Support Your Autistic Child By Embracing Neurodivergence
As a parent, embracing neurodivergence is crucial to guide and support your autistic child. This includes getting some clarity around many myths associated with autism that are still prevalent and contribute to poor mental health outcomes for autistics.
Indeed, let’s get some of those myths out of the way from the very start. After all, they are not supported by research or clinical experience among those who embrace neurodivergence and understand how to support an autistic child.
Common myths that don’t support your autistic child:
- Autism is caused by vaccines, especially the MMR.
- Autism is a result of bad parenting or refrigerator moms.
- Autism is a childhood condition that can be cured.
- Autistics have no sense of humor, empathy, or feelings.
- Autistics have no desire to communicate or socialize.
- Autistics have learning difficulties or intellectual disability.
- Autistics have a special talent or savant skill.
Certainly, there are co-occurring conditions and autistics live with diverse experiences that may include individual variations, but these myths can have a significant impact on children with autism that extend well into adulthood. For instance, the myth that autism is caused by vaccines has led to a decrease in vaccination rates, which can lead to outbreaks of preventable diseases. The myth that autistic people have no sense of humor, empathy, or feelings can lead to social isolation and a lack of understanding from others.
Some of these myths reflect what is known in neurodivergent circles as “the double empathy problem.”
This theory acknowledges that people of different backgrounds who interact with one another may experience a lack of connection or poor communication simply because they don’t understand each other and may have blind spots. Not unlike two people from different countries who experience cultural differences. The theory suggests that communication breakdowns between autistic and non-autistic people are a two-way issue. It’s not about autistics necessarily having social shortcomings.
One way to support your autistic child is to conceptualize autism as difference versus deficiency. By recognizing and embracing neurodivergence, parents are in a better position to accept the diversity of autistic traits and experiences which benefits and supports their autistic child.
Neurodivergence and neurodiversity explained.
Incidentally, another area of confusion, relates to the terms “neurodivergent” and “neurodiversity.” Neurodivergence and neurodiversity are two related, but distinct concepts. They both relate to the variations in human brains and cognition. Neurodiversity refers, quite broadly, to the diversity of all people. It is often used to acknowledge the fact that there are multiple ways of learning, behaving and thinking among peoples. No one way is the “right” way. The term values the natural diversity of human minds. Neurodivergence is a specific term that refers to individuals whose neurological development and functioning differ from what is considered neurotypical.
Supporting your autistic child by emphasizing strengths, not deficits.
Neurodivergence typically includes conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, Tourette syndrome, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or borderline personality disorder. Another way you can support your autistic child is to recognize how these conditions are often seen as deficits or disorders by the dominant neurotypical culture. In fact, the term “disorder” can be quite disparaging to those who experience mental illness. You can support your autistic child as an advocate as part of the “neurodiversity” movement which challenges this view and argues that neurodivergent people have unique strengths, perspectives, and contributions to society. This is vitally important for a child’s identity development and global well-being. Embracing neurodivergence is to acknowledge that your child is not broken and does not need to be “fixed.” Unfortunately, that has been a recurrent viewpoint that has created much distress for autistic children.
ABA does not support your autistic child
In fact, many widely used interventions are often praised by practitioners who blend any distinction between compliance, conformity and well-being. Many adult autistics who received Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) as children vehemently decry ABA as coercive.
ABA therapy is very intensive required up to 40 hours a week to work on reducing or eliminating the behaviors that are seen as “autistic”, such as stimming, echolalia, or meltdowns, and increasing the behaviors that are seen as “typical”, such as eye contact, verbal speech, or compliance.
Discrepancy between autistic experience and autism as defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illnesses (DSM).
The DSM-5 is a widely used diagnostic manual for autism. However, it does not capture the full range of autistic traits and experiences. Here are some autistic traits that are not widely known or identified in the DSM:
- Sensory processing differences: Autistics often experience sensory information differently than non-autistic people. For example, they may be hypersensitive to certain sounds, textures, or smells. Sometimes these sensory issues are reflected in synesthesia in which one sense can trigger another unrelated sense. For example, a synesthete might associate colors with letters.
- Lack of impulse control: Autistics may have difficulty regulating their emotions, which can lead to meltdowns or shutdowns. Sometimes this is attributed to their having greater sensitivity and empathy and difficulty expressing emotions.
- Gastrointestinal problems: it’s not uncommon for autistics to experience issues with their digestion which can make them irritable and uncomfortable. Abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation as well as very selective appetites and preferences for food are quite common.
- Monotrophism: This is a term coined by autistics to describe autistic behavior well known to autistics, but not recognized so much by neurotypical providers. It refers to the “rabbit hole” like intense interest that is common among autistics who can focus their attention on select topics while ignoring things outside of this narrow realm of interest. The theory of monotropism was developed by Dinah Murray, Wenn Lawson and Mike Lesser in the 1990s.
- Alexithymia: Research has shown a considerably higher link between alexithymia and autism in comparison to the rate among neurotypicals. People with alexithymia report challenges identifying and expressing emotions. This may explain some of the traits attributed to autistics, such as lower empathy and face-perception recognition that might be better explained by alexithymia instead.
- Difficulty with self-advocacy: Autistic people may have difficulty advocating for themselves and their needs on account of many factors that include those attributable to alexithymia that might affect communication; internalized messages or stereotypes regarding misunderstanding and ignorance regarding autism, as well as systemic barriers such as policies, laws, practices or norms that exclude or disadvantage autistics.
Understanding and embracing neurodivergence in its fullest sense occurs when it is understood from the voices of autistics. This is so important for providing affirming support and services for your autistic child. Such support is not only practical, but important for celebrating the diversity and richness of human experience and expression of which autistics form an essential part.