Our children’s neurodivergent diagnosis has a label in school. But the truth is, all children have a label.
All of them.
“(Labeling) is what people do. We categorise things in our minds so that it’s easier for us to understand or describe. Everyone does it in some way.”
Some children might be known as ‘easy-going,’ ‘clever,’ ‘creative,’ ‘chatty,’ ‘out-going,’ or ‘polite.’ They might also be known as ‘unmotivated,’ ‘loud,’ ‘mean,’ ‘rude’ or ‘too sensitive’; and none of these labels are only given by other students either. That’s what people do. We categorise things in our minds so that it’s easier for us to understand or describe. Everyone does it in some way.
I know that we’re worried about the kind of label that our children will get when they’ve just received their neurodivergent diagnosis, because we also have a way of labelling it too. We hope that how we label it will be accepted by everyone else, but we know how some schools can be. Not everyone will see our children the same way we do and that’s a scary thought especially since now that diagnosis makes them even more differentiated from their peers.
In a society that values linear thinking, order and sameness, any label that differentiates our children from the ‘norm’ is an unsettling thought.
As a classroom, special educational needs, and English as an additional language teacher; plus, being a specialist in personalised learning and gifted education for the last 18 years, I’ve had a lot of experience working with children that are often significantly different from the rest of their class. It’s not always easy for them regardless of what side of the learning spectrum they fall on. But I can tell you that in all honesty, they’re all labelled with something.
“…the way we see and accept what their diagnosis means, and what being different means to us can go a long way in how a child learns to see themselves.”
As they get older, they start to realise that they’re different from the rest of their friends and at this point, no one wants to stand out for being different. It makes it a lot harder for them without a doubt. But I’ve also found that the way we see and accept what their diagnosis means, and what being different means to us can go a long way in how a child learns to see themselves.
I genuinely understand parents who are fearful of labels being put on their children after receiving their diagnosis though. I have a son who I’m concerned for at school every day too. My biggest fear is how my child might start to label himself.
I know the wrong label is very hard for a child to shake. It can stay with them throughout their school life and become a part of how they define themselves. It can make them seemingly morph into the label placed on them overnight. It can even lead to them doubt their capabilities because someone, somewhere said something, or treated them like they were less than what they were, because they learned about their neurodivergent diagnosis.
For so many reasons, it’s tempting to hide a diagnosis or pretend that a child is one of the lucky ones whose life isn’t affected by it as much. This way they can appear ‘normal’ like everyone else, and be treated like the other ‘normal children.’ The thing is though… they’re different, and our response to that also determines the labels that our children start to put on themselves.
That neurodivergent diagnosis is always going to be there and for everyone there is meaning behind it – even our children. The difference is what we make that diagnosis mean for them and how we make sure that the people who need to understand it, do.
However, making the decision to hide a child’s neurodivergent condition is based around our fears of our child being different and probably from some of our own experiences as well. Many of us who are neurodivergent grew up with horrible schooling experiences where we worked so hard to try to fit in, only to continue struggling with many aspects of school, whether that be academically or socially and up into and including adulthood. We may have had some horrible teachers too, who didn’t understand us or give us a chance to show what we could do. Maybe we were ridiculed for being different as well.
“Making the decision to hide a child’s neurodivergent condition is based around our fears of our child being different and probably from some of our own experiences as well.”
I think it’s difficult not to think that our children will be received in the same way. Hiding the diagnosis from schools seems like the best option, especially if they can pass as ‘normal’ (neurotypical). The irony of all this is that hiding the diagnosis to avoid being labelled places a label on the child from the start, and one that they will never live up to.
When we make this decision, we create the situation where our children grow up learning that they need to hide who they are. It suggests to them that there is something that isn’t OK or even ‘wrong’ about them because they’re different from their peers. They begin to label themselves. In a situation where it may already be challenging for them to work at their potential, they must now deal with the need to hide for fear of being rejected, rather than looking to build friendships with peers who accept them for who they are.
So they grow up learning to mask themselves in attempts to try to fit in with the people around them. This seems like a good plan, until they start struggling with problems that were not visible earlier in their life. They have no idea of who to go to for help or even if these feelings or situations are ‘normal’ for them because they’ve never been talked about before. They may have no idea why they have this added struggle and feel left to manage things themselves. Only now there might be some anxiety or depression added into the mix because they’ve spent so long trying to compensate for the new challenges they have but have not been successful.
One of the common challenges I have as a teacher is trying to guess what’s going on when I get a new student who just doesn’t seem to be responding to the regular interventions I would do in my classroom. I spend time and energy trying to figure out what works for this student and it can end up being a frustrating practice for all parties involved, especially if I find out later that something was known that could have helped us both.
With some neurodivergent conditions, some struggles are invisible, so if I don’t know what’s really happening, I think everything is OK. A child who presents as unmotivated or lazy, may be struggling with task initiation because they are neurodivergent in some way, but the response to these presentations has a better chance of changing when a teacher knows the diagnosis behind it. The more we know, the more we can do to try to help and work with parents to help them. When I know better I do better. If I don’t know about your neurodivergent child’s strengths or needs, who’s going to tell me?
“Trying to fit into a space that hasn’t been made with our brains in mind isn’t easy. People aren’t always nice or accomodating when someone is different.”
The thing is we need to remember our children aren’t us. They don’t have the same parents, schooling or brain that we have. The world they live in now was not like ours growing up. Even now with more conversations happening about mental health, mindfulness and self care, these are experiences many of us never had.
What many of we neurodivergent people do know about the world, is that trying to fit into a space that hasn’t been made with our brains in mind isn’t easy. People aren’t always nice or accomodating when someone is different. It’s hard to ignore the struggles we had growing up in schools, or the difficulties we’ve had with jobs or relationships, and we shouldn’t because these are things that neurodivergent children will most likely deal with too.
But we also know that we are doing things for ourselves to make it possible to thrive in life with our differences too.
We’ve had to learn to carve out our space in the world, surround ourselves with people that understand us, and find the strategies and tools that work for us.
As adults, it’s not been an easy feat to accomplish. Many of us look to outside help in the form or coaching, therapy or self help to make these changes possible. How will our neurodivergent children manage to find their place in the world if we aren’t acknowledging who they really are, and working with them to help learn more about being their best selves, because we’re afraid they will be misunderstood or labelled for their differences?
It starts with understanding all we can about their neurodivergent condition, not only the parts that may present in our children, but also the invisible components too. It’s about noticing what strengths, talents, skills and special interests they have, because teachers need to know these things too so they can accurately support them. Without any of this background information, the label that is put on our children is one that is based on what others see or think they know about them. Both of which could be very inaccurate.
Advocating for them helps us create a picture of the person behind the diagnosis. Our understanding of how the diagnosis presents in our children can change the conversation from: “Charlie, the kid who’s out of control and disruptive in class,” to “Charlie, the kid who’s creative and enthusiastic, has got ADHD and gets anxious and disruptive when not understanding what to do next”
Our advocacy humanises our children, making them more than a diagnosis, but at the same time giving teachers the insight they need so they can apply the right tools and strategies from the start. Teachers also can see that our children are so much more than the presentations that come up in class, and it holds them more accountable to do offer support when they have the full picture.
I’m not suggesting that we have to tell everyone we meet everything about our neurodivergent children. Of course we are always selective of what we need to say and how to say it when we advocate. What I’m saying is that when we know more, we have a choice about what we can do to support our neurodivergent children in schools.
What may seem like a quick fix to the problem, (we can’t see any academic problems, so we’ll just keep the diagnosis to ourselves for a while), has lasting consequences later on. These consequences aren’t always dealt with by us either, but are dealt with by our children. We can’t keep quiet with a diagnosis to avoid our children being labelled. We’re assuming we have no power to change that, but I know we do.
Even while we’re working hard to define the label placed on them at school, we help our children by showing them how they can and should see themselves:
When we advocate for using the almost accurate descriptions of neurodivergent children, their strengths and needs we ensure that they are given the same opportunity as every other child to understanding who they are and what they need to succeed.
Discussion about this post