Many of the autistic kids who see me for therapy have the same complaint – school feels almost impossible. These kids usually fall into two camps – those that look like they’ve got it all together, and those that have their teachers and families baffled with their under-performance. Something both groups have in common is that all of the stress they’re building up at school becomes an explosion once they get home. Families come to me exhausted and confused, worried that their lives will never feel normal again.
Being a Neurodivergent Student
Being a neurodivergent student – including those with ADHD, giftedness, OCD, and learning disabilities – adds another layer of complexity for these kids we care so much about. Even though the CDC estimates 1 in 5 kids are identified as neurodivergent, the traditional classroom space continues to prioritize normative academic performance and neurotypical behavior. The message our kids get is that compliance to the norm is expected, and any deviation will result in consequences that can feel punitive and shaming.
No wonder these kids are melting down when they come home.
The ironic thing is, with a few shifts in thinking, teachers can easily support autistic and other neurodivergent students, while still meeting their district mandates. The solution isn’t a new behavior management program or in-service training. Rather, it’s as simple as listening to neurodivergent voices and accepting their truths without trying to fit them into neurotypical expectations.
We want to be seen and valued for our differences
Here are the top 15 things my neurodivergent counseling clients, as well as my own child, wish their teachers understood about their school experience:
- I want to meet your expectations most of the time – sometimes I can’t
- Forcing eye contact can make me shut down – I think better when I’m able to control when, or if, I make eye contact
- Sometimes my learning differences make it hard for me to generalize what you’re teaching to new but similar tasks
- I do better when I can meet my sensory needs
- I appreciate when you give me the option to skip group projects
- My lack of spoken language – even if it’s intermittent – is NOT reflective of my understanding or maturity level
- I’m not task avoidant – I need help getting starting or breaking down a task that feels impossible
- I do best when you tell me things directly – I don’t always get sarcasm or inference (even if I’m a master at using them myself)
- Telling my parents that I’m not working rarely helps – if anything it just creates more stress and more shut-down
- If I tell you I need a break, I really do need it – even if I don’t look like I need it, or if it seems like I’m avoiding my work
- Just because I need a modified curriculum, doesn’t always mean I need an easier curriculum
- Connecting with me as a person, showing interest in who I am, will go so much farther than any behavior management techniques
- If I ask for help, it means I really do need it, even if it seemed like I understood how to do it yesterday
- Lack of homework completion doesn’t always indicate lack of mastery – exhaustion from masking + learning in different ways (not through rote activities) + executive function challenges
- Please don’t take away my free time to help me organize my materials or to finish incomplete work. I really need the downtime and/or social time
Download the PDF
perfect for sharing with teachers!
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Embracing a New Paradigm
A common thread runs through these insights: recognizing neurodivergence as a valid way of being. The unique perceptual sensitivities, pattern-oriented thinking, and relational approaches are not deficits to fix but qualities to accommodate and embrace. When these differences are valued, engagement flourishes, underperformers excel, and a culture of mutual respect emerges.
Starting the Journey
Creating an affirming experience for neurodivergent students begins with listening to them. Teachers may see working with autistic students as an extra challenge or burden; but parents and kids know differently. Don’t worry about incorporating new strategies right now. Over and over kids tell me that being seen and feeling supported by their teachers is the number one thing that makes a difference for them.
Looking for more ways to communicate with your child’s school support team or daycare? Check out the Teacher Cheat Sheet, an editable pdf that allows you to share the most important details about your child’s needs, all on a single page.
Once school providers stop prioritizing neurotypical behaviors and start allowing a range of responses, something truly magical happens. Engagement increases. Kids who were underperforming now begin to work at mastery levels. Teachers feel listened to and respected. A community of mutual respect and acceptance starts the ball rolling on a self-generating energy and enthusiasm in which all people can thrive.
When we listen to kids, regardless of their neuro-identity, they tell us what they need. Give it a try and see what happens.
Counseling for New Jersey families, specializing in all areas of neurodivergence, including autism and ADD. More info here.