How to help your neurodivergent child embrace change

Adapting to change is tough for ND kids. See how one neurodivergent child set his own future goals by reflecting on the past.

Adapting to change is a universal challenge. For ND kids, the stakes can feel much higher, especially when it comes to personal milestones like birthdays.

I recently had the privilege of working with an almost 9-year-old who was grappling with the idea of getting older and all the changes it entailed. Throughout our session, we explored this challenge and discovered ways to make the process a bit less daunting. Let me share what I learned here.

Reflecting on being 8.

I have two sliding white boards set up in the office. In the center of one board, I wrote "what it was like being 8" so we can pull together some ideas from the past year. We sectioned off the year into 3 categories: fun, learning, and hard things. 

Starting with fun, this boy recalled the trips he took with his family, the parties he attended, and of course, LegoLand. The learning section included math and spelling skills, a spinning hook kick in martial arts, and making kale chips. All instances that were personal and relevant to him. Then, came the hardest one of all.

It was first met with "Oh no, the hard one!" and then a pause. He took a moment and realized that the hardest thing he did while being 8-years-old was putting his face underwater in summer camp. Bravo!

We turned the collection of words into images and he realized that there are 3 different versions of him: "This is me having fun, this is me learning, and this is me doing something hard," he said to mom. 

The way we examined his outlook on that past year allowed him to appreciate all he had achieved. More importantly, a self-awareness component emerged as he was able to see himself as a multifaceted individual capable of experiencing joy, acquiring new skills, and overcoming obstacles. It was a self-realization and recognition of his bravery and growth.

Envisioning life at 9.

Then we turned our attention to the future, we discussed his hopes and challenges for being 9. In the center of another board, I wrote "what it will be like turning 9" so that we'd have a side by side comparison. 

He immediately wrote down something he wished for in terms of a birthday gift. It was so interesting to witness because younger neurodivergent kids mainly wish for tangible objects. Another item on the list was a challenge he came up with, "trying new foods." 

The following conversation transpired:

  • Polina: That’s quite a challenge to take on. Did you know the word “try” doesn’t exist?
  • 8YO: What do you mean?
  • Polina: Well you can either eat a food or not eat a food. You can’t actually “try” to eat it.
  • 8YO: Oh, so I’ll just put down “eating new foods.” Wait, but my dad says it all the time.
  • Polina: What does dad say all the time?
  • 8YO: He tells my sister to try a new food.
  • Polina: Hm, well I’ve actually taught dad to use other words when talking about foods. Looks like grown-ups have a hard time listening too.
  • 8YO: Yeah, that makes sense.

My goal with our conversation around the word "try" and its practical implications was to spark a deeper understanding of action versus intention. I wanted to highlight how language shapes our perception of ability and effort.

Embracing change with humor.

Change still remains hard for this soon to be 9-year-old, and yet he is beginning to understand and reflect on how different parts of him exist. Rather than telling him that he should think of change as a good thing, we are working on figuring out what happens during periods of change. It doesn't hurt to insert a little humor too!

Language you can use.

When helping your child adapt to change, focus on language that encourages effort, rather than words that praise. Instead of saying "you have to do a good job," frame challenges as options they can make, such as "you can figure out how to explore new foods." This emphasizes autonomy and control over their experiences. We can also help ND kids gain a sense of wonder and curiosity with comments like, “I wonder what can happen when…” to open up a possibility they may not have thought about. 

Language bridges together successes and with each success you gain insights into self-efficacy.

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