I'm a Mom and a Cognitive Specialist: Here's How to Empower Your Neurodivergent Child

A parenting coach and board-certified cognitive specialist offers tips on how to effectively parent and empower your child with a unique brain by finding a connection through play, music, electronics, and quality time.

An illustration of a mom holding her son on her shoulders.
Photo: Emma Darvick.

I understood the reality of parenting a child with neurodiversity when my son became school age. During the early developmental years, it can be easy for parents to overlook small behavioral differences. But I became increasingly concerned with how far behind my child was when he started kindergarten, and this fear became paralyzing. I was concerned about him academically and socially.

As a parent to a child with special needs, your whole focus is on that child. You spend nights wondering about their future and all possibilities that may or may not come to them. Amid all of this, you may miss the present moment to connect. A well-respected child therapist and colleague had told me to shift my focus on the connection, which was the best advice. I converted my attention to maintaining the bond and connection I had with my son while also nurturing the relationship he had with his sister. It helped me see that parenting a child with a unique mind can be difficult but not impossible.

As a mom, parenting coach, and board-certified cognitive specialist, here are my tips on how to empower your neurodivergent child through connection at home.

Connect Through Play

If you have a verbal neurotypical child, they may request that you play with them. My 8-year-old constantly asks me to play with her dolls and have tea parties. Asking me to engage with her has never been a problem; she requests when she wants a connection. However, my son who has autism will not do that. He has never asked that I join him when he is playing, at least not verbally.

The way that my son plays is different. His playing consists of the repetition of the same behavior over and over again. To engage with a child like my son, you must first observe the way they play. That will allow you to mirror what they are doing and connect. As the parent, your job is to join the play, not redirect or change it to make it more socially acceptable. Play is an expression of internal thoughts being showcased for others to see; if you insist on changing it, you reinforce that your child's way of play needs to be modified, which is not valid.

Connect Through Music

Music is a free therapeutic tool that a neurodiverse family may not always tap into. Listening to music releases dopamine, the feel-good hormone. When you pair listening to music and dancing with your child, you naturally create a euphoric experience and bonding that your child will desire. When my son was younger, he and I would dance away all day long. We spent our days at Mommy and Me playdates and dancing. It was helpful because as a young toddler, he had no language to connect with—just behavior.

When children start to develop language, we maintain a connection through verbal communication. In the world of special needs, speech may be delayed or non-existent. As a result, communication with your child becomes increasingly complex, and connections may be lost. Maintaining a way to communicate in the absence of verbal language will ensure connection through the developmental spectrum. I have discovered that music can really be a portal to non-verbal connections especially since there's no correct way to dance, listen, and move your body.

Connect Through Electronics

It appears that electronics are often the biggest highlighter of the generation gap between parent and child. Parents have difficulty understanding how much time can be dedicated to a world they may refer to as fake. As a parent coach, parents will come to me and bluntly ask, "How do I get my child to understand those are fake friends?" Not understanding the importance that these "fake" friends hold to your child can create a massive barrier to connecting with them.

To understand the value of electronics is to immerse yourself in that world and become educated about it. Neurodivergent children tend to feel a high level of acceptance in the virtual world and repeated rejection in the 3D world. (The virtual world consists of online gaming, watching videos, and social media outlets. The 3D world is any in-person setting that would include playdates, in-person school, and social gatherings.) Naturally, this can make the virtual world far more real to them than the 3D world. Dismissing their virtual reality is a dismissal of who they are and what that child values. To connect through electronics means that you are taking a vested interest in your child. Learn about their virtual friends and virtual accomplishments. Train yourself to use language such as virtual vs. 3D and avoid referring to the former as fake. Keep in mind, it's OK to also set screen time limits when you see fit.

Connect Through Time

When you have a child who is unable to communicate or their communication is limited, spending time in the same space is most valuable. When you give your time to your child, they will reciprocate in a way that you may not have been able to imagine. Going for a walk together, end-of-the-day reading, or watching a show that your child enjoys are all great examples of spending time.

The most important thing is to remember to create a routine around these activities and make them consistent. My son and I have our yoga time together, and I am delighted to say that his skill has surpassed mine. I picked yoga because it's how I choose to manage the daily and constant stress of parenting a neurodiverse child. And it's now become the way we bond and connect.

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