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Talking to your children about neurodiversity

Everyone thinks, learns and processes information differently. Neurodiversity is all about recognising this, and understanding that people’s brains all work in different ways, and we all experience the world in a different way. In some cases, for example, if you are autistic or have ADHD or dyslexia, these differences can be more pronounced. It’s a good idea to talk to your child about these differences, to help them be more accepting and understanding of people who are different from them.

Here you’ll also find information on how to spot the signs that your child’s brain may work in a different way and how you can talk to them about this and get any support they may need to help them flourish.

What is neurodiversity and neurodivergence?

Everybody’s brain works in a slightly different way – in this way we’re all ‘neurodiverse’. We all find some things easy and some things difficult, from how we learn to how we interact with others, and this varies from person to person. And the world would be a very dull place if this wasn’t the case!

However, for some people the difference between the things they find easy and the things they find hard is more pronounced. This is the case for people who are autistic, or have ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia or Tourette’s Syndrome, all of which are included under the ‘umbrella’ of neurodivergence.

Because their brains are ‘wired’ differently to the majority of other people (‘neurotypical’ people), neurodivergent people see and experience the world in a different way – and this can make things difficult because the world is often designed for ‘neurotypical’ people and doesn’t account for the way neurodivergent people experience things.

Neurodivergence isn’t a mental health condition or disability – it’s a cognitive difference. It doesn’t need to be ‘cured’. However, neurodivergent people may need some adjustments made to their environments to help them flourish. For example, some neurodivergent children may need more peace and quiet to concentrate than their friends at school, or may need a bit more time to do work or to take more breaks, and may find a noisy, busy, brightly lit classroom a challenging environment to learn in.

What are the common signs of neurodivergence?

Every neurodivergent person is of course be different, and different conditions have different signs. But there are some common signs. Some of these can make life difficult, but others are strengths. These include:

  • difficulty picking up social cues and communicating in social situations
  • problems with speech and language
  • physical tics or behaviours, like rocking 
  • sensitivity or insensitivity to light, sound, heat, crowds or other stimuli
  • a strong preference for routine and dislike of change 
  • difficulty focusing or, on the other hand, having extremely good powers of concentration
  • innovative thinking
  • close attention to detail
  • a heightened ability to recognise patterns, often leading to strong skills in music and technology.

Why is it important to talk to children about neurodiversity?

Father and son talking, holding hands

Father and son talking, holding hands

Just as it’s important to talk to children about how people and families come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and colours, it’s also important to let them know that people can think and feel in different ways too. And it’s never too early to start talking about this together. The more they know about the differences between us, the more they can come to understand and accept other children and adults who aren’t like them. This can help prevent them from making hurtful comments and reduce problems like bullying.

Here are some tips for explaining this to them:

I think my child might be neurodivergent – what should I do?

People don’t become neurodivergent – they’re born that way. But sometimes it can take a while for the signs to appear. Some children will even mask the signs in order to fit in with their friends. If you suspect your child may be wired differently to others, your first port of call should be your GP or, if your child’s at school, you their teacher, to see what they think. 

You can find out more about neurodivergent conditions and where to get support here. You can also download resources relating to all these conditions from the Neurodiversity Week website here.

Autism

Autism is a neurological difference: autistic brains work differently to non-autistic brains. They see and experience the world differently to non-autistic people. You can find out more about autism at NHS Inform and on the Different Minds website.

Scottish Autism provide information, advice, and a range of support services across Scotland for autistic individuals and their families.

You could also take a look at the Autism Toolbox, a free online resource developed to support the inclusion of autistic learners in Scottish Early Learning and Childcare settings, Primary and Secondary schools. 

ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder)

ADHD affects concentration and behaviour. Symptoms include inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsiveness. Many children go through phases where they're restless or inattentive – this doesn't necessarily mean they have ADHD. However, you should consider talking to your child's teacher or your GP if you think their behaviour may differ to most other children their age.

You can find out more about ADHD at NHS Inform and on the YoungMinds website.

Dyslexia

People with dyslexia find things like reading, writing and remembering things more difficult. However, dyslexia also comes with many strengths, like creativity and good problem solving skills.

Dyslexia Scotland’s website includes information on the range of support and advice services they offer to parents or carers of children and young people with dyslexia.

Dyspraxia

Dyspraxia affects a person’s ability to perform movements in a smooth, coordinated way. It may also affect speech, time management and planning and organisational skills. You can find out more about the signs and what to do if you notice them in your child at the Dyspraxia Foundation website.

Dyscalculia

People with dyscalculia find maths and arithmetic more difficult. Children with dyscalculia learn in a different way, so they can still be taught to do maths but in a way that suits them, which is different from the way maths is usually taught at school. You can find out more at the Dyscalculia Information and Addressing Dyslexia websites.

Dysgraphia

People with dysgraphia find writing particularly difficult. For example, they’ll mix up lower case and upper case letter and have problems with spacing and letter shapes. Like dyslexia and dyscalculia, children and adults with dysgraphia aren’t any less clever than people without these conditions, but may well need extra help at school. You can find out more on the National Handwriting Association website.

Tourette's syndrome

Tourette's syndrome causes you to make involuntary sounds and movements called tics. They usually appear in childhood between the ages of 2 and 14 (around 6 years is the average). Many children have tics for several months before growing out of them, so a tic does not necessarily mean they have Tourette's syndrome. You can find out more about Tourette’s syndrome on the NHS website.

My child has been identified as neurodivergent – how do I explain it to them?

If your child is identified as neurodivergent they find may find this confusing or upsetting. Here are some tips for talking to them about it.

How can I ensure my child gets the help and support they need at school?

Children have a legal right to get additional support at school if it’s needed. Whatever your child’s needs and whenever they arise, everyone involved should try to identify them as early as possible and provide them with the support they need. If you have any concerns about how your child is getting on at school or you feel that they need extra help with their learning, the best thing to do is raise this with your child’s teacher as soon as you can.

You can also get more information about additional support needs, and confidential advice on your rights and entitlements, through Enquire

Resources such as the Autism Toolbox and the Addressing Dyslexia Toolkit have been designed to help staff support neurodiverse children and young people’s learning. 

Our page on additional support for learning has more information, and you can also find out more on the Parentzone Scotland website.

What if my child’s being bullied because they’re neurodivergent?

If you’re concerned that your child may be being bullied, try and talk to them about it – and to listen to what they have to say. The respectme and NSPCC websites have helpful information on what parents can do if they’re worried about bullying.