A 5-year old boy with no medical diagnoses enters kindergarten for the first time. Within the first couple of weeks, the teacher notices that he functions a little differently than his peers. He dislikes going out for recess, avoids climbing on gym equipment, and covers his ears whenever he’s in an overcrowded room. His social skills lack luster, but his reclusive behavior almost serves as a strength for his other skill sets. He’s a phenomenal artist, and he’ll sit and draw dragons for hours if you let him. Six months into school, his parents suspect neuro-divergency and seek a diagnosis. Then, a licensed psychiatrist confirms that he has autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
When it comes to the terms “autism spectrum disorder” and “neurodivergence”, many people use them almost interchangeably. However, neurodivergence is not an actual medical term, but a non-medical term used to describe children whose brains don’t operate like their typical-developing peers. The term stems from the word “neurodiversity”, which means that everyone’s brains work in a unique manner. These kiddos play, interact, and perform daily tasks a bit off the beaten path. While some of them may have ASD, others may have other developmental or psychiatric disorders. Some may have no clinical diagnosis at all.
In this blog, we’re going to discuss the common symptoms of a child who is neurodivergent, how occupational therapy can help, and the unique qualities or strengths a child with neurodivergence may possess.
What are some symptoms in a child with neurodivergence?
Although not all children who are neurodivergent exhibit the same signs and symptoms, here are a few examples that parents, caregivers, and teachers may notice:
O Sensory processing issues
Sensory processing disorders or symptoms are common in children with ASD; however, these symptoms can also be present in children with other disorders. Sensory processing is a way to describe how the brain and body communicate with each other to understand and interact with the environment through 7 senses:
● Vestibular (balance)
● Proprioceptive (body’s spatial awareness)
● Tactile (touch)
● Gustatory (taste)
● Sight (vision)
● Interoceptive (internal organs)
● Auditory (hearing)
A child who is neurodivergent may possibly have disruptions to normal sensory input and output. To put things plainly, let’s take a look at the following case study:
Robin is a 9 year old girl who loves to bake, and has been doing it since she was 4 years old. However, her food choices are narrowed based on what she can tolerate touching and tasting. For example, she can’t stand touching raw eggs and hates the feel and taste of gelatins with cut-up fruit or other inconsistent textures. Her mom has picked up on these challenges, and has helped her make accommodations, like breaking eggs with a butter knife and gloves or using fruit-free gelatins.
O Struggle with executive function
Executive function is an umbrella term for specific brain functions that many people have and develop in a healthy manner as they get older. For a child with neurodivergence, reasoning and decision-making, time management, emotional regulation, and organizational skills may not be their strengths. While Robin possesses the skills to become a fantastic chef one day, the way she organizes and cleans her kitchen (or lack thereof) drives people crazy. While she has created an edible masterpiece, her workplace looks like it got hit by a tornado.
O Unexpected reaction to change
Transitioning from one task to another or adjusting to major life change is often difficult for many children, but they learn to adapt with little to no behavioral problems. A child who is neurodivergent may have a complete meltdown when an unexpected change occurs. Remember our dragon artist from earlier? What if he’s caught up in an intense drawing at his desk and the fire alarm goes off for an unscheduled fire drill. While some children may be mildly upset when asked to put their pencil down and exit the building, this kiddo may throw an explosive temper tantrum and have to be physically removed from the room.
O Fixations or unusual interests
Some interests may be unusual, like internet-surfacing for hours (even days) on end or collecting and stacking old pennies. For other kiddos, they may be fixated on interests that are completely normal but they show almost an unhealthy obsession for them. While Robin thrives in the kitchen, this takes away from her academics and social participation. Her grades are slipping, she doesn’t finish her homework, she doesn’t do her household chores, and sometimes her hygiene routine suffers.
O Difficulty with social interactions/ communication
Due to many reasons for their neurodivergent behavior, social interactions and communication with others can take a huge blow. Friendships are either awkward or non-existent. Verbal discussion may seem off, possibly due to language-processing issues.
How can Occupational Therapy help a child who is neuro-divergent?
Occupational therapists work closely with patients or clients across the lifespan. When it comes to working with children who are neurodivergent, a highly skilled pediatric OT will have a few tricks up their sleeve to help them succeed:
O Create a personalized treatment plan
The OT develops a treatment plan that combines the child’s goals, the child’s interests and required daily tasks, and the parent’s/caregiver’s goals. This information is gathered through a careful evaluation process. If Robin is having trouble with her hygiene routine (and friends and family have noticed), the OT may develop an intervention to improve her hygiene participation while incorporating her baking interests to keep her engaged.
O Strategize and learn skills to deal with sensory processing issues
An OT may introduce sensory integration techniques, or treatments that are specifically geared towards helping the child manage and cope with unhealthy or unpleasant stimulation. For Robin, there may be a program designed to help her with tolerating the touch and taste of certain textures so she can expand her baking resume.
O Develop social skills- learn to navigate social situations
Through the use of social stories, group sessions, and other means, an OT can help a child improve their ability to communicate (appropriately) with others for the purpose of making friends, developing strong relationships with teachers and other adults, and working or playing in teams. All of these skills translate into adulthood as the child begins to go to college or work in a career they love.
O Learning skills to improve executive function
Some OT sessions may focus on cognitive training techniques to improve executive function: helping the child with time management and organization at home and at school, improving emotional regulation to prevent tantrums during unexpected changes, etc. Healthy executive function helps a child develop solid reasoning and decision-making skills when tricky situations come their way.
O Suggestions to help child ease better into environment
A heavy portion of OT involves caregiver and family education. People who are relevant to the child’s care and daily needs learn how to make environmental modifications to ease sensory reactions, communication issues, and so on.
Unique qualities in a child who is neuro-divergent
While children with neurodivergence may struggle and often go against the norms of typical behavior and performance, they also present with great strengths that typical children may not.
O These children might excel in ways other children cannot. Might have super strong skills in certain subjects
The world has its talented artists, chefs, engineers, chemists, and many other individuals who’ve had a great impact on history and will continue to in the future. Some children have all the tools they need to become great, which includes children with neurodivergence who push the boundaries and excel. Our dragon artist may become the next Van Gogh, and Robin may become the nation’s youngest executive chef.
O The above can allow for strong self- confidence for these children If provided the right support and encouragement, and given the opportunity, they can grow to be very confident.
If teachers, parents, and caregivers step in to provide the right support, these kids grow to become extremely confident in their passions. They know that they are the best at what they do, and they know that they can work to refine their passions until there are no more possible ways to improve.
O Often learn to be brave to deal with their challenges, work hard
As a child grows, they learn that the world can be an intimidating place. Children and adults who know they are different treat them differently. Their limitations come to light and they shy away from challenges. However, with the right support and interventions, these kiddos can face those fears and be brave enough to pursue their passions despite what the world threatens to take away from them.
A child who is neurodivergent may think and act differently based on their unique brain functions. While some see this as a major hindrance, others know that these kiddos possess strengths that others do not. The trick is to supply the right support, develop atypical brain functions, provide opportunities for children to chase and enhance their talents and passions. The Therapy Place can provide evaluations for children to help diagnose a child if necessary. If parents are concerned about an issue, The Therapy Place can help. Call us today for a free evaluation to see what your child can benefit from. https://www.therapyplacenj.com