Unfortunately, it’s all too common for individuals who eventually meet the criteria for ADHD or autism to first seek help from mental health services because they’re struggling with sensory overload. This struggle might manifest as regular outbursts of anger, withdrawal and depression, or anxiety meltdowns. Often, these behaviours only surface at home. Children quickly learn, consciously or subconsciously, that they’re somehow different and that the world around them isn’t designed with them in mind. So, they begin to spend a vast amount of their cognitive and emotional energy on masking outside of the home.
Masking is the process of hiding aspects of your neurodivergence, elements of your true self, in order to fit into a neurotypical world. Chronic masking can amplify symptoms of anxiety, depression, burnout, and a sense of feeling different, weird, or even like a failure. After an entire day of masking a young person is exhausted!
Given we live in a world that wasn’t designed for neurodivergent folk, the first step to supporting neurodivergent young people is to help them recognise, accept, and embrace their neurodivergence. It’s about fostering self-acceptance, self-love, and self-kindness. It’s about building a strong alliance with your neurodivergent loved one and supporting them as they navigate a neurotypical world.
As a parent, you can model self-acceptance, self-love and self-kindness. Make these values a daily topic by sharing stories that embody these themes. There is a plethora of resources on positive psychology and positive parenting that can provide you with creative and specific ideas on how to live by and share these values with your child. (One of my favourites is ’50 Ways to Feel Happy Children’s Book’)
When you foster a safe and accepting environment, neurodivergent individuals can stop feeling the need to mask. When someone who is neurodivergent stops masking, they often start to thrive! They can express their unique experiences, share what might be challenging for them, and finally connect with others authentically. Connection is the opposite of isolation, which is another effect of neurodivergence when it’s undiagnosed and/or unaccepted. Being able to talk with others about your own neurodivergent experiences and discussing potential coping mechanisms can be empowering.
Once we create accepting, loving, understanding, and supportive environments (at home, school/work and with friends/extended family), it becomes easier to practise more specific and individual coping strategies. Let’s stick with the idea that sensory overload is a significant source of discomfort for neurodivergent individuals. This discomfort triggers the fight/flight/freeze response. We can find strategies to soothe this response and help regain a calm state that allows for rest and relaxation. There are countless strategies available, and what works for one person might not work for another. Even the effectiveness of a strategy might vary from day to day. So, it’s important to explore different strategies until you find several that are beneficial.
Neurodivergence is part of human diversity. Just like we have a multitude of different flowers in nature, we have a myriad of different brains among humans. Each one is unique and beautiful in its own way and deserves care and respect. If we own a houseplant, we try to create the perfect environment for it to thrive; we don’t attempt to change the plant itself. We need to start creating environments where everyone can thrive.
I hope this was helpful. Please feel free to get in touch should you have any questions or would like to discuss some aspects further.
Lukas Dressler Psychotherapy.plus
Lukas Dressler (he/him)
Counselling Psychologist (MSc.)
HCPC Registered No. PYL041915
Integrative Psychotherapist (MBACP)