from their classmates. And rather than seeing these differences as disorders that need to be cured, we should see them as natural brain diversity (i.e., neurodiversity) with its own set of strengths and weaknesses. So, we’re not trying to ‘fix’ a ‘problem’ anymore. Instead, we embrace and develop valuable aspects of a child’s rich, complex mind and personality.
Our brains are wired in so many different ways. And ‘neurodiverse’ is the perfect term to describe this.
In the late 90s, Australian sociologist Judy Singer introduced us all to a new way of approaching brain wiring. Judy has autism and chose to start thinking of it as a difference in how her brain works rather than a disability. And this point of view caught on, with people applying it to conditions like ADHD, dyslexia, and more. So, rather than describing brains as ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal,’ we can describe them as ‘typical’ or ‘divergent’ – with divergent brains being proof of human diversity. With this new concept of brain diversity (i.e., neurodiversity), we stop looking at neurodivergent brains as having a disorder that needs to be treated or cured. Instead, we accept that they work and behave differently, and we support them if needed.
Broadly speaking, there are three types of neurodivergence.
Experts categorise neurodivergent traits based on two factors: First, were we born with the traits or did we develop them along the way? And second, are the traits a medical condition or not? Note that we can have multiple traits across multiple categories.
1. Traits we’re born with, and that aren’t health conditions.
These traits are mainly related to how we learn and apply skills and information. Here are some examples:
- Dyslexia: This is a learning difference that affects how we read, write, and spell. Children with dyslexia mix up word order and structure, which means they take longer to read and write – which in turn affects how quickly they can learn. Learn more about dyslexia.
- Dyscalculia: This is another learning difference, but more to do with maths than language. It makes it harder for children to understand basic maths concepts, proportions, and numbers. And it affects day-to-day activities like time management and money calculations. Learn more about dyscalculia.
- Dyspraxia: A brain difference that affects how children pick up motor skills like walking/running, throwing a ball, or even packing a bag. This, in turn, can affect a child’s physical, social, and emotional development. Learn more about dyspraxia.
2. Traits we’re born with that are health conditions.
These are neurodivergent traits that affect things like communication, social skills, and impulse control. They’re considered health conditions because they have a more widespread effect on a child’s life. They include conditions like:
- Autism spectrum disorder (ASD): This describes a broad range of characteristics to do with social skills, certain behaviours and communication. For example, children with autism find it hard to deal with changes in routine, find it harder to socialise and understand emotions and struggle to learn a language. Autistic traits range from mild to severe, and there isn’t a single type or cause of autism. Learn more about autism.
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): This affects basic brain functioning to do with focusing, planning, and organising. Children with ADHD are highly creatively but find it hard to focus their thinking and stick with a single activity. Learn more about ADHD.
- Down syndrome: Here, children have an extra chromosome, which affects things like their physical/emotional development, IQ, and speech.
- Tourette’s syndrome: This causes children to make involuntary sounds and physical movements. So, they might whistle unexpectedly, click their tongue, say random words, or have unusual facial tics and eye movements. Some children can control these impulses, but it takes a lot of effort.
3. Traits we develop due to a life event (i.e., we’re not born with them).
These include traits we develop from illnesses, injury, and trauma. For example:
- Brain injury-related traits: Children who injure their brains in accidents develop challenges to do with memory, planning and organising, communication, self-control, and motivation.
- Illness-related traits: These include traits like slurred speech, poor motor control, and lowered motivation and energy levels – resulting from Strokes, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, etc.
- Some mental health conditions: These include conditions that cause faulty thinking, anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive behaviour and more. And they often show up in short episodes with only a temporary effect. Some might be a delayed effect of genetic factors, while others result from things like traumatic life events, the side effects of medication, or exposure to recreational drugs.
More than categorising neurodivergent traits, though, we need to explore how they add to our child’s personality.
If our goal is to ‘diagnose’ a child’s ‘problems,’ then it’s essential we label and categorise her traits. However, if we accept differences as a part of life, and simply want to support a child, then these categories don’t matter as much. Rather, we’d focus on understanding her personality as a whole. So, how does she socialise? How creative is she? Are there specific subjects she’s good at? What about subjects she struggles with? Does she often feel overwhelmed with emotions? And what makes her feel better when she is overwhelmed? By asking these sorts of questions, we’re exploring and understanding a personality rather than diagnosing a condition.
This is an entirely different way of thinking. We’re not trying to fix children anymore. Rather, we’re trying to fix their environment.
Traditionally, if a child struggles at school, we’d see her as the problem. With our new approach, a child is fine as she is. So, if she’s struggling, her environment is the problem we need to fix. That means changing the way we teach to match her learning style. Or designing a less chaotic study space. Or using technology to support her needs. Or creating a flexible daily schedule that allows for her changing energy levels. This approach normalises the idea of brain differences and reduces the stigma surrounding them. And we’re encouraging a generation of learners who might have some weaknesses that need support but who also have strengths that can revolutionise art, science, technology, and innovation.
It’s a complicated issue, though. And often, it helps to have a specialist as a guide.
Neurodiversity and neurodivergence are concepts that aren’t yet fully established. It’s easier to accept and deal with some types of neurodiversity over others. So, here’s where specialists come in. They can help you navigate the complexity of your child’s neurodivergence and offer the right kinds of support at the right time. At The Ed Psych Practice, we offer face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356 / (0) 79 9053 8654
- E-mail: Office@TheEdPsych.com
Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.
- How to Make Writing Fun: Practical Tips for Children With Dyslexia
- Can Children With Dyslexia Become Better Writers?
- How to Improve Your Child’s Speech And Language Skills
- Why Is Dyspraxia So Emotionally Draining For Your Child?
- Developmental Milestones Your Toddler Shouldn’t Miss
- Dyslexia Vs. Dyscalculia: Differences & Similarities
- What To Do If Your Child Starts Trying to Avoid School
- Can eHealth & Technology Help Adolescents live Happier, Healthier Lives?
- Are Social Media & Technology Really That Bad for Teens?
- How the Pandemic Has Changed the World For Children
- The Sleep/Anxiety Link in Autism & ADHD
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