Different, Not Deficient: Five Ways to Ensure your Special Child is Receiving the Right Messages

I’m grateful for the wonderful response to my last post, Ten Things to Ask of Professionals working with your Special Needs Child, which focused on helping the adults in your child’s life to see the positive, not just the deficits. In the coming weeks, I’ll focus on each point individually, elaborating more specifically on how you can communicate your vision, beliefs and values to the many professionals working with your child.

This week let’s look at No. 1: Understand that developmental or neurological differences make our child different, not deficient.  We do not want our child to experience unspoken messages that he or she needs to be cured or fixed.  

Perhaps you are a parent who finds herself in agreement with all of the messages teachers, therapists, and other professionals are communicating to your child. If so, congratulations! (And let your team know how much it means) But if, like most parents, you are not sure about the messages your child with special needs receives, this post aims to enhance your perspective by offering a new understanding of neurodiversity—the idea that individual differences are simply part of being human.

Even professionals with the best intentions can send mixed emotional messages to neurodiverse children.  As a parent, you can take an active role in making sure that the messages your child receives are positive and helpful. You can help insure that your child learns that being different does not mean being deficient. Here are a few ways parents face these challenges:

1. You observe that professionals are overly focused on achieving compliance, teaching isolated skills and encouraging rote memorization.  It is best to first understand how your child communicates (or tries to) before focusing on teaching isolated skills.  The basics of communication come from emotional meanings.  If professionals aim for simple compliance before they understand your child emotionally, your child can feel that approval is dependent on what he can do rather than who he is.

2. You hear professionals say, “Children with this diagnosis tend to….”  It is a mistake to make assumptions about a child based on a diagnosis.  No two children with the same diagnosis are alike. Insist that professionals and programs be sensitive to adapting treatment to the unique capacities of your child rather than requiring your child to adapt to pre-existing programs.

3. Teachers treat your child as an observer rather than an integral part of the class.  Mainstreaming should not involve placing a special child in a typical classroom simply to observe other children.  Educators need to be intentional in helping peers understand and communicate your child, modeling a sense of ease and acceptance of differences.  Children are naturally curious yet cautious around peers with differences. It’s up to teachers, aides and other professionals to send the message that differences do not equal deficiencies.

4. You sense that professionals are making assumptions about your child that don’t reflect what you know about him.  Your child may be described as being purposefully disruptive or aggressive when you know that he displays such behaviors only when he feels stressed or afraid. It’s important to share your perspective and insight. For many professionals, the idea that challenging behaviors are actually responses to stress is a new concept.  This is not because they lack good intentions. They simply have not been adequately exposed to a neurodevelopmental perspective.

5. You discover that specialists are focused on extinguishing behaviors without first understanding their emotional meaning for your child. A child can easily interpret this to mean that her differences are not appreciated. Every time a child is redirected or asked to stop a behavior, she is being given a message about herself.  This can be potentially damaging to the development of self-perceptions and confidence. Before behaviors are extinguished, discover the meaning behind the behavior and the purpose it is serving for your child.

It’s important to keep in mind that as a parent, you know your child better than anyone else does. Trust your instincts, pay attention to these messages, and your child will benefit from a supportive new context for appreciating differences.

Do you have any questions or comments? I invite you to write them below and visit my Facebook page where I post supportive resources for parents and professionals. Please share with friends if you feel that they would benefit.

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