There have been a lot of discussions lately about how we need to honor the neurodiverse brain. How it just works differently. People with ADHD and ASD both tend to reason, communicate, and learn in a different pattern than those with a neurotypical brain. And sometimes that results in problems. As parents, we are being asked to let our children be neurodiverse without labeling it a problem. But some behaviors are problems. So how do we tell them apart and what do we do about them?
Neurodiverse behaviors that don’t require corrections are ones that are socially acceptable to other neurodiverse people. Examples of such behaviors are talking too much, stimming, answering rhetorical questions, discussing things in a non-typical way, and unusual social skills that still work in their group. These behaviors sometimes upset the child’s neurotypical parents or ones who were schooled to “act normal.” These behaviors do not hurt anyone.
Recognizing Maladaptive Behavior
My definition of maladaptive behaviors may differ from yours, but here is mine: Maladaptive behaviors are ones that hurt either the self, other people, or damage property in a way that is unacceptable. These can start as a stim, or sensory seeking moment—biting themselves or others, breaking things like pencils—but turn into a pattern. The maladaptive behavior is reinforced because it helped them get what they wanted—getting out of schoolwork or removed from dealing with others. Sometimes the pattern of behavior is intentional, to get what they want, but it can also be an unintentional sensory seeking behavior a child uses to try to calm themselves, that gets out of control, such as spinning or running.
Moving away from everyone into a timeout space can be something this child wants because everyone is too loud and difficult to deal with. Biting got them what they wanted so it can become a go-to move to get out of dealing with people. Breaking pencils, making too much noise or hurting others may all start as a stress response, but turn into a pattern of maladaptive behavior that can cause a wide variety of social problems with peers and family members.
Shedding Your Expectations of Normal
As parents, we have to recognize whether a behavior is an actual problem or not. Sometimes, we want our children to just “act like everyone else.” This is understandable, but unnecessary. That desire for our children to act like the tribe is about an internal desire to find acceptance. To fit in and not be shunned from our group.
We want this for our children, too. However, it is important to recognize that our children can create their own tribes of neurodiverse friends. Tribes that create their own social norms. We don’t have to make our children conform for the sake of conformity.
Redirecting the Maladaptive Behavior
What we do have to work on, is correcting maladaptive behaviors. That can be very challenging. Sometimes, you can take a step back and see if you can help your child substitute an appropriate behavior for an inappropriate one. For example, they can chew on a P or Q Chew Tube or necklace made for chewing, instead of biting. This gives them the sensory input to their jaw is seeking as a stress relief.
Sometimes a sensory diet helps.
Sometimes, a child needs to do psychotherapy to work through feelings of anxiety or depression that are contributing to the pattern for them. No matter how awesome they are, being a neurodiverse child isn’t easy. Some kids just need help to deal with their feelings.
And sometimes, you have to decide if a maladaptive behavior needs consequences. You may choose to take away screen time until schoolwork is done, no matter how many pencils they break. You can also assign a child to do their sibling’s chores because they hurt them. Sometimes consequences help a child see that their behavior was not acceptable more so than just telling them not to do that. Although a neurodiverse child might need more help to complete chores or schoolwork, neurodiversity isn’t a reason for them to not participate at an appropriate level.
Putting Your Energy Where It Counts
Parenting a neurodiverse child is filled with challenges that you must navigate every day. Recognizing that your child can happily find friends who share their interests you don’t understand, and don’t mind that they like to fidget, may help you to focus on only correcting behaviors that are a real problem. It is okay to let go of “normal” and let your child grow into themselves and the amazing person they are becoming.
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.