The Top Priority When your Child is Diagnosed with Developmental Differences

When your child is newly diagnosed with developmental differences, it’s difficult to know where to begin, or what’s most important. Finding the right treatment plan? Seeking appropriate early intervention programs? Amid the stress and confusion, it’s easy to overlook the most critical factor in development: compassionate and engaged relationships.

Many approaches focus on remediating deficits to make sure children acquire skills by a certain age: receptive and expressive speech, motor skills, and activities of daily living. Of course, these are important to a child’s development. But when we prioritize fixing a child’s deficits over ensuring that he feels loved and safe, we are misplacing developmental priorities.

Relationships set the foundation for learning and mental health. As scientists at Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child put it, “the single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult.”

Early-intervention services vary greatly in how they view and value relationships. Some providers take a behavioral approach, focusing on teaching the child specific skills through positive reinforcement. Others prefer a developmental approach, seeking to expand the child’s capacities through play and less structured activities. While both approaches can produce benefits, the essential ingredients of any early intervention are warm, nurturing relationships.

The reason is simple: to learn, children must feel safe. And loving relationships are what make children feel safe.

So what can you do? Request that providers get to know your child before working on perceived deficits. We want to shift away from viewing developmental differences as something that needs to be quickly “fixed”. Rather, we need to soften the stance to view differences with patience and compassion; with reflection regarding what behaviors or capacities should be targeted for change, and why. In doing so, we need to consider what should be respected as part of the child’s unique way of being in the world. This is especially important in the early diagnosis of autism spectrum.

It is also important when a child is communicating distress in the form of challenging behaviors. Rather than viewing these behaviors as something to immediately correct or remediate, we can see them as the child communicating that she needs something different from us or from the environment, shifting the mindset from discipline and teaching to relational joining.

Of course skills are important, but there is something more important than how many words or numbers a child can say, or the quality of his eye contact. Over time, developmental gains will be more robust if each child feels respected in his uniqueness and the top priority is joyful engagement in safe and secure relationships. This is the foundation of all learning and development.

Some suggestions for parents:

  1. Be involved in your child’s sessions. Observe and ask to be involved to help your child feel safe and learn while in your loving presence.
  2. Help your child’s providers understand what brings your child joy—the quickest path to learning new things!
  3. Trust your intuition. If an intervention or situation doesn’t feel right to you, speak up about your concerns (preferably not in your child’s presence).
  4. Share your parental, cultural, and religious values with the professionals working with your child. These matters and will help providers to understand your child and family better.
  5. Understand that the benefits of moving away from a disability model to a strength- based, relationship model for supporting developmental differences.

Working together, parents and professionals can widen our lens to encompass and support the wide range of neurodiversity in infants, toddlers, and young children.  I’ve recently written a book for providers on just how to do this.

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