It can be very difficult to wrap your head around neurodiversity when you have spent your life being taught that any deviation from the status quo is a disorder. It’s all the more overwhelming when your child is discovered to be neurodivergent, and suddenly, you live on a battlefield between advocates and professionals. In this post, I hope to give you a starting point with five things that are important to know in your attempt to affirm your neurodivergent child rather than force them into what the world tell you they should be.
1. Person-first language versus Identity-first language
This has been a point of contention for as long as the neurodiversity movement has existed. Broadly speaking, the Neurodivergent community (in particular, the Autistic community) prefers identity-first language. Identity-First language requires us to stop viewing neurodivergence as an illness or disorder and instead view it as an identity.
Instead of person-first language (person with autism/ADHD), try using identity-first language (Autistic person/ADHD’er). As a community, we prefer it because our neurodivergence is inseparable from us and fundamentally; we don’t need to be reminded of our personhood. There are wider discussions around cure culture and normativity, but the information here is a good basis to start learning from.
2. Familiarise yourself with the social model of disability
Discussion of appropriate models of disability can get complicated, so I will try and explain this simply. Autism (as an abstract concept) classes as a disability. There has been a great deal of discussion around whether disability is centred in the person (the medical model) or the environment (the social model). For the purposes of starting to understand disability in the context of neurodiversity, you will need to rethink your conceptualisation of disability.
For the most part, disability arises in neurodivergent people because society and the environments it provides are inaccessible. Rather than considering your child to be disabled due to deficits, start to consider that the issue is oppression. It sounds extreme, but due to the neuronormative attitudes of society, we are held back until we can conform to perceived cultural norms.
This is largely where functioning labels arise from. The idea that people are more or less disabled comes from normative thinking, as does the medical model of disability. Speaking of which…
3. Functioning labels give you very little useful information
You have probably heard of people being labelled as high or low functioning. This is a falsehood. Primarily, disability from neurodivergence has a tendency to be dynamic. A person’s functioning depends on so many variables that different times, environments, and states of health will alter a person’s functioning.
Something else to consider is that those labelled low-functioning are considered so because they do not fit the stereotype of a person who will ever be able to contribute to society. Therefore, they are denied agency. Conversely, those labelled high-functioning are considered valuable to society despite their quirkiness and, for this reason, are often denied resources.
Ones access to humanity and support is often dictated by the functioning label you are assigned.
4. Neurodiversity covers more than autism and ADHD
Neurodiversity refers to all brains, including those considered neurotypical. Neurodivergent people are those who are not neurotypical. For more about terms and definitions I recommend this article by Nick Walker.
People who are not neurotypical also includes those with what is traditionally considered mental “illness”. It also includes things such as Down Syndrome and epilepsy. In particular, I would like you to think about how mental health has been pathologised and how we might move forward to a more inclusive society.
Onto my final point.
5. Almost anything can be traumatic
You may have heard about the high rates of trauma amongst the Autistic and otherwise Neurodivergent community. Our understanding of trauma has been heavily influenced by normative attitudes. The truth is that a wide range of things can traumatise your child.
It’s probably not reasonable to expect yourself to protect your child from every trauma, but having a trauma-informed perspective will help your child-parent relationship a lot.
I hope that this gives you some food for thought and helps you feel as though you can start your journey of learning. Remember, it’s okay to be scared, and it’s okay to make the odd mistake. Allow yourself space to admit your shortcomings, and always consider asking neurodivergent adults about things that helped then as children.
Neurodivergence is not just for childhood.
If you have found this helpful and would like to read something a bit more in-depth about normativity and its impact on neurodivergent people, please consider purchasing my book The New Normal: Autistic musings on the threat of a broken society