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Neurodiversity and Gifted or Twice-Exceptional Kids

How the neurodiversity paradigm can help you understand and support your gifted / 2e child

I’ve been wanting to write about the neurodiversity paradigm ever since I read Nick Walker’s essay, “Throw Away the Master’s Tools: Liberating Ourselves from the Pathology Paradigm.”

In this article, I’d like to share Nick Walker’s definitions of the pathology paradigm and the neurodiversity paradigm, then discuss how shifting to a neurodiversity paradigm can help you understand, connect with, and find ease with your intense or sensitive gifted or twice-exceptional kid.

As you may already know, a paradigm is a set of fundamental assumptions about a certain topic or dynamic. It’s a framework for making sense of the world. Paradigms are often invisible, implicit, or unspoken, yet extremely powerful. Our underlying assumptions influence the way we understand the world around us, the way we pursue change, the questions we ask, and what we believe is possible.

When it comes to parenting, for example, parents often rely on underlying assumptions about how kids work, what’s “appropriate,” what makes a “good” parent, and so on. These underlying assumptions can influence how a parent makes sense of their child’s needs and behaviors, how they interact with their child, how they feel about their child-parent interactions, and what types of parenting they believe are “appropriate” or even possible.

One of the trickiest things about raising an emotionally intense gifted or twice-exceptional kid is that the dominant underlying assumptions about kids and parenting DO NOT WORK.

Gifted and twice-exceptional kids don’t operate the same way as other kids. Their brains and bodies develop differently and work differently.

Similarly, emotionally intense and sensitive kids don’t operate the same way as other kids. Their brains and bodies also develop differently and work differently.

When your kid is both gifted/2e and emotionally intense or sensitive, they are different from the norm in several ways!

To understand these kids and what they need, it really helps to get familiar with neurodiversity - because these kids are neurodivergent, meaning that their brains develop and function differently than a “typical” kid’s brain.

The pathology paradigm

 

Unfortunately, the dominant paradigm for understanding neurodiversity is the pathology paradigm. Nick Walker described the major assumptions of the pathology paradigm this way:

  • There is one “right,” “normal,” or “healthy” way for human brains and human minds to be configured and to function (or one relatively narrow “normal” range into which the configuration and functioning of human brains ought to fall).

  • If your neurological configuration and functioning (and, as a result, your ways of thinking and behaving) diverge substantially from the dominant standard of “normal,” then there is Something Wrong with You.

 

What’s harmful about the pathology paradigm?

 

Most of the world operates under the pathology paradigm, and it’s very harmful for neurodivergent people and their families. (Actually, it is harmful for everyone, because the pressure to stay within a narrow “normal” range causes stress on almost everyone at some time or another, and restricts the range of acceptable behavior and being for everyone, even if they are able to do it.)

Many parents hesitate to have their child assessed because the pathology paradigm frames neurological differences in a negative light.

 

Of course parents might feel hesitant to seek out a “label” for their child in a society that equates labels and difference with being defective, lesser than, weird, or wrong. (Or, in the case of giftedness, potentially elitist.)

 

Unfortunately, many assessment providers do operate under the pathology paradigm or a medical model that frames neurological differences such as ADHD, autism, or dyslexia as “disorders.” Just as parents fear, these providers may cast differences in a primarily negative light by using phrases such as “deficits in…,” “weaknesses in…,” and “struggles to…”.

The overall message can be, as Nick Walker put it, that there is “something wrong with” the child.

 

Within a pathology paradigm, brain and body differences often seem like something to be ashamed of.

Parents and kids may worry that a neurodivergent child is “lazy,” “weird,” “awkward,” “irresponsible,” “uncaring,” “too sensitive,” “over-reacting,” or other negative characteristics - because the pathology paradigm frames their child’s natural way of being as “wrong.” The child may also believe they are stupid or criticize themselves for things that don’t come naturally.

Even when a child has received a diagnosis, parents may hesitate to discuss the diagnosis with the child because they don’t want the child to feel ashamed or feel bad about themselves.

Kids who are steeped in a pathology paradigm may be embarrassed to use accommodations or may feel angry at themselves for their struggles. They may feel pressured to hide the fact that they have ADHD or that they’re autistic or dyslexic because they see it as embarrassing or bad.

The neurodiversity paradigm

 

In contrast, the neurodiversity paradigm has these underlying assumptions:

  • Neurodiversity - the diversity among minds - is a natural, healthy, and valuable form of human diversity.

  • There is no “normal” or “right” style of human mind, any more than there is one “normal” or “right” ethnicity, gender, or culture.

  • The social dynamics that manifest in regard to neurodiversity are similar to the social dynamics that manifest in regard to other forms of human diversity (e.g., diversity of race, culture, gender, or sexual orientation).

  • These dynamics include the dynamics of social power relations - the dynamics of social inequality, privilege, and oppression - as well as the dynamics by which diversity, when embraced, acts as a source of creative potential within a group or society.

 

There is a growing community of people who embrace the neurodiversity paradigm and bring this perspective into their self-understanding, family relationships, therapy practices, medical services, or teaching.

I’m thrilled to be a part of the neurodiversity movement because I believe it is liberatory work to value human diversity in all its forms.

What’s helpful about the neurodiversity paradigm?

 

Within a neurodiversity paradigm, differences are just that - differences - and are a natural part of human diversity. In fact, differences in processing, communicating, understanding, and being in the world can showcase the beautiful complexity and diversity of the human experience.

Within the neurodiversity paradigm, neurodivergence can be a source of pride and identity.

 

Many neurodivergent people take great pride in their neurodivergent identity and know that being an ADHDer, an autistic, or a dyslexic is an integral part of who they are.

 

They can celebrate their unique way of viewing the world instead of feeling ashamed by it.

 

Growing up, I was often praised for my intelligence and I was a compliant kid who excelled in school. I grew up proud of my gifted neurodivergent identity even though I often felt out of place among my peers. (Though some gifted kids feel embarrassed by their obvious intellectual capacity and try to hide it.)

 

In contrast, I learned to hide and despise the parts of myself that were different and ”weird” - or the parts of myself that often felt anxious, confused, and stressed in non-academic settings. I vowed to keep these characteristics and preferences private so no one would judge me or ostracize me. Unsurprisingly, I found it increasingly difficult to know my own needs, opinions, and preferences.

 

About two years ago, I first realized that I might be autistic (while reading Unmasking Autism, which I highly recommend). Since then, I’ve been on an intense and often exhilarating neurodivergent self-discovery journey. I’m no longer ashamed of my autistic characteristics and I’ve grown quite proud of my autistic identity. I’ve realized that many people I admire are autistic, and many of the friends I’ve adored throughout my life have realized they’re autistic too.

Turns out the autistic community is a cool place to be 🌈 🧠 ♾️ (it always has been, but the pathology paradigm kept me from seeing that for 39 years!).

Along those lines - the neurodiversity paradigm encourages neurodivergent folks to connect with one another and enjoy their neurodivergence as a culture.

 

Neurodivergent culture is complex, like any culture, but I thought it would be fun to share some common themes.  The lists below are not exhaustive or mutually exclusive, and not all folks of each neurotype will like all these things. But if the idea of neurodivergent culture is new to you, here’s a little taste of what it can look like.

 

Gifted culture

Gifted culture often (but not always) includes a preference for complexity, high levels of verbal expression, attention to details, openness to new ideas, cross-age relationships, and curiosity about the world.

 

Gifted kids and teens (and adults) often like games and activities with complicated rules, intellectual conversations, analysis of media, and complex imaginative play like creating pretend societies, organizations, and storylines.

Autistic culture

 

Autistic culture can include a love of collecting, delight in explaining things, talking passionately about interests, jumping into substantial topics without “small talk,” appreciation of co-utterances, a love of research, and activities or topics such as role-playing, Pokemon, Minecraft, Zelda, Star Wars or anime. Other common (but less well-known) autistic interests are a fascination with people, psychology, animals, or nature.

 

The Neurodiversity Podcast recently had a great episode about autism as identity and culture with Matt Lowry of The Autistic Culture Podcast, which he co-hosts with Angela Lauria.

ADHD culture

 

ADHD culture can include appreciation for spontaneity and creativity, enjoyment of tangential conversation and divergent thinking, appreciation of co-utterances, and bonding over shared interests. Kids and teens with ADHD (and ADHDer adults) may particularly enjoy physical and energetic or daring play, video games, and play dates or conversations that involve many tangents and changes in activity or topic.

Twice-exceptional culture

 

In my experience, twice-exceptional kids and teens often resonate with and enjoy elements of gifted and ADHD or autistic culture.

In terms of activities and topics that resonate with 2e kids, some common favorites I've seen are books and reading, math and numbers, animals (especially dogs, cats, reptiles, and dinosaurs), Lego, Minecraft, Dungeons & Dragons, Pokemon, the Warrior Cats series, Harry Potter, pretend play, theater/musicals, music/band, animation or drawing, anime or manga, history (e.g., the Titanic, World War II), and creating their own storylines (e.g., writing stories, writing scripts to act out, elaborate pretend play).

Many 2e kids become very knowledgeable about their niche interests and may develop expertise in an area well beyond a typical knowledge level or skill level for their age. Many are talented artists, writers, musicians, actors, dancers, and comedians.

 

I’d argue this expertise and talent are part of twice-exceptional culture too, and such a source of fun, learning, self-expression, and joy!

 

Neurodivergent culture overall 

 

Overall, neurodivergent culture often values individual autonomy, equality, fairness/justice, and more direct or honest communication. Neurodivergent culture respects personal interests, niche interests, and going deep on the things you love.

Many neurodivergent folks are queer and vice versa, so neurodivergent culture often values queer ways of being in the world, expansive gender expression, and LGBTQIA+ rights.  Many neurodivergent people reject heteronormativity, traditional gender roles, and societal expectations about gender expression.

Many neurodivergent folks of all types enjoy parallel play (or hanging out together doing different things), learning new skills or crafts together, doing projects together or side-by-side, games, video games, and conversations about seemingly unrelated topics that actually cohere in some thematic way. 🤓

There’s actually a lot of overlap between gifted culture and other neurodivergent culture - probably, I’d guess, because so many gifted people are autistic or ADHDers (some identified, many not).

As you can see, when neurodivergence is seen as a natural difference to be celebrated and embraced - as a source of rich human diversity, as Nick Walker pointed out - neurodivergent people can celebrate and connect around their shared neuro-identity.

This paradigm shift isn’t easy

 

Because our society is so steeped in the pathology paradigm (and ableism in general), it’s not easy to shift your mindset to a neurodiversity paradigm.

 

I’ve been unlearning my own ableism and learning to embrace neurodiversity for the last four years or so, but before that I was thoroughly steeped in the pathology paradigm. In my graduate training, I learned very little about ADHD or autism, and nothing about sensory processing. Everything I learned was framed in terms of deficits, “disorders,” and pathology.

I know from personal experience that it can take a lot of time, effort, and deliberate practice to “unlearn” the harmful messages and norms of the pathology paradigm and of neuronormativity. And it often takes courage to embrace neurodiversity in parenting - to decide, unequivocally, that your child is good and worthy just as they are, and that there is nothing about their brain or body that needs to be fixed.

This can be extra hard when you yourself feel overwhelmed by your kid’s emotional intensity, big behaviors, or mis-fit with traditional schooling or their peers.

 

Although it takes courage and patience, it can be very freeing to adopt the neurodiversity paradigm when parenting an emotionally intense or sensitive gifted/2e kids.

In essence, this paradigm says that there is no one right way to be in the world. That it’s okay to have different preferences, or to need help. That it’s okay to opt out of certain norms that don’t fit you. That it’s okay to forge your own path - because that’s a beautiful form of diversity.

One of the greatest pleasures of my personal life is creating an entirely unique family life with my intense gifted/2e kid.

 

And one of the greatest pleasures and honors of my professional life is helping parents like you feel confident adapting your parenting to your own unique kid’s way of being in the world.

Thanks to all of you for being here together in this neurodivergent discovery journey with me!

If you want more ideas like this directly to your inbox, sign up for Gifted Lab Notes, my weekly email with tips and information for parents of intense or sensitive gifted or twice-exceptional (2e) kids.

If you’d love to embrace the neurodiversity paradigm with your kid but you’re not sure how to start, you might be interested in my super supportive and interactive 8-week coaching program, Support Your Intense Gifted/2e Kid.

It’s hard to enthusiastically embrace neurodiversity when your morning routine feels grueling, your sleep is disrupted, or you feel stuck in endless negotiations and frustration with your neurodivergent kid. In ​Support Your Intense Gifted/2e Kid​, I help you understand your kid’s intensity and I share new parenting approaches that can bring a lot more calm, connection, ease, and fun to your home. Even if you're feeling really negative about parenting right now, know that many parents I've worked with have started the program feeling frustrated, annoyed, or defeated and have ended the program with confidence and hope.

Here’s what one participant (a mom to a 2e 4-year-old) said about her experience:

I have noticed a shift in my perspective. Prior to starting SYIGK, I was stuck in a pattern of seeing only the negatives. Parenting felt really hard, and I wasn’t sure what the future was going to look like for our child or for our family. The first half of this program has helped challenge that perspective….I am SO GRATEFUL that we jumped on this. We went back and forth because of the cost, but this has absolutely been the best choice for our family. I will be recommending this to anyone and everyone because of how impactful it has been for us already. It is evident that you’ve dedicated much time and energy to making this program what it is.”

Learn more, register, or get on the waitlist here.

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