Neurodiversity, neurodivergence and children
Neurodiversity is the idea that there’s natural variation in how people’s brains work and how people experience, understand and interact with the world. This means there are natural differences in the way people learn and communicate.
Most children’s brains develop in ways that are seen as typical for their age and stage. These children can be described as neurotypical.
About 1 in 5-6 children have variations in their brain development. These variations include those seen in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism and dyslexia. These children can be described as neurodivergent.
Embracing neurodiversity is about accepting, including, celebrating and supporting neurodivergent children. Their differences are part of natural variation and don’t need to be treated or changed.
Embracing neurodiversity involves:
- acknowledging that neurodivergent children might do things differently from neurotypical children
- adjusting tasks and activities so that neurodivergent children can fully participate
- making the most of neurodivergent children’s skills, especially the skills they’re proud of
- helping neurodivergent children develop ways of managing everyday tasks and activities that feel natural to them
- not expecting neurodivergent children to change behaviour like stimming, which doesn’t interfere with their everyday activities
- making sure that schools, sports clubs, social groups and community organisations include and support neurodivergent children.
Neurodivergent children can be disabled by noise, light and other things in the environment. People's expectations can be disabling too. But it’s not up to neurodivergent children to change. Rather, environments and expectations need to change to better include and embrace neurodivergent children’s differences.
Why it’s important to embrace neurodiversity
When families and communities embrace neurodiversity, it’s good for neurodivergent children’s mental health, wellbeing, sense of self and identity.
Embracing neurodiversity takes away the pressure for neurodivergent children to behave in neurotypical ways, hide behaviour like stimming, mask or hide who they are, or cope with sensory overstimulation. This kind of pressure can be physically and mentally exhausting. And it can make it hard for children to focus on schoolwork and take part in social activities.
Embracing neurodiversity is also good for society. Just like the planet needs a diversity of plants and animals to survive, society needs neurodiversity to thrive. Neurodivergent people bring many strengths to society. These include strengths in creative, innovative and analytical thinking and expertise in areas of special interest.
How to embrace neurodiversity in family life
- Talk with your children about neurodiversity, neurodivergence and acceptance. For example, you could say, ‘Some people’s brains work differently from other people’s. This means they learn and make friends differently too’.
- Use books to learn and talk about neurodiversity and neurodivergence. For younger children, try Some brains by Nelly Thomas, The brain forest by Sandhya Menon or Just right for you by Melanie Heyworth. For older children, try The spectrum girl’s survival toolkit by Siena Castellon or The autism and neurodiversity self advocacy handbook by Barb Cook and Yenn Purkis.
- Find meaningful ways to include neurodivergent children in your social activities. For example, if you’re inviting an autistic child to a birthday party, you could ask the parents how you can accommodate their child’s needs. Or you could include some ‘What to expect’ information with the invitation.
- Look for appropriate ways for your child to communicate with neurodivergent friends. For example, you could help your child use pictures and drawing to communicate with a friend who doesn’t use words.
How to embrace neurodiversity in the community
- Be aware of the language you use. It’s OK to ask if you’re not sure. For example, ‘Do you prefer ‘autistic child’ or ‘child with autism’?’
- Challenge unhelpful attitudes. For example, you could speak up if you hear someone criticising a parent whose child is having a meltdown in the park.
- Avoid assumptions. For example, there could be many reasons why a child is eating only packaged snacks at a picnic or wearing headphones at the supermarket.
- Look for ways to make your community more inclusive. For example, you could be part of a petition encouraging the local supermarket to opt into one ‘quiet hour’ a week, when lights are dimmed and no music is played.
- Talk respectfully about neurodiversity and neurodivergence. You probably know people who are neurodivergent, even if they haven’t told you.
How schools can embrace neurodiversity
Schools can adjust things so that neurodivergent children can participate fully in learning and socialising at school. For example, you might notice that your child’s school has made changes like these:
- Changes to the environment for children with sensory sensitivities or high levels of anxiety – for example, perhaps the school uses quiet spaces, adjusts lighting, allows children to use sensory items like squishy balls in class, or allows variations to the uniform.
- Use of diverse teaching methods to suit diverse learning styles or needs – for example, perhaps the school lets some children create video presentations instead of doing class presentations, or participate in sports day by planning rather than competing. Perhaps teachers give both written and verbal instructions.
- Support for all children to include neurodivergent children in interactions and play – for example, perhaps the school includes lessons on neurodiversity in citizenship lessons or has games clubs for all children interested in a game like chess.
When children understand more about how neurodivergent children communicate and play, it can encourage all children to interact respectfully and on equal terms. This helps to get rid of the expectation that neurodivergent children should change.