For Black Families, Neurodivergence Means Challenges—and Endless Opportunities To Redefine Parenting

A diagnosis of neurodivergence can be daunting for Black families, who are often doubly marginalized. Fighting for acceptance is the first step in receiving the support they need.

Girl (6yrs) wearing headphones in car
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Natasha Nelson rejected the narrative that receiving a diagnosis would label her family and limit their possibilities. Still, after she and her daughters were diagnosed with autism, unsolicited opinions hinted towards the shame of being categorized.

"'You don't want them to label your child.' That's what I kept hearing when I was voicing my concerns about Paris showing early signs to family and moms in mom groups on Facebook," wrote the mother of two, who lives in Stone Mountain, Ga., and believes conditions like autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are simply a variation of normal.

Her own autism prepared her to thrive in school, the military, later as a military spouse, and as a positive discipline educator. Now she leans into her differences—as an autistic Black mother with sensory processing disorder—to create a community that normalizes neurodiversity. Neurodiversity is an all-encompassing, sociological term which implies that brain differences are normal, not something to fix. The resources she's developed support Black and neurodivergent parents in their efforts to raise children with grace, empathy, and self-love.

According to scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, racism impacts Black family dynamics and intersects with class, sexual orientation, and gender. But, its relationship to ability and neurodivergence is underexplored. This leaves Black families who are navigating neurodivergence vulnerable to racism and ableism with limited support.

Black Neurodivergence in a White World

Dr. Cassandra Raphael, M.D., MPH, a board-certified psychiatrist, mental health, and public health researcher and educator serving adults and children in New York City says neurodivergence is an umbrella term for various diagnoses, including dyslexia and other specific learning disorders. It also includes epilepsy, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and Tourette's syndrome. But most commonly, the term is used to describe autism spectrum disorder, sensory processing disorder, or ADHD. Most research focuses on ADHD and autism.

"It is difficult to determine exactly how many Black families are diagnosed as neurodivergent as it is a collection of diagnoses, and these numbers are dynamic," says Dr. Raphael, who notes the barriers to diagnosis and treatment in Black communities.

Autism and ADHD are often narrowly depicted as conditions that only impact white males. Black neurodivergent people, especially Black women and girls, are often identified and diagnosed late, if ever, and experience higher misdiagnosis rates for nearly all conditions. Nelson wasn't diagnosed until 31.

According to Dr. Raphael, support can be delayed because of structural factors, like schools being underfunded and understaffed. In turn, Black caretakers of neurodivergent children struggle to have their concerns taken seriously. They may also fear that a diagnosis labels children and will be used to justify their mistreatment or will limit their chances for success later in life, as Nelson described. The effects of both structural factors and familial concerns can leave Black children struggling alone while needing support.

Freedom Through Diagnosis

Dazmine Manns, a Black, 26-year-old mother of three who lives in Tulsa, Okla., describes living with undiagnosed ADHD as "fighting against a current that almost had you underwater a few times."

"I found myself getting overwhelmed by small or big noises, crying and this would cause panic and nervousness," says Manns, describing what would eventually be revealed to be sensory overload. She sought help after her third child was born and finally understood she wasn't the problem. "I am more patient and not as frustrated, because I also talk to my children when I need personal time or begin getting overwhelmed" she says. "Receiving my diagnosis helped me realize my daughter's difficulties were undiagnosed ADHD."

Nelson says clear communication and boundaries are foundational to positive parenting, as is beginning to see mistakes as learning opportunities. "Being imperfect, honest, and having boundaries with your children allows them to see an example of how to be imperfect and make mistakes and recover and focus on solutions." Because of this, neurodivergent parents are perfectly situated to show their children that neurodivergent people can thrive. She recommends boundaries like "I understand you want to cuddle with Mommy. But right now, Mommy needs space for (length of time). What can you snuggle or play with instead while Mommy gets space?"

Abandoning "Good" and "Bad" Labels

Black autistic children are twice as likely to be misdiagnosed with conduct disorder, a highly stigmatized behavioral disorder, and five times as likely to be misdiagnosed with adjustment disorder, a prolonged response to a stressful or traumatic event. Tamara Rachelle, a content creator and disability advocate from Los Angeles with four daughters, witnessed how unidentified Black neurodivergent children were mischaracterized as "bad" or "disruptive" in her childhood neighborhood. "The children weren't bad," she says. "Just were parts of marginalized groups where the system failed them, and their community didn't have the resources to help them."

When her now 12-year-old daughter Lilac was diagnosed with autism and an intellectual disability, and her twin Leone was diagnosed with ADHD, Rachelle abandoned labels like "good" and "bad." Instead, she focused on developing an intersectional understanding of disability that honors the nuance of Lilac's experience as someone Black, female, and disabled. "Unfortunately, Lilac is non-verbal. So as her mother and caretaker, I try to represent her the best way I can," Rachelle says.

Preserving Expression

Supporting children who are non-speaking, or have limited communication, involves paying attention to the same cues and following up by helping them express themselves to the world. "If your child has no voice, they can't tell you the way they diverge, and you're not able to know their triggers and support them," says Nelson.

Rachelle's videos show that neurodivergent people may communicate differently, can experience discomfort through disrupted routines or policies made without consideration for intellectually disabled individuals, and finances can limit access to support. For Black families, there can be additional pressure to hide these struggles from the public for fear of consequence and also concern that support resources overlook how race shapes efforts to navigate support services.

Psychiatrist Cassandra Raphael says it's important to learn children's triggers and remember the importance of praise to reinforce positive behaviors. She says all Black children—whether neurotypical or neurodivergent—require affirmation and thoughtful parenting to survive. "I think of the high-profile case of Elijah McClain and similar young people who were targeted ostensibly for being Black and 'different.' They are at greater risk if their actions or intentions are misunderstood," says Dr. Raphael. "Early understanding and inclusion of neurodivergent Black youth fosters early self-esteem and collaboration, while also eliminating stigma that disconnects parts of the community from mental wellness."

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