I’m sure I’m dating myself with this reference to Alanis Morisette’s landmark album, Jagged Little Pill, but I’ve been channeling my inner agro-girl as I get my kids settled back into the school year. I realize this image doesn’t appear the least bit motherly or even polished and professional for a 50-something Family Therapist in Washington DC. Yet, extreme circumstances sometimes call for extreme music!
You see, I’m a mom of three amazingly wonderful kids, each of whom has their own unique challenges around neurodivergence. Yes, they come by it honestly—our family has gobs of genetic loading for neurodiversity….(That’s exactly why I became a passionate, masterful Child/TeenTherapist!) And, they each need a little bit of something different to orient themselves to the executive functioning demands of the school year, which is solely set up for neurotypical kids and families.
So when I read the typical Back to School posts and parenting books about getting organized, I nod to myself in agreement as I think of most neurotypical families. My professional self agrees–YES, most families need about 2-6 weeks to re-establish routines, settle into schedules, adjust to school expectations, and exhale from the transition back to school. But my parent self screams, BUT, What about US?
What are strategies and suggestions for families trying to settle their neurodivergent children/teens back into the school year?
Well, I’m here to channel my passion, frustration with what the system doesn’t provide, with how even professionals in our school system mislabel and misunderstood our most vulnerable neurodivergent youth, and my pain as a parent as I watch my child suffer at the hands of what we don’t know yet. Yes, I think parenting a child with serious neurodivergence is a bit like the heartbreak that Alanis Morissette sings about! It is raw; it is raunchy; and it is necessary to experience the full outrage in order to move through and harness our energy toward advocacy efforts for our children. How else are we going to keep fighting for them? How else are we going to tirelessly work to help them progress and develop through their struggles?
First, let’s define Neurodiversity—Judy Singer coined the term neurodiversity, which is an “approach to learning and disability that argues diverse neurological conditions are a result of normal variations in the human genome.” [Robert Grant, Understanding Autism: A Neurodiversity Affirming Guidebook for Children and Teens.]
Second, I want you to know that I’m WITH YOU (listening to Alanis as I type:)! And, here are some of the strategies and suggestions that I can offer from both my professional and personal experiences combined for your neurodivergent family:
Use Typical Parenting Advice as a Launching Pad, not a Solution:
Most parenting books have some good advice that applies to some of our (typical) children, some of the time. Yet, there’s a reason why the parenting strategies from typical parenting books don’t work with your uniquely wired child. Your child is not wired like neurotypical kids! Your child’s systems of regulation, communication, and behavior often are not wired in the predictable way of their typically developing peers.Therefore, you come up short when you try your friend’s normal parenting advice and then feel like a parenting failure, right?. Use the information from these texts as foundational information for understanding child development as a whole and for envisioning what normal behavior looks like rather than trying to understand your neurodiverse child fully.
Customize Schedules according to each Child’s Need (if possible): When parenting and organizing life for your neurodiverse child, customization is the key! Schedules and routines help children (humans really) develop predictable patterns. That’s why automation is used so widely in our modern world. However, neurodiverse children and teens often deal with irregular sensory systems, which means that their patterns of input and output vary often according to their experiences of the world around them. For instance, hot days can be especially irritating for neurodiverse kids. Having a regularly scheduled outside playdate on Mondays may not jive with your child’s overheated system. So customize by planning for additional strategies, which might include ice water, cooling packs, or indoor playdates on those days that they are appearing irritable and uncooperative due to the heat. Neurodiverse kids also struggle with managing their experiences of time and expectations/abilities to manage demanding schedules. Morning wake-up/drop-off is painful for all families at the start of the school year, yet for neurodiverse teens it can be almost insurmountable to reset their sleep schedule quickly. Either plan ahead in August to help them adjust their sleep schedule, or factor in a slower transition into the school day if allowed.
Predict Change Practically and without Surprise: Neurodiverse kids don’t do well with change, and they do even worse with surprise (even fun, pleasant occurrences). Why? Because surprise amplifies most feelings, both pleasant and unpleasant, which can create dysregulation even when we experience heightened happiness through an unexpected surprise. Change causes us to feel surprised in a way by disrupting our expectations of what the routine should be/has been. Changing schedules often is a trigger for many neurodiverse children, which makes for a parenting nightmare as parents try to help a uniquely wired child get used to new routines and changing schedules of the school year. Try the “one thing at a time rule,” which means if you can, try adding one change and adjusting to it before adding another change. Also, try to start off the year with the schedule fairly set and in order and then “hold the plan lightly,” which is my way of reminding myself to stay flexible with the schedule even when I want it all settled and worked out. Lastly, use your calmest, most practical parenting voice when you share any change. (I sometimes practice smiling lightly or thinking of something pleasant as I share news that might be disruptive to my child). This part is hard because we are often burdened by so many changing appointments, and sometimes irritated by changes in our own busy routines and packed schedules. However, try to neutralize your voice by acknowledging and processing out your emotions before you share the news of a changed activity with your unique child. They can’t often handle our emotions well in combo with their own upset.
Learn About & Understand Double Empathy: Double empathy is a theory in communities of autism that basically asserts that empathy is not just one way, but it is a two way street. While persons with autism may struggle with understanding neurotypical experiences and feelings, typically developing persons may not truly understand what it feels like to have autism. In short, empathy is not just, “I get you.” Double empathy is, “I get you, AND, you get me.” This theory highlights the dynamic that many persons with autism feel misunderstood and that the world is often misaligned with their personal experiences. This lack of attunement seems to go both ways in this theory. It’s hard to tune into others who experience the world in such a different manner, and who also don’t really understand your experiences.
Adopt Radical Self Acceptance & Self Compassion: “Accept myself as I am, then I can change.”~This quote came from Daniel Aherne’s. The Pocket Guide to Neurodiveristy. It’s a great reminder of Sonya Renee Taylors’s concept of adopting radical self care, which includes self-acceptance and self compassion, when helping ourselves heal from something traumatic. Parenting neurodiverse children is full of upsets, disruptions, traumatic moments for our children that we must absorb, and painful experiences as we fight to get them what they need to learn and grow through their developmental challenges. And in order to help our children grow into strong, confident young adults who must work with their challenges, we must bravely accept our strengths and our limitations in being able to help them. YES, we love them wholeheartedly. YES, we fight for them mightily. And, we must accept that the world was not made for them in mind. The world often ignores, overlooks, and rejects their needs. Even caring, experienced professionals miss things. I’m a highly trained, 3x educated child therapist and I still don’t know how to help my son with certain aspects of his neurodiversity. Knowing that helps me accept his condition, love myself even when I let him down, and be generous to those who are striving to help him and our family. Make sure you are reading, listening to and surrounding yourself with those who can pass these loving messages your way.
Optimize Your Parent Support Efforts: As a parent who is raising a neurodiverse human being, you must connect with other parents for support in order to grow optimally. Yes, we are strong and resilient. Yet, our biggest source of energy besides our love for our children is within a community of fellow parents. Find some friends who you can share with who are also raising unique children, listen to The Neurodiversity Podcast [https://neurodiversitypodcast.com/] to hear voices who are advocating for children like yours, and join a Support Group of parents who are in similar situations.
Be Smart, Farm Out when necessary or able: I have a mantra that I try to refer to when running my business to keep me from being such a busy body and to help me operate smarter as a businesswoman–Delegate Before Do! This mantra is helpful for parents who are parenting neurodivergent kids, especially if one or both of the parents are neurodivergent themselves. As parents, we don’t have to be great at everything, and we might not be very good at certain aspects of neurodivergent parenting. When you can afford it, hire out certain tasks or locate services/resources that will support your parenting skills. For instance, can you order out instead of cooking dinner? Do you need someone to systematize your home to create ordered homework spaces and workstations in your kitchen? Should you hire a therapeutic nanny through care.com to help with afternoon routines to keep your quirky kid occupied with the right amount of support?
And when co-parenting with someone who is neurodiverse,try to share tasks them them in their strength areas and problem solve about how to cover weak areas. If you are a neurodiverse parent, you are tasked with becoming supremely self aware, which means you will need to address your problems with executive functioning or organization for the sake of your neurodivergent kid. Suffering work or social consequences for your own forgetfulness is one thing, yet staying disorganized is extremely disorienting for your child who is having trouble organizing and regulating on their own. If you don’t have a system, get one. If you you struggle to devise and follow one, hire a coach or therapist to help you establish those necessary routines. You learning these skills will help show your child that they can do it too!
I’m sure this list is small and still growing as I make my way through my own parenting journey. It’s just a start, yet I hope it conveys something that you haven’t heard before.
Look, Neurodiverse Families know about crisis! I recently read a quote in Thomas Welche’s book,The Breakaway: A Parent’s Guide to Transitioning the Autistic and Twice Exceptional Adolescent Into Young Adulthood that I think is worth remembering.
“Every crisis bears the gift of growth”
I’m here with you dealing with our family’s own crises, and growing right along with you~