Neurodivergent children think and learn differently, and may need extra support or a different approach to recognise their strengths and help them do well.

Neurodivergent brains are wired differently from neurotypical brains

Neurodivergency is a term used to describe neurological differences in the human brain.

Some of the differences associated with neurodivergence include:

  • Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD): affects a child’s ability to do things such as understand instructions or learn new things. FASD can only be present if the pēpi was exposed to alcohol before birth.
  • Autism: differences in thinking, communicating, and interacting with others.
  • Dyspraxia: differences in movement and coordination.
  • Dyslexia: differences in reading and spelling.
  • ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder): differences in focus and organisation.

While getting a diagnosis can be a good first step in accessing extra support, it’s helpful to remember that neurodivergence isn’t something that needs 'fixing' – it’s another way of thinking and learning.

Many neurodivergent tamariki will need extra support to thrive, and whānau may find they need to take a different approach.

For example, regular ways of addressing challenging behaviour may not work for neurodivergent tamariki, or may make things worse. Everyday tasks such as eating, going to the toilet, and falling and staying asleep may require extra effort and perseverance from and whānau.

Neurodivergent characteristics and needs vary from child to child

Many autistic tamariki, for example, may become easily overwhelmed by experiences that wouldn’t bother others (bright lights, loud noises, lots of people). They may be very focused on certain interests, and find social interaction and too much going on at once challenging.

Neurodivergent tamariki may also have differences in the way they communicate, focus, read, learn new things, or control their impulses. This may mean children need more time and support to understand things and complete tasks. They may also need a space that’s free from distractions, or to have instructions repeated or presented visually. Sometimes patience and small changes can make a big difference.

Responding based on the child’s neurodiverse experience is needed to protect or re-build their self-esteem.

Focus on strengths and needs

There are many strengths associated with neurodivergence. Here are just some examples.

  • People with dyslexia tend to think in pictures rather than words. This means they often think outside the box and are great innovators.
  • Positive ADHD attributes include problem-solving, creative thinking, and being able to be super focused on things like sport and computers.
  • People with autism are often good at memorising and learning new information quickly, and logical thinking.
  • People with dyspraxia often become strategic and innovative thinkers.
  • Individuals with FASD are often friendly, outgoing, affectionate, and creative.

Experts tend to agree that the best approach is to focus on individual strengths and find opportunities for success.

Tamariki who find communication difficult may be creative in other ways, such as art and music. Children who find reading challenging may be excellent problem-solvers or storytellers.

It’s important whānau recognise the individual strengths and talents of their tamaiti and nurture these while getting support for other areas that their tamaiti finds challenging.

Getting support early is important

If whānau believe their tamaiti may need extra support because of their neurodivergent needs, the first step is to with their family doctor. From here, it may be helpful to be referred to the local Te Whatu Ora Child Development Service, a paediatrician, or services provided through the Ministry of Education Early Intervention Services (EIS).

An early diagnosis is likely to result in significantly improved outcomes for the tamaiti. Only a health professional can provide a formal diagnosis.

Resource: IHC library

The IHC library is a great place to get more information. A range of books and magazines cover topics such as toilet learning, mealtime, and tricky behaviour, as well as specific disorders. The library is free to use and has both physical books that can be posted and eBooks.

It also offers a free book to help whānau better understand their child’s disability and diagnosis.

Explore the IHC library collection(external link)

Conversation ideas

You know your child best. What makes them special? What do they most enjoy?
What are some of the things your child finds challenging?
All tamariki are born how they are meant to be. But some need more help than others to thrive. What are some things that would really help your tamaiti?
Have there been times when another parent, caregiver or kaiako has noticed your child needed extra support or time to complete something?

Helpful resources for whānau