Where are all the Other Neurodiverse Parents?

Whitney Storey, MS, PLPC, CBE | Therapist | Lafayette, LA | Neurodiversity

There are so many wonderful things about being a parent. There is nothing better than being able to watch your children grow and change, discover things about themselves and the world, and develop their own unique personality! At the same time, being a parent is one of the most difficult and, at times, painful roles. For those of us who identify as neurodiverse, parenting has another added level of difficulty.

In a previous blog, I discuss some of the basics of neurodiversity. A quick Google search will lead you to a multitude of websites, blogs, and book recommendations for raising a neurodiverse child; however, when I was looking for resources and information about parenting as a neurodiverse adult, I was left wanting.

Is it just me?

Neurodiversity has been discussed in mental health and education primarily in children, due to what we understand about neurodiversity comes from increased knowledge on autism spectrum disorder (ASD) over the last 20-30 years. But we are beginning to understand more now about the diversity in brain function beyond ASD, and many adults (especially adult women) are realizing their neurodiversity much later in life.

As the name "neurodiversity" implies, neurodiverse folks can look, behave, and function in all sorts of ways, so this blog is only a quick summary of two big concepts that many neurodiverse folks will find they can relate to.

Neurodiverse folks have unique relationships with their senses.

Vison, touch, temperature, pressure, sound, taste, smell - the senses of neurodiverse folks tend to be different in some way. Some will struggle with one or two senses, and other folks will experience many or all of their senses in different ways than neurotypical folks. Some neurodiverse folks even experience something called synethesia, which is the overlapping or cross-talking between two senses that are generally separate (e.g., having a visceral reaction to certain sounds or images; experiencing texture as painful, etc.). Some neurodiverse folks struggle with reactions to senses that are more extreme than other people, while other neurodiverse folks will find that they have a decreased reaction to sensation.

Sensory Troubles:

One of the primary ways neurodiversity affects my own and other's parenting is experiencing sensory overload. Children can be loud, active, unpredictable, and messy.

For folks who are neurodiverse, this can lead to overwhelm that might be confusing for other neurotypical folks.

For me, this means that as the day goes on, I find myself becoming less and less tolerant of noise that might otherwise seem normal - the sound of chewing, for example. When I have been surrounded by noise (e.g., talking, laughing, screaming, television, music, crashing, water running, etc.) all day long, my brain has been working on overdrive to compensate for all of that sensory input. If you think of your brain like a muscle, it gets tired from working so hard, and so I have to seek quiet. To an outsider (like my partner), the sound of chewing might be so subtle that they hadn't even noticed, so my reaction to it can appear to be intense.

Other neurodiverse folks struggle with their senses in terms of touch (e.g., becoming uncomfortable or distressed due to the texture of certain fabrics), temperature, smell, vision, or others. Very often they will have issues with many of these at one time.

Sensory Strengths:

As a result of the intense relationship that neurodiverse folks have with their senses, we can use this to help when things get hard. For my issues with auditory stimulation, for example, I find that I can either plan to drown out the noise with the use of noise-cancelling headphones or I can try and get some of my other senses more active as a way to distract my brain. Maybe there is a particular sweater that has a pleasant texture or a certain weight that is calming? As the evening approaches and I know my auditory input is reaching its limit, seeking out the comfort of a particular piece of clothing or a weighted blanket can offer a bit of relief. Certain fidget toys can be calming (I love a super squishy ball during my overstimulated times), and if you're able to escape to a totally dark room, that can be very calming to your nervous system.

For times when you might need to increase your nervous system activation to focus, there are fidgets that are made in a variety of shapes, sizes, and textures, that create unique sounds and make interesting movements, to excite your nervous system. Sour and gummy candies are both used to return to the present moment when when you find yourself dissociating and fading.

Finding what will be helpful for you depends on trial and error -

  • Intentionally explore textures, sounds, environments, and flavors to see what kind of a reaction they provide.
  • Take the time to consider your tendencies, when you are over- or under-stimulated and plan ahead to provide the same kind of environment for yourself during times when you know things are likely to become difficult.

Neurodiverse folks rely on routine.

Routine is much more than convenience for neurodiverse folks. The attachment to predictability relates to the right hemisphere of the brain, which is involved with pattern and rhythm, while the limbic system, is primarily involved in unconscious emotional reactions and concerned with predicting danger. Neurodiverse folks tend to have increased activity in the limbic system (warning them of potentially life-threatening danger) when expected outcomes do not happen in comparison to neurotypical folk.

Troubles with Routine:

Some of the biggest issues with routine for neurodivergent folks come from unplanned and unavoidable changes. For example, when children get sick and plans must be changed in order to get them to the doctor, schedules rearranged and plans cancelled - these times can be more stressful than for a neurotypical parent. In addition to being worried about your children, balancing work responsibilities, and child care, a sudden change to what our nervous system expects can cause emotions that feel very much like grief. As a neurodivergent mom in these moments, I find that I tend to internalize my sadness and stress, which can lead to strong feelings of shame. When a plan is changed, regardless of whether the change is positive or negative, our limbic systems tell us that we are in danger, and worse still, the danger has been caused by our own children (by no fault of their own, of course. The limbic system is not logical).

The Strengths of Routine:

One of the best things about being a parent who thrives on routine is that one of the best things for children is to have a predictable routine. Our nervous system likes order so that it can predict what comes next, and it likes effective emotional regulation which also important for our children! We get to be the kind of people for our kids that we needed when we were little.

To build upon a natural desire for routine and predictability, I highly recommend a planner system. I love Google calendar because I have the ability to have different calendars with different colors, reminders that come to my desktop, my watch, and to my phone, and the ability to see my day, week, and month at a glance. The calendar provides organization and easy access allowing my brain to feel safe and secure. This system also allows ease with making changes that doesn't activate my limbic system more than necessary. While it will activate a bit due to the change, there is no erasing, re-writing, and page flipping - it's as simple as clicking "edit", swiping with my finger, and hitting "save".

Coming up with a system for your routine (keeping in mind what will make changes most palatable for your style of neurodiversity) will be a great benefit for you and for your children. Working with your system, involving your children and allowing them to see what you do and how you do it, gives them practice at executive function skills that will help their own frontal lobe develop. It's a win all around!

This is only the beginning.

As I mentioned before, while these two topics come up with myself and the neurodiverse folks I chat with, they are not the only two ways that we tend to be different. This journey is life-long as our brains continue to grow and change through adulthood. We are continually changing in a world that is always changing. No two journeys are going to be identical.

Maybe you know or suspect that you are neurodiverse? It might be something that you notice in your own children, and are wondering if it applies to you. Maybe you have a partner who you suspect is neurodiverse? If you're struggling to find a community or resources online like I did, reach out! This is a journey you don't have to take on your own.

Whitney Storey, MS, PLPC, CBE | Therapist | Lafayette, LA

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