Raising a Neurodiverse Child: Insights From a Parent and Psychologist

When a child has learning differences, they were previously labeled as “Special Ed,” but more recent advances in research have shown that these instances are merely neurodiversities, which are simply differences in brain functionality. Neurodiverse individuals have both unique strengths and weaknesses that are different from those of neurotypical brains. And while these individuals bring unique gifts with them, it’s sometimes difficult for people to accept what they don’t fully understand. And it’s often more challenging when it’s your own child.

                To read more about the definition and history of neurodiversity, check out our previous blog here.

We say we want diversity, yet we often shy away from it because different can be scary. So, when your child begins to develop with a neurodiversity of some kind, it can be both complex and confusing. It’s hard to understand what we have not experienced ourselves. That’s why parents of neurodiverse children often seek out resources and research to help them better understand how to support their child’s development. And who better to give some sound advice and insights than a psychologist and parent of a neurodiverse child himself?

Meet Dr. Ron Young.

Dr. Young has been a clinical psychologist for over 25 years. He also founded a coaching and organizational development firm and co-founded a company that has created an extremely accurate soft skills measurement tool coupled with the most extensive soft skills development program in existence. He currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife Joy. Ron and Joy are the VERY proud parents of Sean Young, their only son who possesses neurodiverse qualities and carries a diagnosis of  Asperger’s syndrome.   

When you talk to Dr. Young about his son, you can hear the pride and love he has for Sean with every word. He tells stories of Sean’s struggles to find himself, to fit into the community as a youth, and stories of Sean’s success in his professional life as an adult, who is now an accomplished and well-respected programmer at Google.

According to Dr. Young, “It’s usually harder for parents to admit and accept that their child is different than it is for their son or daughter. And in fact, many neurodiverse children don’t have the same social concerns as neurotypical brains, prohibiting them from even thinking that they could be embarrassed by their differences.”

Dr. Young explains that in Sean’s case, he has always viewed right and wrong as very black and white – what’s right is right and what’s wrong is wrong. Period. “Since he was very young, he has never been afraid to stand up for what is right – even to bullies at school. He would walk right up to them and confront them about their wrong-doing very matter-of-factly.” He didn’t stop to think about how others might react or if his actions would be popular, he just did it because it was the right thing to do. And, this concept of right and wrong is still deeply embedded in who he is – making him a strong and stable ethical compass for those around him.

However, as with most neurodiverse children, Sean had many obstacles to overcome in his development including trouble recognizing faces known as “face blindness,” inability to nap during quiet times at school, excessive self-blame, and difficulty grasping the concept of empathy.

In dealing with these challenges, Dr. Young recommends parents take control of their child’s development through the following steps:

1. Acceptance

Accept the fact that you have a neurodiverse child. Your child is different, and that is wonderfully okay. Embrace your child for their differences. Welcome the unique gifts they bring to the world.

2. Help Your Child Manage Their Differences

Your child will probably need more support to understand the world around them and to develop the skills they need to live a successful, independent life. The earlier you can identify their challenges and start addressing them, the more time your child will have to learn, test and adjust their approach.

3. Be A Consistent and Persistent Voice

Lessons need constant reinforcement. Just telling your child how they should act one time will most likely not produce results. You have to say it to them repeatedly and in multiple ways, modeling the behavior and spending time reflecting with them.

4. Ask Lots of Questions

As your child grows older, it becomes even more important to let them come to their own conclusions. Ask questions to help guide them in their own reflections, and these types of considerations will become learned tools for their lifetime.

5. Find Out What Their Gift and Passion Is and Develop It!

Just as you spend time identifying and supporting your child in dealing with their differences, you should spend an equal amount of time (if not more!) identifying and developing their gifts and passions. These are the most beautiful and rewarding aspects of life – watching your child flourish and develop in something they love.

Dr. Young also recommends using a well-established, proven measurement tool to understand your child’s thoughts better and measure their growth over time. In Sean’s case, Dr. Young used Dr. Harrison Gough’s Adjective Check List (ACL) throughout his life, starting at age 12. The ACL helped Dr. Young and his wife uncover insights about their son about which they were unaware – such as his inner struggles with self-blame, irrational thinking and low interest in celebrating achievements. These insights allowed the Youngs to address Sean’s thoughts and feelings directly, and over time, see his opinions of himself change to be much healthier and productive. That personal experience is part of what inspired Dr. Young to co-found PAIRIN and create an online tool using this behavioral testing and tracking.

Overall, Dr. Young reminds parents to take life day by day and to remember that no one is perfect. We all often need wise counsel to help develop ourselves and others. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and take advantage of the many tools and resources that are available to you.