Affirming Neurodiversity

I was recently invited to talk with a group of interns working in non-profit settings with kids. One noted that he had multiple children with diagnoses on the autism spectrum. He was uncertain how to help them participate in the group’s activities. He wanted to be hospitable to neurodiversity and still accomplish the group’s learning goals.

Neurodiversity is an umbrella term acknowledging that some people’s brains receive and process information differently than others. Children diagnosed with conditions such as ADHD, autism, dyslexia, and bipolar disorder, are considered neurodiverse. Affirming neurodiversity focuses on understanding these differences as variations in how the brain functions rather than deficits. It includes supporting neurodiverse as well as neurotypical ways of thinking. 

One way to affirm multiple forms of neuro-processing is to pay attention to what sparks a child’s curiosity, which activities they seem drawn to, and what triggers or disengages them. Both neurodiverse and neurotypical children benefit from being seen in their particularity. Rather than relying on age-group generalities, get to know each child as an individual. Observe how they behave and ask them to tell you about themselves.

Neurodiverse children often interact with topics differently than neurotypical children. They may find it easier to think while walking around, prefer to collect a long list of facts before forming ideas, or work more efficiently alone than in a group. Provide various options to help every child find a way to engage. For instance, if you’re exploring climate change, you might offer activities such as independently researching ways to advocate for climate change; engaging in an embodied activity where children move like a flower, river, and the sun; or imagining what it’s like to experience climate change from the perspective of a plant or animal.

Many neurodiverse (and some neurotypical) children can feel overwhelmed by high levels of sensory stimuli. Their limbic (emotional regulation) systems get overloaded by loud noises, ‘busy’ room decorations, and lots of movement. To address this issue, create a designated space where children can go when they feel emotionally distressed. Include tools and activities to help children manage their feelings, such as noise-canceling headphones, recordings of calming sounds, finger labyrinths, and art supplies. Add posters suggesting comforting yoga poses, like downward dog, child’s pose, or rag doll.

Furthermore, navigating a neurotypical world can drain a neurodiverse child’s energy and patience. They may have more difficulty identifying their emotions and the emotions of others. Help all children build their social emotional knowledge and vocabulary by talking about feelings and pointing out their physical signs. You might say: I feel peaceful when I meditate. My heart rate and breathing slow down and my body relaxes. I am not grinding my teeth or making fists with my hands. How do you know when your body is experiencing peace?” Or, when reading a book you may observe: This character looks angry. His eyebrows point down, his mouth is straight, and he is making a fist with his hands. Can you show me what your body looks like when you are angry?” 



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