Nurturing Neurodiversity

Neurodiversity is a fact. People of all kinds of neurotypes inhabit this world. Like all kinds of diversity, neurodiversity means more perspectives, a wider array of strengths, and increased opportunities for mutualistic interdependence. Yet, many interventions and ideologies still blatantly disrespect neurodiversity.

Treating neurodiversity as anything less than a fact does not change the fact of neurodiversity., Treating neurodivergent minds as subpar imitations of neurotypical minds does not change the fact of neurodiversity. Forcing neurodivergent brains to assimilate to neurotypical social norms does not change the fact of neurodiversity. But reactions to neurodiversity change neurodivergent people. Ignoring or disrespecting neurodiversity teaches neurodivergent people that the world is not safe for them. To prioritize compliance and convenience over the safety, comfort, and happiness of neurodivergent people is to teach them that their safety, comfort, and happiness don’t deserve to be prioritized. In spaces that fail to honor neurodiversity, that inhumane prioritization is the resounding message, especially during a child’s most difficult moments. It’s no wonder autistic children are twenty-eight times more likely to experience suicidal ideation than their neurotypical peers.

Axiomatically, people who truly care about the neurodivergent people in their lives will aim to support their growth into happy and safe adults. There are several characteristics to look for in the pro-neurodiversity settings that are essential in making that growth possible.

Settings that honor neurodiversity…

…are familiar with the perspectives of the neurodivergent community.
If you want to know what it feels like to ride a bike, honoring the response of someone who has seen someone riding a bike over that of someone who has ridden a bike is rather foolish. Supporting neurodivergent people well involves learning from neurodivergent people of all ages and standing in allyship with them. What’s more, neurodivergent adults can shed incredible light on their own experiences with growth, identity, and the world, which can often provide context to help others to better understand the experiences of neurodivergent children.

…facilitate opportunities to explore and engage in interests
Unfortunately, neurodivergent people’s interests are far more frequently pathologized than respected. While children who are deemed “neurotypical” are often encouraged to pursue the things that grab their attention, neurodivergent children, teens, and even adults often have their interests yanked away from them, rather than incorporated into the curriculum. Giving people resources to learn more about their interests, opportunities to pursue their interests, and curricular information in line with their interests strengthens their ability to learn and live in ways that bring them joy. Revoking or limiting interests usually just brings misery.

…respect communication in all forms.
How many people never realize the irony of saying, “behavior is communication,” while supporting tactics such as planned ignoring to extinguish behaviors? Respecting communication does not reward “bad behavior.” On the contrary, it rewards communication. When a child begins to show signs of distress in an overwhelming environment, supporting them in getting relief from that distress may encourage the child to display signs of distress in the future. This outcome is wonderful. Showing their discomfort enables those around them to support them while they learn to define and protect their comfort zone. More palatable forms of communication will likely come naturally when these supports are in place. People often don’t yell as loudly if they already know they’re heard. Meanwhile, tacit endurance can be extraordinarily traumatic, and children who feel chastised for expressing pain will be far less likely to reach out for support.

…encourage boundaries and coping mechanisms.
When someone says, “I’m not comfortable doing that,” that statement should be seen as a firm boundary whenever possible. While sometimes a person may want support to become more comfortable with an experience, choosing to work toward that must be a consensual process. Instead of immediate focus on “overcoming” an aversion, people benefit from support in managing their needs surrounding it, even and especially when those needs include avoidance. Everyone learns to avoid the things that are unbearable for them, and neurodivergent people have that right as well. Natural coping mechanisms should also be encouraged whenever possible. Stimming is a helpful tool for many neurodivergent people in self-regulation. To support it is to support lifelong coping skills.

…hold personhood above all else.
Safety, consent, and comfort are paramount. Not just when they’re relatable. Not just when they’re convenient. Always. No IEP goal is ever worth their sacrifice.

Though neurodiversity is a fact, honoring neurodivergent people is a very necessary action. The decisions made about the settings in which neurodivergent people live and learn will have a lifelong impact on essential areas for future wellbeing, including self-esteem, self-efficacy, and pursuit of interests. For the sake of the neurodivergent people in our lives, we have an obligation to make the right choices today.