Managing a household with children can feel like hard yakka at the best of times, but when trying to organise neurodivergent children, the challenge can feel even greater. There are some simple but highly effective strategies that can be used to help children get organised, with four of these shared below. While these actionable tips can be used for all kids, they are particularly useful for those who are neurodivergent.
What is Neurodivergency?
In essence, neurodivergency refers to the way that the brain processes information. MRI scans have shown that Individuals who are neurodivergent will have a tendency to process information using the right hand side of the brain which is more visual, and leads to more artistic tendencies.
In contrast, neurotypical individuals will typically process information with the more linear and sequential left hand side of the brain, leading to thought processes that are more analytical and logical.
Diagnoses that fall under the neurodivergent category include ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, and autism. While it is useful to have these labels, it’s important to appreciate that there is a lot of crossover between the different diagnostic parameters, and while two people may share the same diagnosis, their presentations and experience may be quite different.
The meme below has been shared on Facebook and is a brilliant visual representation of the degree of variation between those who share the same diagnosis.
Organisation and Neurodiversity.
One of the hallmarks of Neurodivergency is the difficulty to plan, prioritise and organise. This is likely due to a change in activity in the prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain that is involved with executive functioning which includes working memory, flexible thinking and inhibitory control.
Getting the kids out the door on time can be hard enough so what can parents or teachers help to make it easier for neurodivergent children?
- Use checklists for morning and evening routines, with pictures where possible.
Those who are neurodivergent can often struggle with their working memory, making it difficult to follow a sequence of verbal instructions. Say for example little Jonnie is asked to wash his hands, then brush his teeth, then get dressed,
then pack his bag for school. The first instruction “wash hands” may conjure up an image of the bathroom, which may prompt the thought of the a rubber ducky, which may prompt the thought of bubble bath and a toy boat, at which point the instruction of washing hands has been forgotten, not to mention the sequence of instructions that followed.
While it may appear that Jonnie hasn’t been listening, or worse has been disobedient, the reality is that a new train of thought came by which took Jonnie off course. Johnnie hears what you are saying just fine, but because his mind cannot create a sequence of images relating to your instructions, he cannot stay on task and will be easily distracted.
Instead of giving verbal instructions, using organisational charts or checklists is a visual way to keep them on track. Using pictures will generally be more effective than using words, and for children who are autistic or aspergers, using photographs of an object that belongs to them will be particularly helpful (such as a photo of their toothbrush, or their school bag when depicting a morning routine.)
It is important to keep your chart or checklist where it can be easily seen by your child. When they have completed one task they can come back, refer to the chart, and proceed to the next task.
As well as giving your child a sense of accomplishment and autonomy, use of a chart will reduce the inevitable frustration that can arise from “I have told you to do this ten times already!” or “why aren’t you listening to me?” It can also provide an easy segway for the “when and then” approach. “When you complete your morning checklist, then you can have screen time”.
- Give ONE instruction at a time.
Due to the tendency for distraction, give one instruction before moving on to another.
Once a regular routine is established and has become familiar, the prompt for the next activity may no longer be necessary but when establishing a new routine, take a slow, steady and consistent approach to avoid overwhelm and frustration. Remember, there is so much going on in their busy little minds! It is our job as parents and educators to help them streamline that information.
- Modify your expectations
An analogy that can be used to help people understand neurodivergency is to imagine that you were asked to complete a puzzle with lego pieces, or a lego masterpiece with puzzle pieces – it just isn’t going to work.
Society, and our schools, are set up for left-brained success. The tests and exams we use for assessment require information to be recalled and recited, with grading against a standard answer. But neurodivergent individuals are outside of the box thinkers. They are creatives, problem solvers, intuitive, artistic types who do not follow a linear, sequential way of thinking.
Generally, neurodivergent children learn by experience; they learn what they did or what they saw. In a traditional setting where the emphasis on learning by reading can predominate, this can be overwhelming for the neurodivergent child who cannot see, feel or therefore recall the experience that is necessary for their learning. Wherever possible, alternative forms of learning that allow a visual picture or experience should be considered. For example, watching a movie or a documentary, or taking a field trip, rather than reading a book.
Finding other ways to allow your child to learn if they struggle in a conventional setting is critical for their self confidence and sense of self. Wherever possible it is recommended that parents and educators refrain from placing a child’s worth on conventional forms of testing and academic success. Neurodivergent individuals process the world differently to those who are neurotypical and understanding that is the first step in creating a world in which that is ok!
- Redefine time
Using the context of time in the traditional sense can cause confusion and frustration for the neurodivergent child. Saying “please stop playing that game in 5 minutes” holds little to no meaning because time is not linear as it is for the neurotypical brain. Some alternative suggestions when asking your child to stop an activity include:
- Give a clear instruction when the activity needs to finish. “Screen time is finished now”.
- Ask your child to wind up what they are doing, to allow for a gentle transition rather than an abrupt end, which can cause frustration for some children. “Please finish that chapter/question/level and then stop (the activity)” You can incentivize the autonomy of this approach by offering more time for the activity next time, if they complete the task within the agreed parameters. “If you stop when you have finished that level, then next time you play you can do an extra level”. Be sure to honour any incentives that have been offered. Many who are neurodivergent have a strong sense of fairness and will likely be confused and angry if you do not hold up your end of the bargain.
- Use a visual timer like the time timer app https://www.timetimer.com/. Visual timers are an incredible tool for helping a child use the parameter of time to stay on task. For many neurodivergent children, a traditional clock face is illegible and a digital clock presents a jumble of meaningless numbers. In contrast, a visual timer illustrates time as a visibly diminishing quantity like a piece of pie getting smaller, which adds a relatable context.
To diagnose or not to diagnose?
When deciding whether to get a clinical diagnosis for your child, a question that should be top of the list is: Who are we getting this diagnosis for? Is it for our child, their school, or for us?
A diagnosis will come with a label and parents need to be comfortable with all labels beforehand because if they are not, this will send out alarm bells to their highly perceptive child.
The benefit of a diagnosis is that it can identify areas where specific support, tools, or medication have the potential to make a difference to daily functioning in a world that has a propensity to accommodate neurotypicals.
Many parents will rely on their own intuition and observations to conclude that their child is neurodivergent, and make adjustments accordingly, with no formal diagnosis being sought. It should be pointed out that if a child’s ability to read or write affects their ability to complete examinations, a report from an educational psychologist will be necessary in order to get assistance for examinations, such as for NZCEA in New Zealand.
Because neurodivergency is hereditary, if a child is neurodivergent, it is likely that at least one parent will be also. It should also be noted that you cannot grow out of being neurodivergent. Individuals can learn to hide this part of themselves, adapt to their surroundings, or find tools to manage, but a neurodivergent individual cannot become neurotypical.
Recognise and celebrate the positives of neurodivergency.
Our understanding of neurodiversity is changing and thankfully, the stigma is too.
Being neurodivergent is not a disability it is a different ability. A quick google search will yield a huge list of incredible minds that also happen to be neurodivergent, including Albert Einstein who famously said:
“Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere”
Neurodivergent children can be incredibly kind, caring, curious, artistic, empathetic, imaginative, artistic, expressive….. The list of wonderful traits goes on and on and we really owe it to our children to remove this idea that there is something wrong with being neurodivergent. It only becomes a problem when we try to fit a neurodivergent individual into a mould that was cast for someone who is neurotypical.
So perhaps the best way we can help our children is by increasing our understanding, and sharing our knowledge with others. In doing so we will be more likely to move away from the status quo that neurodivergency is a disorder and an encumbrance, rather than another way to look at, and experience, the world around us.