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Five Misconceptions About Neurodiversity: What You Thought You Knew But Didn’t

Dr. D.A. Palmer, Ed.D. July 2, 2024

Neurodiversity Miscoceptions: We are all unique and wonderful
We are ALL Unique and Wonderful
"Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization." - Mahatma Gandhi

Human diversity is a fact to be accepted, affirmed, and celebrated. James D. Wilson said, "Diversity in all its forms is the path to greatness." Sadly, we live in a culture that, in many ways, spurns diversity and fights for uniformity. Whether with common resistance to DEI initiatives, cultural norms in the workplace, or prevailing misconceptions and stereotypes, the fight for diversity rights and acceptance is an ongoing battle. And this is particularly true with individuals who are deemed "neurodivergent," that is, they diverge from the "typical" or what society considers "normal."


My wife and I were reminded of this the other evening while watching the movie, "Ezra." The movie portrays the struggles an Autistic boy faces from the stereotypes and judgment of teachers, strangers, doctors, and even his parents. It was a stark reminder of how ingrained the "medical" model of neurodiversity is in the minds of many and how we still either want to "fix" those who seem "different" or "weird" or dismiss them and hide them from society altogether. Neurodiversity misconceptions abound and have been part of our nation's history for a long time (Maybe sometime I will write an entire post on this).


The term "Neurodiversity" has gained some traction in recent years, aiming to highlight the variety of human brains and minds. Yet, it is not without controversy. Despite the slowly growing awareness, numerous misconceptions still persist and negatively impact the lives of millions in this country--seen in our homes, schools, and communities. These misunderstandings can lead to stigma, hate, abuse, injustice, inadequate support, and missed opportunities for neurodivergent individuals to thrive as wonderful human beings truly.


In this article, I want to do a little neurodiversity myth-busting by debunking five common myths about neurodiversity and shedding light on their realities. These myths are replete in the literature and societal beliefs.


If you care about inclusivity and understanding (and I'm sure you do if you've read this far), keep reading to discover what you thought you knew but didn’t.


1. All Neurodivergent Individuals are the Same


A common misconception is that all neurodivergent individuals share the same traits and challenges. This thinking is useful for those who like to lump people into categories and malign them. However, this belief is as misguided as thinking all neurotypical individuals are alike. Neurodivergent individuals with diverse experiences, abilities, and personalities are as unique as anyone else.


Taking a step back, neurodiversity simply means that all humans, all almost 8 billion of us who call Earth home, are diverse neurologically. Simply put, all human brains are different from anyone else. Much like our fingerprints, our unique brain wiring makes us who we are, our strengths, our stretches (those areas ripe for growth), and our struggles. It also means that no one human brain is alone in their writing, meaning no one's struggles are unique just to them but are shared by others who are also wonderfully wired.


The Reality: A Spectrum of Diversity

Often, we use the term neurodivergence, which includes conditions such as autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and more. Each of these conditions manifests differently in different individuals. For example, one autistic person might be non-speaking and highly sensitive to sensory input, while another might be highly articulate and less affected by sensory stimuli.


This diversity within neurodivergence is what makes each person's experience unique. Even if you claim "neurotypicality," there are areas of strength and ability and areas that are difficult and challenging to you (like me and drawing 😞).


The Importance of Individualized Support

Understanding the diversity within neurodivergence is crucial for providing effective support. What works for one person might not work for another. And while realities such as ADHD make parts of life challenging for me, it also gives me some abilities that lead to my success and thriving.


Therefore, individualized approaches that consider personal strengths, challenges, and preferences are essential. According to my Thriving Resilience Model (TRM), recognizing and affirming individual strengths is key to helping neurodivergent individuals grow, develop, and thrive.


 

Cover of The Navigating Sensory Overload Playbook

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2. Neurodivergent Individuals are Less Competent


A harmful stereotype is that neurodivergent individuals are less competent than their neurotypical peers. This misconception can lead to lower expectations and fewer opportunities for neurodivergent individuals.


An example of this is Dr. Stephen Shore, an autistic professor of special education at Adelphi University. His story exemplifies the profound capabilities of neurodivergent individuals despite the belief that they are less competent.


Diagnosed with autism as a toddler, he faced the grim expectation of life in an institution. However, with groundbreaking support in the mid-1960s, he began speaking at age four and continued progressing. Defying the stereotype that neurodivergent individuals are less competent, Shore has authored several influential books, including "College for Students with Disabilities," and "Understanding Autism for Dummies."


He now serves on the faculty at Adelphi University and has held leadership roles in other autism organizations. Internationally renowned as an educator, consultant, and author, Shore's work spans education, relationships, employment, and self-advocacy. His story is a testament to the potential of neurodivergent individuals when provided with understanding and support, challenged misconceptions, and advocated for inclusion.


Dr. Stephen Shore the Autism Advocate

The potential of autistic people is unlimited--just like with everyone else. Dr. Stephen Shore

The Reality: Diverse Strengths and Abilities

Neurodivergent individuals can be just as capable and successful as anyone else, often excelling in areas that leverage their unique strengths. For example, many individuals with autism have exceptional attention to detail and can thrive in fields such as software development and engineering. Similarly, individuals with ADHD might excel in dynamic environments that benefit from quick thinking and adaptability.


The Role of Support and Opportunities

Given the right support and opportunities, neurodivergent individuals can achieve great success. This support might include accommodations in educational settings, workplace adjustments, and social understanding. Recognizing and nurturing the potential of neurodivergent individuals can lead to remarkable achievements. TRM emphasizes creating supportive environments that cater to individual needs, helping to foster resilience and success.


neurodiversity symbol

3. Traditional Discipline Works for Neurodivergent Children


Another misconception is that traditional discipline methods, such as punishment-based strategies, are effective for neurodivergent children. This belief can lead to ineffective and even harmful practices.


Generations before, because of a lack of understanding about neurodiversity, tended to be more authoritarian and punitive in their discipline. In fact, I've seen many posts and heard many say that the lack of punitive discipline is what makes current younger generations entitled and soft.


I wholeheartedly disagree! In our grandparents and parents, it produced trauma that led to fathers abandoning the home, high rates of alcoholism and abuse, and overwhelming anxiety, despair, and suicide.


Current research clearly shows that authoritarian parenting does not result in long-term behavioral improvements and may exacerbate behavior problems, particularly disruptive, aggressive, defiant, or anti-social behavior (see https://parentingscience.com/authoritarian-parenting).


Our children, especially our neurodivergent toddlers to teens, need both firm and kind parenting. This is often noted as Authoritative parenting, which combines rules and consistency with empathy and positive approaches.


The Reality: Need for Positive Reinforcement

Traditional discipline methods often fail to address the underlying needs and challenges of neurodivergent children. They negate the complexity of the nervous system's role, belief systems, past experiences, and many other factors in behavior and communication. Co-regulation and structured environments are more beneficial. For instance, connecting and communicating to encourage desired behaviors and providing clear, consistent routines can help neurodivergent children feel secure and understood.


Creating Supportive Environments

Creating environments that understand and accommodate neurodivergent needs is crucial. This includes flexible approaches to discipline that focus on teaching and reinforcing positive behaviors rather than punishing negative ones. By fostering open communication and creating structured, predictable environments, TRM helps neurodivergent children thrive.



4. Neurodivergent Children are Just Being Naughty


Behavioral issues in neurodivergent children are sometimes misinterpreted as naughtiness or a result of poor parenting. This misconception can lead to unfair judgments and inadequate support.


As a high school science teacher, I used to believe this myth years ago. Students who were always fidgeting, not paying attention, goofing around, or not turning in work were constantly on my radar. I would say things like, "Why can't you take your studies seriously?" or "How are you going to make it in life if you act like this in my class." It wasn't until I became more aware of various learning disabilities and ADHD that my perspective changed, and I felt more empathy and compassion for my students. I had to repent of my ignorance and meanness, and decided, along with my experience as a dad with neurodivergent adopted kids, to pursue a doctorate in special education and eventually start The Inclusion Matters Collective.


The Reality: Manifestations of Neurological Differences

Many behavioral issues seen in neurodivergent children are manifestations of their neurological differences. It's often not intentional or malicious that they misbehave- they are communicating something profound that we need to listen to intently. For example, a child with ADHD might struggle with impulsivity and hyperactivity, leading to behaviors that are misunderstood as naughtiness. Similarly, a child with autism might have meltdowns due to sensory overload or changes in routine.


The Need for Understanding and Support

It is crucial to understand that these behaviors are not intentional misbehavior but rather a part of the child's neurological makeup. We must STOP, make it not about us, and seek to understand and show true empathy and connection before we can provide appropriate support, such as sensory breaks, structured routines, and patience. Only then can these strategies help neurodivergent children understand and regulate their behaviors more effectively. TRM encourages building community connections and understanding to provide a supportive network for these children.


dad connecting with his sons

5. Parents Should Keep Neurodivergence a Secret


Due to stigma, some parents believe they should keep their child's neurodivergence a secret. This misconception can have detrimental effects on the child’s self-esteem and mental health.


As an educator, I've come to find out sometimes months later of a child's struggle at school or previous diagnosis. When I ask parents why they didn't tell me sooner, they reply that they didn't want their child to be singled out, stigmatized, identified by a label, or seen as different. Many wanted their child to get a "fresh start." Yet, the support their child needed was being withheld, and misconceptions abounded because they wanted to keep this a secret or not appear as a bad parent.


The Reality: Importance of Openness and Acceptance

Openness and acceptance can significantly improve the child's self-esteem and mental health. When parents and caregivers embrace neurodivergence, they model acceptance and understanding, helping the child to feel valued and confident in their identity. They also open the door to authentic and supportive assistance they would otherwise never get.


Building a Supportive Community

Being open about neurodivergence can also help build a supportive community. By sharing their experiences, parents can connect with others who understand their challenges and successes, fostering a network of support and resources. TRM promotes fostering open communication and building community connections to create an inclusive and supportive environment.


Mom connecting with neurodivergent child

So, How Can We Better Embrace Neurodiversity?


Debunking Myths and Promoting Inclusion


We can move towards a more inclusive and understanding society by debunking these myths and misconceptions. Education, awareness, and compassionate connection are key in this process. By learning more about neurodiversity and the experiences of neurodivergent individuals, we can challenge stereotypes and promote acceptance.


Unique Strengths and Abilities of Neurodivergent Individuals

It's important to recognize that neurodivergent individuals have unique strengths and abilities that can be nurtured with the right support and acceptance. For example, individuals with autism may have exceptional attention to detail, individuals with ADHD may excel in creative thinking and problem-solving, and individuals with dyslexia often have strong spatial reasoning skills. By providing the right support and opportunities, these strengths can be harnessed, benefiting not only the individuals themselves but also society as a whole.


It's Time for Action: Advocate for Change against Neurodiversity Misconceptions


It's time to actively challenge these misconceptions and advocate for a more inclusive world. Whether you are a parent, educator, employer, or community member, your efforts can make a difference. Educate yourself, support neurodivergent individuals, and promote acceptance and understanding in your community. Together, we can create an environment where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.


 

Looking for more guidance on how to debunk these neurodiversity misconceptions and myths and how to support your neurodivergent toddler to teen best?


Scheduling a 30-minute parent coaching strategy session with me offers three key benefits:


  1. Personalized Support: Gain insights tailored to your child's unique needs, helping you understand and leverage their strengths for better outcomes.

  2. Effective Strategies: Learn proven, positive reinforcement techniques to create a supportive environment that encourages your child's growth and development.

  3. Expert Guidance: Receive advice from a seasoned professional with extensive experience in neurodiversity, ensuring you have the tools to foster resilience and inclusivity in your family.




 
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