What Does ‘Neurodivergent’ Mean?

From schools to the workplace and even TV entertainment, the term “neurodivergent” has become increasingly common in America’s vocabulary. But parents could be forgiven if they are unclear about the exact definition.

“(Neurodivergent) speaks to individuals who exhibit a wide array of differences in brain functioning from what’s considered standard, but in no way implies these differences are pathological,” says Jennifer Weber, director of behavioral health for PM Pediatrics Behavioral Health in New York. “Any number of slight changes or variations impact a wide array of functioning such as mood, social skills, learning style, attention, cognition and concentration.”

Weber says neurodivergence can include autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and learning differences such as dyslexia, as well as some processing and mood disorders. However, experts in medicine and education have come to view neurodiversity not as a problem to be fixed but as the idea that every child processes information and interacts with the world differently.

If someone is considered neurotypical, they might reach all their developmental milestones and are considered “typical” in their thinking and processing. Children who are neurodivergent may require parents and teachers to provide different ways to approach learning.

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Tailoring Education for Neurodivergent Students

Rebecca Kolb, a special education researcher at the University of Minnesota, says educators should use evidence-based instruction to help neurodivergent students.

“Evidence-based techniques are those that have been studied and shown to be effective through multiple and repeated evaluations, and in particular with neurodivergent students, who often experience unique barriers to learning,” she says.

Ashley Showell, a former kindergarten teacher and creator of the Forward With Fun educational website, says there is no one-size-fits-all way to educate. “Every human is different, so it’s always best to get to know each learner — their interests, their strengths and their challenges — in order to make learning accessible and engaging,” she says. Avoid grouping students by diagnosis or symptoms, and instead “appreciate the entirety of the individual,” says Weber. “This includes their needs, but also their unique profile of strengths.

Accommodations can help meet student needs. For example, Showell says, neurodivergent students might have trouble sitting at a desk for long periods of time or looking directly at the teacher when talking.

Multimodal approaches such as using visual supports or a 3D model that students can interact with can often be helpful, Diana Simon, an educational psychologist, wrote in an email. For example, when working on a word problem using apples, students can first read the problem to themselves. Then they may listen to the teacher read it before using actual apples to solve the problem. This gives them something to feel and see as they work out the problem at their desk.

“This type of teaching provides a bridge from what children do know to what they’re learning,” Simon says.

How Parents Can Support Neurodiverse Children

“The single best thing any parent can do to support their neurodivergent child is to identify their needs and provide high-quality intervention as early as possible,” Simon says.

When children are old enough, says Simon, have an open and clear conversation about their diagnosis. Often, students are already aware they have challenges their peers don’t face, and hiding their diagnosis might cause frustration. They might have difficulty understanding why things are difficult.”It can be a huge relief for neurodivergent students to have a name for their experience, and to know they’re not alone,” Simon says. “The neurodivergent community is large and accomplished; it can help students to show them real-life examples of those who have not just accepted their neurodivergence but embraced it.”

When children are old enough, says Simon, have an open and clear conversation about their diagnosis. Often, students are already aware they have challenges their peers don’t face, and hiding their diagnosis might cause frustration. They might have difficulty understanding why things are difficult.

“It can be a huge relief for neurodivergent students to have a name for their experience, and to know they’re not alone,” Simon says. “The neurodivergent community is large and accomplished; it can help students to show them real-life examples of those who have not just accepted their neurodivergence but embraced it.”

READ: What is an IEP? ]

Obtain school support

Reach out to your child’s school, and teachers in particular. “Some parents may be afraid to bring too much attention to their child or be labeled a difficult parent,” Weber says. However, most teachers appreciate the information you provide about your child and your ability to partner in their learning.

Many schools can perform testing needed for an Individualized Education Program, called an IEP, or other support. “You are your child’s most important advocate,” Showell says. “If you’re worried about something, say something. Schools rely on you to communicate your goals and challenges to them.”

Address anxiety

Anxiety often accompanies neurodivergence, which experts say can be a barrier to learning. “It can interrupt attention to lessons, or keep students from attending school,” Simon says.

Techniques to reduce anxiety might include mindfulness, like practicing deep breathing; encouraging students to take care of themselves physically, such as avoiding caffeine and getting enough sleep; and using simple tools like visual schedules so students know what’s coming next.”Appreciate your child for who they are,” Showell says. “Take interest in their interests. Allow them to do what makes them feel calm and happy.”

Resources for parents

— The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website allows parents to search by state to see if their child qualifies for early intervention.

Understood is a nonprofit that provides parents information on learning differences and what it means to be neurodivergent.

— The “Actually Autistic” podcast offers support and resources for the neurodivergent community.

— The Autistic Self Advocacy Network is a nonprofit that seeks to empower autistic people worldwide.

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What Does ‘Neurodivergent’ Mean? originally appeared on usnews.com

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