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Fostering Community With a Neurodiversity Affirming Approach

Community and a feeling of belonging are vital components for building stable relationships and developing a strong sense of self. Whether it’s a moms group, a sports team, a drama company, or even a book club, most people are able to identify a specific interest area and desire to join a group with like minded individuals who collaboratively enjoy the same specific passion and can relate to others who have similar passions and ways of viewing the world. The desire to be a part of a community and to feel like a welcome member of a like-minded group begins to develop at an early age. When a child is exploring leisure activities, building friendships, and figuring out who they are.

But what happens when you are someone who views the world through a different lens? For neurodivergent populations, interests may be more diverse and unique, making it more challenging to find others with similar interests. In addition, the societal pressure to conform to neurotypical, social expectations can make forming friendships more difficult. However, the desire to connect with other humans, to build relationships, and to form connections is still present. The answer is that the approach needs to be different, the environment may need to be modified, and the expectation of outcomes may also be different.

When supporting your child in finding “their people” it's important to consider the following:

  • Where will my child feel safe?

  • Where will my child be understood?

  • Where does my child feel most successful?

  • Who does my child identify with most?

Every child has their own unique way of viewing and interacting with the world, and this includes individualized responses to sensory information, developing their strengths and interests, and building connections and friendships.

Here are some criteria that you can use when helping your child find and choose their community and their people:

Find a safe space that values co-regulation as a first step

All relationships are built on trust. Trust develops over time and requires understanding and a mutual give and take. Your child will be better able to build trust and connection with supportive adults who take time to listen to your child’s needs and who are able to “read between the lines” without judgment, to understand that behavior is not about misbehaving, but may be the child trying to tell you that they need something different.

For example, at KidSHINE, we recently navigated a tricky situation in a group class. One kiddo cut in front of another, and the upset child asked for help self advocating for his turn. He wanted to let his friend know that his feelings were hurt, and he felt safe enough to ask the adult group leader to help him use his words to express this. This therapeutic group environment also enabled this interaction to be problem solved in real time, with the support of a trained professional.

Find a community that is non judgmental, non conforming, and that values individuality, flexibility and modification infused with tradition

Being a part of a neurodiverse community means being a part of a group that is inclusive, understanding, and flexible. In our current world, neurodiverse individuals (and their caregivers) need to become experts at self advocacy. With increased awareness, advanced planning, and a forward thinking approach, groups and communities can easily adopt an inclusive and neurodiversity affirming lens, just by thinking about diversity, flexibility, and adaptation. This will enable neurodiverse kiddos to participate in group activities and events with the same ease as neurotypical children.

Many businesses and local groups, including Sky Zone, Topsfield Fair, and town SEPACs (Special Education Parent Advisory Councils), offer sensory friendly events. These events give kiddos the chance to participate in a group activity or festivity in a safe, sensory friendly, inclusive event without crowds, without loud music or flashing lights and with or without the traditional social rhetoric of needing to make eye contact, stand in a line, or use spoken words to interact with others. By remaining open, flexible and adapting as needed, businesses can provide a positive and inclusive experience for all.

Choose an environment that has options to adjust the level of sensory input

Sometimes, a child has the ability to connect with others, but has a harder time regulating in the environment or physical space to form these connections, especially if the child has sensory processing challenges and is attempting to form friendships in an overstimulating environment. Set your child up for success by talking to your child’s OT about sensory diet activities. The more consistently your child is participating in the right type of regulating sensory activities, the better equipped they will be to manage the complexities of higher stimulation environments, including interactions with peers who may become their friends.

An example of sensory diet for a child’s birthday party may look like this:

  1. Choose a familiar location where the child feels safe and included (maybe their OT’s office or a location where the environment and people are highly familiar)

  2. Start with a regulating heavy work activity (as recommended by your child’s OT)

  3. Play a game together with all of their friends

  4. End with a “sensory friendly” dance party (silent headphones can be a great option here),

The bottom line is, help your child find their safe space, where they are understood, welcomed, and loved for who they are. Support their special interests and find a group or community that supports neurodiversity and inclusivity. The key to success is being able to watch and listen to your child’s needs and be able to pivot to help them find their people and the place where they know they belong.

Check out kidSHINE’s group EXERSHINEkids POWER Bootcamp Program, which is designed to build strength, to provide sensory input and to foster friendships as part of the kidSHINE community. KidSHINE also offers sensory friendly bootcamp birthday parties for kidSHINE clients per request.

Stay Strong and SHINE On!

Dr. Amy


King’s Day Out

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