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How to advocate for and empower your neurodivergent child

The final article in a special six-part series on parenting exceptional children - a strengths-based approach to raising autistic, ADHD and other neurodivergent children

Though there are improvements, we still live in a largely “ableist” society, which means your child’s needs may be invisible and unrecognised. Children can be expected to cope in classrooms that do not fully meet their learning, communication or sensory needs.

For example, your child might be struggling to attend school, yet their underlying burnout or chronic fatigue is not recognised. Or your child’s meltdown might be seen as misbehaviour rather than being understood as sensory overwhelm.

Sometimes, good parents can unwittingly internalise this ableism and end up trying to “correct” or “fix” their children, which can lead to unnecessary battles and long-term emotional damage.

Rather than trying to turn your child into something they are not, a better approach is to be their ally and to advocate for them.

Being a good advocate means:

  • Understanding your child and communicating their perspective when they are misunderstood.
  • Focusing on changing your child’s world rather than changing your child in the world.
  • Explaining your child’s needs to others in a way that creates understanding.
  • Collaborating with schools to create a learning environment that meets your child’s needs.
  • Anticipating challenges so as to minimise any disadvantage your child experiences.
  • Teaching your child how to advocate for themselves and to ask for what they need.

To be a good advocate, it is important to listen to the lived experience of neurodivergent people (via books, social media, joining groups, etc) so you can be better informed about your own child’s needs. Practically, being a good advocate might mean proactively meeting your child’s teacher to explain how he likes to learn, or supporting your child as they communicate at extended family social events, or meeting with a sports coach or scout leader to ask for their help in keeping your child involved. It could also mean joining a group that promotes a better understanding of neurodiversity and which is actively campaigning for positive change.

Co-problem solving and empowering your child

While it is important to be an advocate and to take the lead in solving the problems your children face, in the long term you want to empower them to advocate for themselves and to learn how to solve their own problems as much as possible.

Co-problem solving is the process whereby you involve your child (according to their age and ability) in discussing and working through the problems they face. This is a process requiring patience, as many children may not be open to talk about problems and many may not yet have learnt the necessary problem-solving skills.

In addition, neurodivergent children may have needs and differences, meaning you have adapt how you work through problems. For example, some children might be less verbal and prefer other ways of communicating, while some might have executive function differences making it more difficult to plan and follow through. Others might have Alexithymia and experience and process feelings differently, and some might have interoceptive difficulties, meaning they are out of touch with the level of stress or agitation in their bodies.

Some might have PDA (pathological demand avoidance), meaning they might initially experience co-problem solving as a threat to their autonomy and you have to work hard to ensure you are ing on their own goals and preferences.

Below are some principles to make co-problem solving work for your children.

Pick a good time and place

Sometimes, it is best to schedule a time to problem-solve, such as after dinner, when your child is most relaxed. Other children might be stressed by a fixed time and only be open to problem-solving when they raise the subject, or are experiencing some stress and then seek your support. This means you might have to be ready to respond by listening when they come to you with a problem.

Some children might be more open to problem-solving when doing something else such as walking the dog or driving somewhere, when there is might be less pressure and less eye contact.

Listen first

Frequently, the different perspectives and feelings of neurodivergent children are misunderstood and not validated. Many experience and process feelings differently, and this increases the chances of misunderstanding. For example, parents might try to express empathy by naming their child’s feelings, saying something like “you must be anxious”, but this label might be inaccurate or mean nothing to your child. They might be experiencing sensory overload or agitation in their body and not name it as anxiety.

As a result, it is usually better to be curious and to invite your child to describe their experiences – “You love wearing that T-shirt, I am wondering what makes it so comfortable.”

Use your child’s language to describe what is going on. One child I worked with said his “brain went fizzy” to describe a meltdown, and another said they “got muddled” in a stressful social situation. The goal is to understand them and to help them understand themselves.

Another parent described to me how she was puzzled by her child’s recent meltdowns on a visit her aunty’s house. It was only later when they were playing that her child revealed she had accidentally locked herself in the bathroom during the previous visit there, and this had fuelled her anxiety.

Explore your child’s solutions

Before giving your own ideas, it is important to first encourage children to generate their own solutions. This is the best way to empower them, and they are much more likely to follow their own advice. Some neurodivergent children can answer direct questions, such as “What would you like to happen now?” or “How do you first notice stress building in your body?” For many others, you will have to adapt how you engage in finding solutions to match their needs.

You can do this by:

  • Being indirect, with questions and statements such as, “I wonder how you managed in school?” or “It might be good to figure out how stress builds in the body.”
  • Using non-verbal techniques (which many neurodivergent children prefer) such as visual worksheets, or using text/email (many parents I work with successfully co-problem-solve with their teenagers via text messages).
  • Conversations regarding third-party issues, such as discussing friendship dilemmas between the characters in a movie or video game as you play together.
  • Using creative approaches about problem scenarios, such as quizzes, social stories or comic strips.
  • Playing sensory games to explore sensations in the body and to discuss how feelings are experienced.
  • Role-playing and acting out scenarios whereby you show different ways of responding.
  • Collaborating/asking your child for help: “I need to get some rest today, can you help me?” or “Your brother is a little upset, how can we look after him together?”

Be neuro-affirming as you co-problem-solve with your child. This means you identify solutions that match their communication style and that don’t involve masking to fit in with neurotypical norms. Such solutions should be realistic for your child to put into practice, and be a source of pride for them when they do.

Advocate for yourself as a parent

Parenting a neurodivergent child can be a challenging journey, so it is important you advocate for what you need as a parent. Sadly, many families have negative experiences with professional services in that they can be inaccessible, with long waiting lists, and sometimes pathological and disempowering.

Remember, you don’t have to have a diagnosis to reach out for support. The best support should ensure you feel heard, and it should build on both your child’s strengths and your own as a parent. Link in with the services and online resources that collaborate with neurodivergent parents and adults – these are leading the way in creating neuro-affirming, empowering practices. Remember that becoming a strengths-based, affirming parent, sometimes requires a radical adjustment in how you see yourself and your child.

When you make this shift you can avoid much unnecessary stress and create a new, deeper bond with your child.

Parenting exceptional children

John Sharry is clinical director of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He is delivering a three-week online course, Parenting Neurodivergent Children, in April and May. See solutiontalk.ie

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