Hey awesome parents, just got a diagnosis for your kid, and you’re not sure what your next steps are? Or maybe you’ve been reading up on a neurodivergence, and are thinking that it might fit your kiddo?
“Neurodivergence” is a category term for folks who use a different mental “operating system” than neurotypical folks. Autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and others are considered neurodivergent. The word “neurodivergent” isn’t a bad word, and is used by most neurodivergent communities.
First off, if you have any medical or behavioral questions about your kiddo, it may be best to bring it up to your primary care provider. They will likely be able to triage your questions and pass you on to other medical professionals as needed.
Here are your first steps as parents of neurodivergent kids:
1.Take Some Time to Self-Reflect
When my kid was diagnosed with ADHD, I felt it in my solar-plexus, like a punch. Even though I already figured that that was the accurate diagnosis (as a teacher, I’m familiar with diagnostic criteria for ADHD), when the words came out of the pediatrician’s mouth, I was in shock. I called the school and sent the diagnosis letter without really knowing what I was doing.
Remember that your child is still your child, regardless of their diagnosis or neurotype. Also, keep in mind that a neurodivergence diagnosis doesn’t mean that your child won’t have an awesome life. Lots of neurodivergent folk (myself and my kiddo included) have great lives! If it helps, you can do some research about the diagnosis, but make sure to focus on resources created by folks in the community.
Have a bath, drink some tea, remember that you are all the same people you were before the doctor’s appointment, and that there’s no rush. It’s best to take time to reassess, rather than jumping into a million therapies.
Remind yourself that your job as the parent of a neurodivergent kid is not to try to make them neurotypical, but to help them live their best and most authentic life as a neurodivergent individual.
2. Routines, Routines, Routines!
Predictability is important for everyone, but is especially so for neurodivergent folks. You’ve probably already heard the importance of routines, and may be wondering where to start.
The good news is that you can start small. At the core, routines are about doing steps in a certain order every time– you’re probably already doing a bunch of routines, but you just don’t know it.
Start with one part of your day: mealtime or bedtime is probably where routines come in most naturally. Think about the two or three things you do in order, and just make sure to do it that way. For example, before mealtime, you may want to give a 5-minute warning, then a 1-minute warning, then wash hands, then come to the table. See? Easy! That was a routine! Just do that every time before the meal, and in time your child will come to expect that.
Bedtime routines are usually something along the lines of storytime, brush teeth, cuddle time, and lights out. That is also a routine! For the first bit, you’ll want to focus on routines that you already do in your home, because those are the least stressful for you.
Once those routines are well-established, your next routine will be the dreaded morning routine. The importance of a morning routine cannot be overstated, but keep in mind that it is one of the most difficult things to establish as a parent, especially of a neurodivergent kiddo. If you want to chat about how to start, I’m here for you.
The first thing I encourage my parents to do is to develop a morning routine for themselves. It’s too much to try to start a routine for yourself as a parent and for your child at the same time. Once you have your own morning routine down, then you can find spots in your routine where you can support your child’s getting ready routine. Try it out a few different ways (but don’t forget to try something new for several days in a row– don’t quit after one day). Remember that routines get harder before they get easier, so don’t get discouraged when things get hairy.
3. Sensory Awareness
Neurodivergent folks can tend to have a different relationship with the five senses than neurotypicals, so you’ll want to do a “sensory audit” of your home. What you’ll want to do is take it one sense at a time. Imagine that you can’t filter out sensory input, and walk through your house.
For example, vision: pretend that you can’t “block out” any visual clutter in your home. Walk around looking in all directions, and notice all the visual input that’s there. Are there many clashing patterns? Lots of clutter on the floor? Posters on the wall? Even though your brain may “filter” those things out, your child’s may not, and it may cause them stress,
I remember as a child, my parents always had a radio blaring on a talk channel. My neurodivergent brain had to spend so much energy trying to block that out, and I was often on edge. I would try to escape to my room or to the backyard as often as possible, to get away from the auditory clutter. I didn’t have the language to tell my parents, or even the awareness that it was bothering me.
As a parent, it is your best option to try to reduce the sensory load of your children, so that they can be relaxed at home. The good news is that reducing the sensory load is good for everyone, not just your neurodivergent child. You may even find yourself more relaxed as a parent!
4. All About Food
Eating is a common challenge for neurodivergent children (and adults!). As a parent of a neurodivergent child, you may hear about certain diets being beneficial for folks with certain diagnoses.
As a special education teacher, I’ve seen many well-intentioned parents try new diets for their children. In theory, the diets could be beneficial, but the problem that I saw was that it was so much work for the parents that they would “cheat” the diet regularly, which negates the benefit in the first place. Probably the best thing to do is just stick to a regular diet that your child will eat without fuss, that is easy enough for you to prepare for them.
If you’ve got a picky eater, here’s my best advice: fed is best. Love is a battlefield, but the dinner table doesn’t have to be. As a parent, you know what your child will eat without a fuss. Every meal, make sure to give them something they will eat. Then give them one or two other things that they may or may not eat, and see what they do. Try not to focus on the child too much during mealtime– we want our children to understand that we are a community, and that they don’t need to be the centre of attention. Let them explore their plate at their own pace and according to their appetite.
Remember that there are a lot of other benefits of having family meals, other than eating. You get to spend time together, chat about your days, and enjoy each other’s company. Your child’s relationship with food will develop as it develops, but you always want them to enjoy spending time with their family.
5. Your Marriage Matters
Parents of neurodivergent children have a higher divorce rate than parents of neurotypical children. Make sure to keep this in mind, and recognize that you and your partner will want to communicate even more than you would normally. With neurodivergent children, you may be dealing with other care providers (occupational therapists, psychologists, pediatricians, behavior therapists), and that’s a lot for a parent. Often I see one parent take on the role of “primary care provider”-- and that’s exhausting. Ideally, both parents will be equally involved and be able to “switch out” with contacting care providers and building care plans. If it makes sense to have one parent be the main point of contact, the other parent can make sure that that parent gets enough breaks, so that they can be healthy. Your marriage doesn’t have to be collateral damage.
But if, like me, you’re divorced and coparenting, you can still make it work. Make sure to do your best to keep the lines of communication open and put your children first always. Sometimes two households is better than one, and divorced doesn’t mean unhealthy.
6. Remember You Are Your Child’s Best Thing
It can be easy to go “all in” when you get the diagnosis– to throw yourself into research and advocacy. This may feel like you’re doing what you need to do for your child.
Remember that you are a whole person outside of your child. Don’t let your child’s diagnosis become your identity. Your child is looking at you to see what a happy life looks like, so you’ll want to model a fun and fulfilled life!
The parents that are most successful in advocating for their child long-term are those who put their own oxygen mask on first, like they say in airplane safety videos. If your kiddo’s safe and fed, sleeping well, and playing sometimes, you’re doing okay, and you don’t need to worry.
You need to be in it for the long run, awesome parent. And you’re gonna be just fine.
Remember that what your child needs from you, first, last and always, is for you to love them. Imagine that you are on a deserted island with your child. Diagnosis aside, you have everything you need to care for your child to adulthood. Don’t let the terminology scare you into thinking that you are not the parent your child needs. Can you learn about the diagnosis and best practice? Sure. But don’t forget that you are a whole person, and you are what they need.
If you have any questions about any of this, you can ask your primary provider, your child’s school, or you can seek out extra coaching or support here. But don’t lose sight of who you are, and who your child is. You’re both gonna be okay.