“And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been.” - Rainer Maria Rilke
Welcome to Part 2 of this 3-part series on Parenting your Neurodivergent Child. If you haven't yet read Part 1, go check it out!
I hope I’ve gotten you jazzed up about starting on this journey with your child! Now you’re ready to dig in. There are three main strands you’ll want to be thinking about as you begin: intervention, accommodation, and strengths.
1 - Intervention
By intervention, I am referring to specialized tools, services, methods, and sometimes medications which can alleviate some of the challenges the child is experiencing. Interventions are not appropriate for all diagnoses. Before we go further, let’s be clear on this point - we are not here to ‘cure’ or ‘change’ anyone.
That being said, for some diagnoses there are some interventions you’ll want to explore to see if they may be right for your child. For example, early reading intervention witha a trained expert can improve a dyslexic’s phonemic awareness and ultimately their reading skills. Many individuals with ADHD swear by their daily medication, which they feel helps them focus and enables them - as my son has put it - to ‘get their ideas out of their brains in an organized fashion.’ In addition to tutoring and medication, I’d also put therapy (occupational, speech, etc) into this category.
When you’re researching intervention options, it is critical that you find people whom you trust and who work well with your child. Interview as many people as possible, and observe them as they work with your child. Consider not only the individual, but the environment - will the child enjoy being in that space? Will the time (morning, evening, etc) work for your child?
My son was first identified as needing extra help in reading when he was in first grade. He was at a lovely, small, supportive private school at the time. In an effort to help him, his teacher provided him one-on-one reading support every Tuesday and Thursday after school. It sounded like an ideal situation. However, without fail, when it was time to go to school on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, I’d find my son hiding in his closet refusing to get in the car. He didn’t like being singled out for his reading difficulties, and hated that he was the only one who had to stay after class. He was tired after a long day of being challenged. He needed a break, not more of what he found impossible. It didn’t take too long for us to realize that this intervention wasn’t working.
We interviewed several dyslexia tutors. During trial sessions, I would watch while my son sat pushing a pencil slowly across the desk so that it would eventually fall on the floor without the tutor knowing why. Clearly these tutors were not going to be the right fit. Finally, we met a fabulous teacher who ran a small, full-day program for dyslexic learners. Our son loved working with her. He respected her and wanted to learn when in her presence. Everyone at this teacher’s school received one-on-one tutoring during school hours, so no one was singled out, and no one had to stay late. In fact, each student looked forward to their one-on-one time with this beloved teacher. Our son enrolled in her program and the change was immediate. Finally, he was in a community of his peers - bright young twice-exceptional kids who loved learning but struggled with reading and writing.
2 - Accommodation
Accommodations are the tools and supports which your child may need in order to be successful. Accommodations may change over time, cease being necessary, or be a constant in an individual’s life.
Students with a specific learning difference such as dyslexia or dysgraphia may benefit from having extra time to complete assignments and assessments. Dyslexic individuals may need alternative ways to access information such as audiobooks. Dysgraphics may prefer to type or use a dictation tool rather than hand-write their work.
It is a common misconception that individuals with ADHD would also benefit from extra time on assignments. However, research has shown that in fact that extra time is often detrimental to a person with ADHD. Those with ADHD will often benefit from well-defined, time-bound deadlines to help them focus. They may find that headphones help them concentrate during independent work, or that a fidget helps them focus during group activities. There are tons of different kinds of fidgets, from things which you can play with in your hands, to things which you can play with with your feet, to different kinds of chairs to sit on, and so much more.
You should also consider the environment in which your child works best. Do they feel more comfortable in a brightly or dimly lit room? Do they work better with some amount of noise, or do they need a very quiet environment? Do they prefer to lie on the floor, sit on a beanbag, or stand and pace while thinking? Students need to feel safe in their environment in order to be able to learn. There should be spaces available which can accommodate all of these different needs.
Accommodations are empowering, and allow individuals’ brains to work in their optimal condition. Sometimes twice-exceptional children (and/or their parents) resist accommodations, because they feel it is ‘cheating’ or a ‘crutch.’ However, recognizing that our brains all don’t work in the same way, and providing choice and variability so that all brains can achieve at their full potential, is not a crutch, and using these options isn’t something to be embarrassed by; it’s something to be proud of. Accommodations are merely doors, pathways offered so that you can choose the route which works best for you (rather than everyone having to go the same way.) Accommodations are tools - embrace them, so that your mind can shine with the full brilliance it contains.
Eventually, our goal for our children should be self-advocacy, as they mature and grow into independence. As our children grow older they will need to learn how to ask for what they need in order to be successful. This will require self-awareness and self-confidence and will take time to develop. Be patient. In the beginning you will most likely have to advocate for their accommodations. As they see you do this tactfully and experience how successful they can be with these supports in place, they will begin to learn how to do this on their own. It’s a beautiful thing to see a student self-advocate, displaying self-awareness by speaking up for and articulating what they need to be successful.
3 - Strengths
There are many different ways of learning and being. Howard Gardner is famous for developing his Theory of Multiple Intelligences nearly four decades ago. He identified 9 intelligence areas:
All of these aspects of intelligence are going to be necessary at different times, for different activities. A person is not only a single kind of ‘thinker.’ All of these intelligence muscles must be developed in order for an individual to thrive. But for each individual, some of these will come more naturally than others, which is why although Dr. Gardner calls them ‘intelligences,’ I prefer to think of them as strengths.
In order for you to get just a taste of how strength-based programming feels, try the experiment in the section below:
Try this experiment to get a quick experience of strength-based programming Consider these three ‘strength profiles:’
The creative artist: someone who loves art, music, visual thinking, movies, color, space, movement
The bookworm: someone who loves reading, writing, journaling, note-taking
The analyst: someone who loves looking at data, statistics, charts, numbers, graphs, analysis
When you read this list, which strength type do you feel most affinity for? Are you a creative artist, a bookworm, or an analyst?
Now that you’ve chosen a strength profile, I want you to close your eyes and spend a minute or so imagining your perfect day.
Next, get a pencil, some paper, and a timer. Set your timer for 5 minutes, and:
Creative artists - write a five paragraph essay explaining your perfect day.
Bookworms - produce five charts or diagrams which explain your day.
Analysts - write and perform a skit about your day.
Once you’re done, set that paper aside. Now get a fresh piece of paper and set that 5 minute timer again. This time:
Creative artists - have three minutes to create a visual representation of their day. Maybe a drawing, a cartoon, or a list of music?
Bookworms - you can now write to describe your day. Perhaps you’ll write a poem, or an essay?
Analysts - please use numbers and charts to explain your day. I expect to see pie charts, bar graphs, maybe scatter plots, or perhaps lists of percentages!
Pencils down. Now, compare your two works side-by-side:
Which work is of better quality? Which are you more proud of?
For which work did you produce a greater quantity? Which one is full of detail, and which is more like a rough outline?
When you were working in your area of weakness, did you use the full five minutes, or did you start to let your mind wander, perhaps get up and get some water?
What about during the work in your area of strength. Were you in flow? Did the time just seem to fly by?
How did these two five minute sessions make you feel? Often people tell me that in the five minutes of having to work in their area of weakness they felt sick, or wanted to go hide in the bathroom. Working in your area of weakness can physically affect you - headaches, dry mouth - physical manifestations of fear. In contrast, working in your area of strength can feel euphoric.
In both cases you possessed the same knowledge about the material - you know very well what your perfect day would be like. In terms of understanding the material, you can’t be beat. But in one case, what you produced did not reflect the true extent of your knowledge.
This is how our children can sometimes feel in school, being asked to work all day (and after school!) focusing on their areas of weakness, needing accommodations to get through their work, full of anxiety about what they’re being asked to do. It is exhausting and frustrating.
Unfortunately, of the three strands, understanding your child’s strengths is the one which is most frequently ignored. People think it is less important than the others, and yet it is really the reverse. Strengths are the most important element you need to be thinking about.
Every child has strengths and talents. It is our responsibility to help our children discover what excites them, and nurture those interests. By understanding what our children enjoy doing we can build their confidence, self-esteem, and self-efficacy. Understanding your child’s strengths is where you’re going to find what puts the light in your child’s eyes. It’s where you’ll find out what motivates them, where their passion lies, what brings them confidence. Think of your child’s strengths as a magic key to their success. Confident individuals pursuing their passions will find the grit needed to persevere through challenges! Plus, understanding and nurturing your child’s strengths is a lot of fun for both of you.
Now you have a roadmap: think about interventions, accommodations, and strengths. Next, let’s talk about the strand which sadly often gets the least attention, and yet is the most critical focus for success: finding your child’s strengths. In part 3 of this series, we’ll talk about six ways to uncover your child’s strengths.