There’s often a turning point for families who have a child who could be considered neurodivergent. It usually happens when they move beyond the family nest and into wider society. It may happen at a play group or nursery, or perhaps a little later, when infant school begins. Until this time, traits and behaviours, that may or may not seem unusual or quirky to the parents, are accommodated in the family home—the child has lots of physical ways to let off steam; they aren’t required to be any more sociable than they feel able to; sensory overwhelm is carefully avoided; meltdowns are accompanied calmly. The parents may find some of this challenging, but they are also likely to understand it all to be an intrinsic part of this whole little person, who is no more or less complex than all the rest of us.
The turning point is when the child is placed in a context in which certain behaviours are considered normal and others are not. And here it begins, the little whisper that something is ‘wrong’, the zoning in on these particular characteristics, the subsequent scrutiny, and of course, the understanding that the parent must somehow do something about this (?).
A mother with a four-year old son, who wrote to me recently, described this moment perfectly: “So we sent him (to school), and suddenly ways of being that we had always accepted and worked with peacefully and happily became “issues,” and “concerns.” My son, as he was, became a problem to be solved. I saw him differently. I treated him differently. I felt so much pressure to fix him—my joyful, amazing, bright, fiercely true-to-himself boy.”
This is a painful place to be, simultaneously absorbing the message that something is ‘wrong’ and needs to be fixed for the sake of your child, whilst also loving and advocating for your child just as the person that they are. For those of us who were dutiful students, who sought approval from our teachers and did as we were told at school, it is a particularly loaded place to be. How unbelievably hard for the parent to not follow this critical gaze, and find themselves also dwelling on all the “issues and concerns”. To have to listen to endless worries and fears about your child is exhausting, and the deep knowledge that your child cannot and should not change who they are starts to coexist uncomfortably with this new sense that things would be easier if they could just be a little bit more like everyone else. And so, the parent finds themselves squashed between a system and their child, who most likely refuses to change (because they can’t), creating immeasurable stress for parent and child. It’s hard to imagine the damage it does to a child’s sense of self to be under this gaze. And yet, this limited and limiting way of thinking is so ingrained in our systems that it is rarely questioned.
A child can certainly have ways of being that seem unusual to another person, particularly when in an environment that is ill-suited to them. Too reserved, too boisterous, anxious, uncooperative, sensitive to noise… But to judge these as intrinsically problematic surely has more to do with a society that lacks understanding and has been conditioned to believe that there is a right way to be.
I sometimes wonder how could this look instead. What could replace this fear-based approach to difference? How could we work with differences without pathologising them? Maybe if, when we came across a person whose way of being or interacting seemed unfamiliar to us, we were just curious. We would be fascinated by how wonderfully different we all are. And, if we saw that person struggle in some way, we could just try to help them out. If we had the power (as parents, teachers, employers), we could see how we could adjust the environment to suit them better, or perhaps help them find a better environment.
And if we did that, we wouldn’t just see their challenges, but we would also see their gifts, just as our own would be seen. We would notice all sorts of interesting things about each other. How one person can focus so hard on something that they can no longer hear what’s going on around them, whilst another person can hold 10 ideas simultaneously in their head. How one person thrives on deep conversation whilst another seems to have boundless energy. We would notice someone’s extraordinary ability to hear a pin drop in a crowded room, and someone else would blow our minds with their phenomenal knowledge on some topic that we know absolutely nothing about. We would all be enriched.
In an interview I watched recently, author Parker J Palmer describes a journey he took many years ago to an organic farm on prairie land in southern Minnesota. To get to their destination, he and his companion drove for some time through endless fields of corn and soy, and Palmer was reminded of how intensive monoculture farming is endangering the top soil. They finally came over the crest of a hill and, in the distance, was the restored prairie land. Not only was it a beautiful sight, but his companion explained that the land contained over 150 species of plants, and that it had become a natural habitat to numerous species of insects and animals, all thriving in this biodiversity. Parker reflects on how biodiversity makes an ecosystem more creative, productive and resilient in the face of stress, and concludes, “Monoculture saps the earth’s vitality”.
Most adults, (neurodivergent or not) will have tried to fit in at some point in their lives to some monoculture, pruning off the parts of themselves that seemed different, unlikeable or wrong. All humans want to belong—it keeps us safe. But, bending ourselves to fit in saps our vitality, as individuals and as a collective. We find belonging when we are accepted as ourselves, whereas when we shapeshift to fit in, we are always aware of the unsightly parts of us that we are too scared to reveal. It’s hardly a path to happiness and those rejected parts of ourselves will almost certainly come back to bite us in adulthood. How amplified that experience must be for the child whose way of being is pathologised from an early age.
(None of which is to say that a diagnosis can’t be helpful or desireable, or that a child can’t benefit from therapies or interventions that help them to live with more ease. But, it is important to understand the intention with which things are sought out and used—does it play into the “something wrong, let’s fix it” narrative or is to gain a deeper understanding of the child and their needs?)
Many of the parents I’ve interviewed for The Unschool Space have been on this journey with their child. Like the mother who wrote to me, they found the experience so detrimental to their child and to themselves that they chose instead to continue the path they were already on, embracing their child in their wholeness. To their surprise, almost all have found that this was also the beginning of their own journey back to wholeness. Taking a stand for their child often meant choosing to not fit in, with the school, with society’s expectations, sometimes with their wider family and almost always with their own deep conditioning. It has also lead them to a more authentic sense of belonging, with people they can share their journey with honestly, and with the version of themselves that existed before they internalised the need to fit in. Many have found themselves embracing their own neurodiversity, their own “unusual” ways of being that were deeply hidden under layers and layers of masking.
And, they find that when you embrace your child for who they are and don’t try to fix them, you get to see the fascinating and complete person that the child is. They see that tending the environment and working on their own deep conditioning is the best way to help their child thrive. And for the child, how much more life-affirming it is to be held in a gaze that isn’t searching for issues or heavy with worry about their future, but is loving, trusting and curious. A gaze that lets them know that there is nothing wrong with them, and that they are whole just as they are.