Special Needs Do Not Define Them: Embracing Neurodiversity

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Special Needs Do Not Define Them: Embracing Neurodiversity


      Meet an extraordinary young lady. Today she is in college as a hard-working, successful education major. She was not in my class, but when she was in middle school, I remember that she had such a heart of gold and loved to help the students in my class as a volunteer. She was a great helper, filled with compassion and patience for my students. She possesses the determination and expertise required to excel as a future educator.

     One time in middle school,  her Intervention Specialist called her “Sweetie, ” and this girl bristled at that because she didn’t want to be perceived as anything but competent. She felt that term, while meant in innocence and endearment, was condescending. From that point on, she was only spoken to with her given name. Read her mother’s answers and realize that this was a journey that was not always easy, but the results were amazing.

Q: What is one thing you wish teachers know about your child that is not on the IEP?
A: Her behavior was how she communicated when she couldn’t find the words to express her wants and needs. She wanted to make connections with peers and teachers despite not knowing how. She was very aware when she was being treated differently or as “less than” her peers. And that just because her way of seeing the world and interacting with others was different, it didn’t make it wrong or less than. It didn’t have to make sense to us if it made sense to her. And how exhausting it has to be living in a world that doesn’t often make sense to her.

Q: Scores on tests do not define the child. What is something your child is good at that is not reflected on tests?
A: She is great at researching and learning about areas of interest to her; she is a gifted writer. She is persistent, intelligent, and extremely hard-working.

Q: How important is homework for your child? Is it just a burden, or is it a helpful learning tool?
A: For a long time homework was a burden. It was stressful as a family, as well as for my child. Often, it was because the content wasn’t presented in a way that made sense to my child, or because she couldn’t connect in some way (i.e. write a friendly letter to a friend…well, she doesn’t have any friends so she can’t relate to the assignment). Any time an assignment aligned with something she was interested in, we had much greater success. In addition, she was exhausted every day when coming home from school.

Q: How old was your child when you first knew he/she had special needs?
A: Two years old.

Q: What is one piece of advice you have for someone who has a newly diagnosed child?
A: Take a deep breath and do your research. Join support groups and talk to other parents. Let yourself feel however you need to about the diagnosis. I went through the stages of grief (and felt guilty for doing so) but needed to come out on the other side and become her biggest advocate and cheerleader.

Q: What is one meal that everyone in your family likes to eat?
A: Pizza!

Q: What advice do you have for interacting with children with special needs?
A: They are children first. Their special needs do not define them. Presume competence. Don’t baby them. Build relationships with them by learning about their interests and trying to see the world through their eyes.

Q: What activities do you recommend to other parents to foster self-care?
A: Build a village if at all possible. I needed the support of family and friends to be able to function. I needed time away from everyone at times to reset and refocus. Don’t completely lose yourself and your interests – to be there for everyone you have to first take care of yourself.

Q: Are there any support groups you recommend for parents or children?
A: The Parent Mentor at the ESC of Medina County hosts a monthly group (virtually). She is extremely supportive and knowledgeable – and a parent of a special needs child with both personal and professional experience.

Q: What are your favorite family activities?
A: When the kids were younger we loved going to the zoo, farms, and playgrounds. The kids are older now so just finding time to all be together is most important.

     I remember this young lady as being fiercely independent. She did not want to be seen as anything less than the capable and intelligent girl that she was. Her mother gave some valuable advice one time to her Intervention Specialist teacher who is a friend of mine. The mom said, “Don’t sugarcoat it when discussing the child’s strengths and weaknesses.” That piece of advice resonated with me and I tried to follow that advice when I spoke to parents of my students. The parent both wants and needs to know what we see in the classroom and even though some conversations may be hard, growth happens with authentic representation of the performance level of the child.

     The support group this mom mentions is a valuable resource for parents. The Parent Mentor at the ESC of Medina County has a monthly virtual group. Parents often mention there is not enough support for them. Finding your village is essential, connecting with people who have similar situations, or even a listening ear is paramount. They are children first, their special needs do not define them. Look at this girl and her journey. She is reaching her goals and striving to be the very best at what she loves to do- help others learn and grow.