Another school year, another trip to Target for supplies, and another tricky transition from carefree summer nights to be-in-bed-by-8pm-or-else parental threats. There is truly so much to juggle heading into yet another school year it almost seems impossible to handle another responsibility. But one of the most important and greatest things a parent can do in preparation for the school year is teach your children about their differently wired, neurodivergent classmates.
One of every six individuals has a sensory processing difference, or a way in which they physically experience the world through their senses, and one in 44 are autistic. It’s practically a guarantee there will be neurodivergent children in your kid’s class, and they are at risk of being bullied and misunderstood. I’m not trying to be a negative-Nancy here but more of an honest-Olga: Teaching children about autism before school starts is a matter not simply of politeness — but their classmates' wellbeing.
As an autistic mother and autism advocate, parents should be having conversations with their kids about neurodivergence. Here’s what I want you to know.
Explain what it means to be neurodivergent.
Use simple terms and explain that everyone, every child and adult, has a brain inside their head and that some brains work differently, not incorrectly. A neurodivergent peer experiences situations and environments in a way that explains what behaviors you are seeing, what words or other forms of communication you are hearing and/or seeing. Though their brain works differently, it is important to know that they all want to have friends, to be known and understood and to be included and valued for exactly who they are.
Read books and watch television shows featuring neurodivergent characters.
I even wrote a book for younger kids (to get them started young!) called My Brother Otto and My Brother Otto And The Birthday Party. Other books for young children ages 3-8 include Jenn Bailey’s A Friend For Henry, Samantha Cotterill’s Nope, Never Not For Me and This Beach Is Too Loud, and Nan Forler’s Trampoline Boy. Older kids ages 8-14, I highly recommend Naoki Hagashida’s The Reason I Jump. Lastly, for parents and caregivers, I highly recommend Eric Garcia’s We’re Not Broken: Changing the Autism Conversation.
Follow social media accounts of neurodivergent adults.
Neurodivergent adults were once neurodivergent babies, toddlers and children. We know that there are differences from neurodivergent person-to-person, but there are certainly commonalities and they are full of information and stories that increase the everyday reader’s understanding of the neurodivergent world. Accounts that are a must include: @fidgets.and.fries, @autienelle, @myautisticsoul, @nigh.functioning.autism, @neuroclastic, @neurodivergent_adam and @neurodivergent_lou. Each one explains what it is like to live as a neurodivergent individual in a predominantly neurotypical world in easy-to-understand language, videos, and/or reels.
Make personal connections about the importance of being wanted and included.
Ask your children the following questions: What do you like about school? Who are some of your friends you enjoy seeing regularly at school? Do you think it’s hard to enjoy school if you don’t have friends or if you are made to feel you don’t belong? If older, ask them about a time when they felt like they didn’t belong or were treated unkindly. Encourage them to go deeper and to have them describe what that feels like and what that would feel like on an ongoing basis. This is teaching both intentional inclusion and perspective taking, as well as instilling the practice of empathy and raising empathetic kids.
If reasonable, be honest about how understanding and befriending neurodivergent classmates is a matter of utmost importance.
A study out of Denmark determined there to be 3x the risk of suicide among the autistic population. Another systematic review in 2019 determined one in four autistic youths will experience suicidal ideation and 1 in 10 to attempt. If a 10-year-old autistic child can take their life, then a 10-year-old neurotypical child can hear their story.
Make a list of ways to be inclusive this school year.
Encourage inviting someone new, someone who is neurodivergent, if known, to an outside school activity such as going to the movies, grabbing ice cream or merely staying after school for an hour and reading next to one another or listening to music. If it’s an autistic peer, they most likely have a special interest, something they love to study and talk about. Is it Elvis? Ask questions about Elvis. Is it nuclear pasta? I’m certain there are questions to be asked. This sends home the point that the neurodivergent peer is allowed to be themselves and is even valued for being themselves. People like to see their friends light up. This is a way to do so.
Other ways to be inclusive include adding new friends to the birthday party or friend’s party list. Surely not all neurodivergent peers are going to want to attend, but to be invited and the possibility of being included and welcomed send a strong message of acceptance. Who is sitting by themselves or pacing the lunch room? Have the child grab their friends and see if the peer would like to eat together.
Check-in each month and encourage honest questions and story-sharing.
Are there certain peers being bullied? Are there peers often by themselves? What are things they are noticing about their neurodivergent peers they haven’t noticed before? Have they taken time to add to their friend group? This is also a great time to ask how they, the neurotypical child, are doing and how they are being treated. What are their personal stories? Where do they, if anywhere, feel alone or misunderstood?
Provide praise when authentic inclusion is happening and consider modeling inclusion in the home, neighborhood and other places frequented. Neurodivergent folks are everywhere and children are watching their parents, taking mental notes on what their parents value and how they live their life.
Meg Raby is a mom, children's author of the My Brother Otto series, and Autistic residing in Salt Lake City where you can find her playing and working with neurodivergent children as a Speech Language Pathologist and friend, or writing and planning big things in the second booth at her local coffee shop that overlooks the Wasatch Mountains while sipping on her Americano. Meg believes the essence of life is to understand, love and welcome others (aka, to give a damn about humans).