Neurodivergence is something we all are learning and understanding more about all the time – both those of us who are neurodivergent ourselves, and the parents, teachers, caregivers, and advocates who (hopefully) are working to support and help us. Because the terminology and the understanding of how we tick (and in my case, tic) are always changing, I get that it can be hard to keep up with. The developmental disability I was diagnosed with in 1995 hadn’t existed a year earlier; now, two decades later, it doesn’t anymore. I won’t pretend to be the expert on what to do when you’re working with an autistic or otherwise neurodivergent person, especially a kid. But as an adult, who was once one of those kids, who grew up in the hands of a lot of people who got it very wrong, I am at least certain of what parents, teachers, and caregivers of neurodivergent kids should not do.
Don’t Punish Meltdowns.
Don’t Punish Meltdowns.
Don’t Punish Meltdowns.
I can’t repeat this rule enough times to make up for all the damage done to me by authority figures who thought this was the answer.
Some autistic and neurodivergent people have meltdowns. It’s usually a combination of sensory overload and outward frustration for a lot of us, myself included. As an adult, I’ve learned what my biggest triggers are: being lost, being rushed, and trying to figure out something I don’t know how to do (for me, this usually involves technology. Bucking the stereotype of the autistic tech genius, I’m a guy who can’t figure out half the functions of my cell phone and panics if I’m asked to print something). My meltdowns usually involve some combination of hand flapping, rocking, yelling, head banging, and hitting or biting myself. When they do happen, past a certain point, I don’t have much control over it, and when it’s over I usually feel bad. I worry about whether I’ve alienated peers who witnessed it, whether I’ve damaged something I cared about, or even whether I’ve caused some minor injury to myself that will be annoying until it heals. These are the natural consequences that are already unpleasant enough to deal with that they’d be deterrents if deterrents worked against my neurological wiring; still, for my entire childhood, the response of nearly every authority figure to a meltdown was punishment.
What was aggravating for both me and my authority figures was that the punishments never changed anything. They’d expect that after an aversive consequence, I would have “learned my lesson” and wouldn’t have a meltdown the next time. But the next time I was overstimulated and frustrated, the meltdown would come, because it wasn’t “acting out,” it was just how my body and brain responded to that. Which actually leads us to our next rule.
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Don’t Think of it as a Behavior Problem.
The word “behavior” was something I heard so much throughout my childhood that it nearly became a trigger for me. Everything I did that the people in charge of me didn’t like was labeled a “behavior,” something that needed to be changed or eradicated. I was discouraged from doing things that comforted me, like rocking and spinning. I was, as I mentioned before, punished for having meltdowns, sometimes with things that actually made the problem worse, because my caretakers didn’t understand what was going on.
Oddly enough, the more “understandable” the thing that set off the meltdown, the less understanding and compassion I got. If I had a meltdown because the fluorescent lighting was bothering me, that was a “special needs kind thing,” something weird enough that they could chalk it up to my mysterious difference. But if I had one because I’d been promised we’d go for ice cream after school and plans changed, I was a brat throwing a tantrum. The punishment for something like that was often to change more plans to take away things I was looking forward to, which had the effect of making me more anxious and upset because I needed routines and schedules to be honored.
There were so many better ways they could have helped me, but it would have meant looking at me a different way. Instead of targeting the behavior they wanted to change, they could have looked for the sources of the problems and helped me learn coping skills. They could have offered accommodations, like giving me as much advance notice of changes in plans as possible and talking me through what was going to happen. I’m not saying that meltdowns and other “disruptive behaviors” of neuroatypical kids should be ignored, but the real work of avoiding them comes down to helping the kids manage them in ways that work with their neurological wiring, not just giving them a punishment for not conforming to neurotypical behavior standards and expecting them to learn from it and stop.
Don’t Apply the Same Rules and Standards as You Use for Neurotypical Kids.
In childhood and into adulthood, I’ve run into the same problem of at some point hitting a wall when the authority figures have put some hard-and-fast, no-exceptions policy in place and refuse to take my needs as a neurodivergent person into consideration. With kids, I see this become truly damaging when tools that neurodivergent kids need are taken away because the adults in charge believe their neurotypical peers can’t be trusted with them.
In recent years, I watched what autistic and other neurodivergent people have used for a long time under the term “stim toys” be rebranded as “fidgets” and marketed for everyone. Spinners, clickers, squeeze and chew toys are suddenly everywhere and touted as a way for kids (and adults) to busy their hands while they focus on mental tasks. Of course, the backlash happened quickly. Some of the kids took the opportunity to have toys in class as a license to play without paying attention, and fidget bans started spreading. The casualty here was the neurodivergent kids who’d been using them long before they became trendy and were now being told they too had lost the privilege to use them.
When a neurodivergent kid needs something as an accommodation to function, that’s not the same thing as other kids wanting it for fun. Sometimes the rules need to make room for people who need things that others might not.
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Don’t Try to Change Things That Aren’t a Problem.
It’s one thing to want meltdowns and other things that cause distress for both the neurodivergent kid and others around them to diminish, and if you’re using strategies of providing accommodations and adaptive skills and tools to achieve that, there’s nothing wrong with that.
But there’s no good reason to force kids to act neurotypical when they’re not bothering anyone, or wouldn’t be if people would just educate themselves on tolerance and acceptance of disabled people.
The behavior therapies I was subjected to treated me like a dog. Things I enjoyed were taken from me and given back only in metered doses as a reward for doing what those in charge wanted from me. Refusal – or simply inability – to do those things resulted in withholding of the things I loved, or sometimes aversive punishments. But a lot of the things they were hurting me in order to change were things that they could have simply changed to accept.
They targeted self-stimulatory behaviors, or “stims” – they didn’t want me to rock, spin, flap, play with items in certain ways, spend my recesses repeatedly running up and down the same hill, listen to the same song over and over, or any of a number of things that made me feel happy, comfortable, and safe. They wanted me to make eye contact with people who were talking to me, even though that made me uncomfortable. They didn’t think it was okay for me to refuse hugs or wave when people tried to shake my hand.
The years of intensive training didn’t make me into a normal kid. They made me into one who was rigid, vigilant, and anxious, always trying to perform behavior in a way that pleased the people training me, rarely enjoying experiences because I wasn’t allowed to experience them my way. I wasn’t cured. I was controlled.
That finally broke down in adulthood and cause me all kinds of problems. Slowly I was able to find my way back to a stable place, by finally embracing myself and doing things my own way: I allowed myself to stim. I bought stim toys that helped me with my specific needs, like the little rubber owl I bite during the occasional unavoidable meltdown, so I don’t bite myself. If someone had helped me find these tools as a kid instead of trying to force the non-normative behaviors out of me, maybe I could have gotten farther sooner. I’m still working to find my way back to myself and my potential, but it’s not too late to help the next generation find theirs, in their way.
[Featured Image: A photo of a child with dark curly hair. They are wearing a light blue shirt. Behind them is a dark blue wall. Source: pexels.com]