Fitting in at school: ADHD and friendships

High School friendships are hard for everyone

High school reunion. Is there another event in your adult life that induces such a polarising response? For some, High School was the peak of popularity and connection, the beginning of lifelong friendships. For others, especially those struggling with ADHD and friendships, it was a lonely place to be endured, where free time was more difficult than tests or homework.

I recently attended my own High School Reunion. It’s been many years, yet I was still incredibly anxious attending. I’m not even sure how I got myself to the door.

You see, I could never quite fit in at High School. Making and maintaining friendships was like a foreign language to me. I didn’t pick up on social cues, couldn’t play team sports because I had terrible balance issues, and I was more emotional. Worst of all, I felt that I was the problem.

If only I had a magic wand to go back and explain ADHD and neurodiversity to my younger self. At least now, even without a magic wand, our children (especially our previously missed young girls) are more likely to have a diagnosis and a teacher trained in working with neurodiverse children. Now we have some options.

The challenges of ADHD and friendship

Whilst everyone’s experience of being neurodivergent is different, there are a few common threads for those of us with ADHD that impact on friendships.

Overwhelm and boredom – two sides of the same ADHD coin

The ADHD brain can swing quickly between extremes, sometimes finding it difficult to commit attention and time to friendships, then simply finding them boring because their brain jumps around a million thoughts and their friend focuses on merely one. The inconsistency can make others feel that you only reach out when you have nothing better to do.

Looking like you don’t care – poor memory, distraction and disorganisation

Friends will naturally feel that the people who ask questions and remember what is going on in their lives are their true friends. Unfortunately for those of us with ADHD, it’s hard enough to remember our details, keep our diary organised, avoid getting distracted on the way to meet you, let alone remember the details of your life that ‘show’ we care.

Social anxiety and rejection sensitivity disorder

These two often coexisting diagnoses are commonly associated with ADHD. Making friends requires reading situations, body language and even emotional meaning. These can all be super challenging when you have ADHD. Add in years of being rejected for simple miscommunications or miscues, and putting yourself out there to make friends can feel more like walking with a tiger.

Social supports at school are available

Being neurodiverse in a neurotypical group at school can be like finding out you are a square peg in a round hole. Unfortunately, in Australia, there is currently no real funding for schools to support neurodiverse students unless they meet specific Autism criteria.

This often means the onus is on parents and carers to advocate for their children with ADHD, often educating teachers along the way. Luckily, most teachers want to see all their students succeed and are only too happy to help.

Individual Learning Plans (ILPs)

Parents of any child struggling to achieve their potential can request an Individual Learning Plan (ILP). Your school may also initiate the conversation. An ILP outlines your child’s learning goals, how neurodiversity impacts them, how the school will support them and what reasonable adjustments or strategies are agreed upon to help each child participate and learn and meet their individual needs.

ILPs can include social support. For example:

  • Ben finds it challenging to self-select into a group. It helps if teachers define groups for everyone so he can focus on the work itself.

Neurodiversity awareness workshops

It can also help to speak with your child’s classroom teacher or year-level coordinator about informal ways the school can assist, or ways they can broadly improve understanding. Some schools get great results from running educational workshops around neurodiversity for the student body, or relevant year groups. We recently presented at a Sydney school for just this reason. This is what teachers had to say when we were finished:

Some points of highlight for the students were their interest in the scientific explanation of neurodiversity and the brain, the ability to ask questions and feel part of the experience and the way in which you discussed neurodiversity as a collective experience, making those who are neurodivergent feel a greater sense of belonging and those who know neurodivergent people understand more about their behaviours, feelings and executive functioning. 

I am hopeful that we will have more opportunities to work together in the future on our shared mission for creating inclusive, safe, respectful, educated and understanding environments for us ‘neurospicy’ folk. 

Your child’s tribe might be outside of school

Just because your child is alone at school does not necessarily mean they are lonely. They may be more comfortable in their own company, taking a break from masking at recess and lunchtime.

However, we all need to be socially supported and connected in some part of our lives. Sometimes, the best way to find your tribe is to look for like-minded people who share your interests, such as groups for chess, taekwondo, or online gaming communities.

NOTE: Online gaming communities can be a fabulous source of community. One of my 12-year-old clients struggles at school with bullying but has their own YouTube Channel and has flown with Mum to meet friends he made through YouTube. The key is age-appropriate supervision and ground rules. The e-Safety Commissioner has great resources to keep kids safe online.

Other times it can help to find a group designed to help build social skills with peers. Here in Canberra, we are fortunate to have several organisations set up specifically to build neurodivergent communities.

  • Daydream Machine – Supporting young people with all forms of disability, including neurodiversity, from 9-21 years of age to explore and build their talents in music, arts, and technology. Parents think kids learn in a safe and inclusive space, while kids think they are ‘doing cool stuff’.
  • Ignition Gamers – With so many of our neurodivergent teens and young adults turning to video games for entertainment, Ignition Gamers builds on that passion bringing teens and young adults together to play in person and develop confidence with real-world relationships.
  • Dice 4 Diversity – Originally established to provide social education in a fun environment utilising role-player games like Dungeons and Dragons, Dice 4 Diversity is now a strong community of school-aged tweens and teens who enjoy attending weekly social ‘skills’ sessions and return over school holidays just for fun.

At Social Living Solutions we understand how hard it can be to ‘fit in’, especially around ADHD and friendships. We work with your child to achieve their unique social goals, whether that’s understanding how neurotypical friendships work, finding a tribe outside of school, or leaning into passions and being comfortable as they are. There is no agenda here. Book a free call today.

ADHD symptoms in girls. Does my daughter have ADHD?

ADHD symptoms are often different in girls. As medical knowledge evolves to understand more about these differences, so does our ability to identify and help our young girls at an earlier age.

For decades, ADHD diagnosis was limited by a myth that ADHD only affects young boys because they are more likely to exhibit the more outwardly apparent symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity. As recently as 2013, it was also classified as a disruptive disorder of childhood (before the age of 7) only, which caused problems for girls whose symptoms are often noticed at puberty.

Now we understand that ADHD can impact boys and girls of all ages, with varying presentations of symptoms. Save your daughter from the challenges of living with unsupported ADHD by being aware of the differences and seeking diagnosis and support if appropriate.

ADHD symptoms in girls and young women

Of the three ADHD presentations – hyperactive, inattentive, or both, boys will usually present as hyperactive, which is easy to notice. Girls often present as inattentive, which can be much easier to mask, hide, or go unnoticed. Instead, adults may label them spacey, lazy, or just overly talkative. This suggestion that their symptoms are instead personality flaws can lead to low self-esteem, depression, and a failure to seek proper diagnosis later in life.

Diagnosing ADHD as early as possible provides access to effective treatment, which can change her whole experience of the world. Symptoms to look out for in girls include:

  • Daydreaming, zoning out, or appearing not to listen. She may look zoned out because the hyperactivity is in her head. This can lead to rumination and being lost in many threads of thought simultaneously. Watch for school reports advising that, ‘She would do better if she just focused.’
  • A young girl sits at a table covered in coloured pom-poms with her hands to her face daydreaming into the distance.Disorganisation, mess, and difficulty managing time (executive malfunctions). She might make rushed and silly mistakes, forget daily activities, constantly lose things, or seem incapable of getting ready in time.
  • Difficulty concentrating. Difficulty staying focussed or becoming easily distracted may show up as a tendency to procrastinate long projects until the last minute or look bored when attempting to absorb new or complex information.
  • Emotional sensitivity, anxiety or sadness. Girls with ADHD may cry or become irritated more easily than their peers. They may be seen as ‘over emotional’ and struggle to process their feelings.
  • Challenges making friends. Impulsivity in girls can present as interrupting and talking out of turn. She may also have difficulty interpreting what is and is not socially acceptable. Combined with all of the above, these symptoms can make building and maintaining friendships difficult.
  • Poor self-esteem. Years of worrying, trying to fit in, being accused of laziness or ditziness, and working twice as hard to concentrate or do as well as expected can take a toll on your daughter’s opinion of herself.

Masking ADHD symptoms to fit in

Girls’ ADHD symptoms are not only different but also commonly emerge later, with puberty, exacerbated by hormones only to get mistaken for ‘normal’ puberty-related issues. Many girls are also unintentionally socialised to achieve, please others, and avoid making trouble.

In an attempt to fit in and meet these social expectations, your daughter may mask her symptoms, hiding them through learned behaviours so that no one knows she is different. Common masking among girls includes:

  • Mimicking and copying other people’s behaviour for acceptance.
  • Developing perfectionist tendencies.
  • Bottling up emotions until they feel sick without even knowing why.
  • Excessive note-taking to help memory later.
  • Reacting as expected rather than as felt.
  • Obsessively checking belongings to avoid forgetting or misplacing something.
  • Staying strangely quiet or being overly careful in every word.
  • Constant (often ineffective) attempts to establish systems to keep life organised.

While these masking techniques can make life easier for her on one level, always wearing a mask is very tiring, and she is still struggling. You may notice an emotional crash when you collect her from school, tears over her own imperfection, or constant mimicking of whichever friend she spends the most time around.

Ways to help your daughter with ADHD

The first step to helping your daughter is to get her an ADHD assessment and be sure what you are dealing with. Your GP can refer you to a paediatrician, child psychologist or child psychiatrist who can assess and (if applicable) treat her for ADHD.

However, to fully support an older daughter, you should start by speaking with her about her symptoms. Ask open questions and give her space to share what she wants. Maybe it’s stress, something you said, or a genuine change in who she is and how she feels about the world. Mention ADHD gently at first. No girl, especially at puberty, wants to hear that there is something wrong with her, and many may still think of ADHD as a boy’s problem.

Unfortunately, wait lists for an ADHD assessment can be long. While a diagnosis allows your specialist to prescribe medication, which can be life-changing, there are other things you can start to do right now that can make a big difference too.

Be patient

Give her only one or two instructions at a time. Ask her to repeat them to be sure she heard and understood them.

Be consistent

Children (and many adults) with ADHD, may think they want lots of variety to stimulate their brain but actually thrive with clear, simple rules and routines they can rely on.

Break it down

As your daughter gets older and teachers ask her to complete more complex projects, the task may cause more stress than expected. Help her break it down into steps and make a plan.

Seek support

You do not need a referral to see an ADHD coach, and it doesn’t matter to us whether you have an ADHD diagnosis or not. We work to help manage symptoms regardless of what causes them. There are also some fantastic support books and podcasts available. Encourage her to find one she relates to and take whatever she can from it.

Look for the good in your daughter

People with ADHD are often fantastic at a particular special interest or discovering novel solutions to problems. They may be highly creative or oddly intuitive. Her empathy might make her the most caring and supportive person you will meet, or she may be wonderful in ways that have nothing to do with her ADHD. Let her know that you see her strengths as well as the areas where she needs support.

Social Living Solutions provides coaching for high school students and adults of all ages. Our coaches have lived experience with ADHD and can help you manage your symptoms with or without a diagnosis. Contact us today to find out more.

Inclusive team building – be the leader who gets the best from the whole team.

Being a productive team requires each team member to be supported to contribute to the best of their ability. As we make leaps and bounds regarding working from home, sit/stand desks, and other great one size fits all approaches, let us remember that true equity comes from bringing everyone to the same level. True equity may require unique solutions for each neurodivergent team member. Similarly for team members with caring responsibilities or experiencing depression or anxiety. Inclusive team building helps everyone.

Basics of team building in terms of meeting individual needs

You’ve probably already attended more team-building afternoons than you would care to remember. Perhaps you have enjoyed icebreakers, bonded over shared activities, or worked towards establishing clear goals, responsibilities, and communication styles. But have you ever considered how to meet the base needs of your whole team? Meeting every team member’s basic needs through inclusive team building, encourages and improves communication, trust, and collaboration among your team.

In his paper ‘A Theory of Human Needs (1943)’, Maslow proposed a hierarchy of needs still used today. He proposed that before a human can achieve self-actualisation, or even self-esteem, they must first have their physiological, safety and social needs met. So if you want your team to be performing at their best, you need to make sure they have these needs met first.

 

Physiological needs

Most workplaces broadly address the need for air, food, water, and health with air conditioning, kitchens with fridges for people to bring their own food, filtered taps, and First Aid Officers. But what of staff who find the temperature too hot or cold to focus at work? Or the ones who find the smell from the kitchen unbearable? For some neurodivergent staff members, the very things that meet the needs of the many can undermine their foundational needs.

Safety

Hopefully your workspace is physically safe, provides shelter, and your employees are secure in their positions (if they are not, you may want to start there!). But is it psychologically safe?

  • Is it a place where staff can raise ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes without fear of punishment or humiliation?
  • Could a staff member approach a manager to request a seat further from the smells in the kitchen?
  • Would they feel safe to explain their diagnosis and how you can help?

Social needs

Is it socially safe? Are all staff included, and do they share a sense of belonging? If not, what can you do about it? How can you ensure inclusion in a way that meets their reasonable requests?

  • Can you cc more people on that email?
  • Can you adjust communication styles to ensure quiet staff can provide input differently?
  • Can team members (dyslexic or otherwise) give a verbal report or use speech-to-text?

If staff needs are met in the lower parts of Maslow’s pyramid, they will perform better, and begin to seek power and recognition, before finally becoming more self-actualised and thus much better at their job and as part of your team.

Layering neurodiversity into team building

Neurodivergent is a term used to cover many previously disparate terms about what we might call different work preferences and needs. It covers people diagnosed with autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyscalculia, and many more diverse ways of thinking, learning, or behaving. However, the supports offered to provide equity for neurodivergent team members will often also help neurotypicals (or undiagnosed neurodivergent), hence layering neurodiversity into team building, not just neurodivergent support.

The following are some of the work related challenges that can be faced by a neurodivergent staff member:

  • Smelly kitchen/ colleague meals
  • Room temperature uncomfortable
  • Worrying about the right time to smile
  • Getting up and organised for work
  • Click from an overhead light
  • Required clothes uncomfortable
  • Rejection sensitivity
  • Engaging in social chit chat
  • An overhead light is too bright/flickering
  • Focus required to read
  • Nerves or anxiety
  • Need to move instead of sitting still
  • Noise from others chatting distracts
  • Focus required to listen
  • Traffic or the commute
  • The smell of a colleague’s perfume

These challenges can add up quickly. Help your neurodivergent team members be their best by respecting their requests as far as practically possible.

Including neurodivergent support into your leadership style will also help staff members experiencing anxiety, home life stress, caring responsibilities, and even undiagnosed neurodivergence. By providing the support and flexibility outlined below your space will become safer, your staff will be more relaxed, and productivity will increase.

How do I build an inclusive team?

Cultural change towards inclusivity takes more than just words on a page. Inclusivity requires that every team member comes to value differences, reviews their patterns of thought and bias, and moves forward together with trust and psychological safety. To achieve this, you, as the leader, can set an example by:

Sharing your intent with the team

If you want to build and lead a team where everyone is welcome and feels safe to express their needs (and ideas!):

  1. Start by clarifying that to your team.
  2. Tell team members old and new that you want everyone to feel safe and welcome.
  3. Explain what you are doing (see below) to create such a space.
  4. Consider professional development training to help the team reflect on their biases and behaviours.

We are often limited to viewing the world as we have experienced it, but we can all expand our viewpoint, value the different lenses of others, and challenge ourselves to do better.

Holding curious and open conversations in safe spaces

Start conversations with all team members (because inclusivity is not limited to those who publicly identify as neurodivergent!), asking them what would help them bring their best every day. Get to know them as people. Build trust by not only hearing requests but acting on them. If a team member is brave enough to share with you that they would feel more productive if they could work from home, then trial it. Stop being caught in the status quo and start working with a new narrative about teamwork that meets your team’s needs.

Reducing and removing potential points of friction

Reducing friction might look like:

  1. Prioritising fixing a flickering light in the office or
  2. Setting an office rule limiting the length of meetings to one hour
  3. Having a difficult conversation with a team member who refuses to see beyond their bias.
  4. Offering all staff the option to work from home where practically possible.

Be led by your team and the points that arise in your curious and open conversations.

Creating a truly inclusive team takes commitment to ensuring all your team members’ physiological, social, and safety needs. Doing so you will create a space where you get increased productivity and job satisfaction from every member of your team, which is the goal of all good leaders. For more on how I can help you and your team with inclusive team building, please contact me, or review my workplace offerings.

Women with ADHD – Challenges and options

Image shows woman sitting at desk covered in books, swirls above her head, eyes down, glasses on.

Women, like myself, my clients, and more famously Em Rusciano and Hannah Gadsby, are reaching middle age, and finally discovering nothing is ‘wrong’; they are not a failure. There is a reason for the overwhelm they feel, that their friends do not. A reason that life can seem so hard. That reason is ADHD. Unfortunately, the path to diagnosis is rarely easy due to stereotypes of who has ADHD and how it presents itself.

Mention ADHD in most circles, and you will hear about young boys who can’t sit still, don’t focus, and struggle at school. We would now describe this as ‘hyperactive’ or ‘combination’ ADHD. However, women often present with slightly different ‘inattentive’ ADHD symptoms which can be much harder to see from the outside. As to how we define ADHD, I like the definition Solden and Frank use, describing ADHD as a genetic, chronic, brain-based condition that impacts the management functions of the brain, including:

  • Ability to activate yourself enough to begin a task,
  • Sustaining focus once you start a task, and
  • Sticking with it when your energy or interest wanes.[1]

Many of my clients can relate to this. However, many have learnt to show the outside world a different face in order to fit in. This ‘masking’ contributes to the difficulty in obtaining a diagnosis. Luckily, even while you await a diagnosis, or are unable to attain one, there are a few steps you can take to support yourself in managing your symptoms.

Why is it so hard for women with ADHD to get a diagnosis?

Women’s ADHD symptoms are different

Teachers and parents of a hyperactive young boy may remember a child who was constantly bouncing around, couldn’t sit still or would have been a high achiever if they only focussed. They may recall a loud child who was impulsive. Such traits often refuse to be ignored. This helps young boys get the correct diagnosis at an early age.

On the other hand, women and girls are often less hyperactive in their ADHD. Instead, they may experience challenges sustaining attention, following through on larger tasks, and organising themselves on tasks and activities. They might be easily distracted and avoid or dislike tasks that require sustained mental effort. Unless clearly ‘off with the fairies’, these traits can be much more complex for the outside world to see, especially if a girl or woman has learnt to mask them.

 

Masking

Masking is a coping skill that many of my clients have learned, either consciously or inadvertently, through life experiences, to ensure they appear normal. They may only be able to keep it on for limited periods, like work or school, or they may have adopted it so strongly that not even their immediate family know the difference anymore. Some of these learned behaviours can be helpful, but they can also come with an energy cost that takes a toll at the end of the day. Masking can include:

  • Mimicking or copying others
  • Consciously suppressing more obvious movements, but the desire will remain
  • Learning to react the way society expects rather than as you feel
  • Withdrawing inward and being overly careful about everything you say
  • Perfectionism or obsessively checking and organisation
  • Overcompensating to appear in control, even if struggling

These strategies may have kept us from being socially cast out, but they can often leave women with depression or anxiety because it is so difficult to hide or because it delays a diagnosis that may provide healthy support for moving forward.

 

The impacts of a delayed diagnosis

“We diagnose ADHD based on the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria, which requires evidence of ADHD prior to the age of 12 as it is a neurodevelopmental disorder. Without this evidence we are unable to provide a diagnosis of ADHD.”

– an all too common response from medical professionals and diagnostic clinics.

The DSM-5 (the rule book for mental health diagnosis) classifies ADHD as a ‘Child Mental Disorder’ and requires evidence of the ‘disorder’ prior to 12 years of age.

Often it is not until women have children of their own that the scaffolds that supported them, school routines, work routines, masking and checklists, cease to be enough. These women can end up diagnosed with depression or anxiety, when really, they are overwhelmed with executive functioning challenges. Sometimes, the diagnosis of a child prompts a woman to investigate her own symptoms. (Not that having children is the only reason midlife can prompt diagnosis.)

By this time parents and those who ‘knew us when we were younger’ may have passed on, left our lives, or simply not be able to recall the details necessary to see through younger masks and assist with diagnosis. For some of us, we won’t even remember ourselves.

 

What can you do if you think you have symptoms of ADHD?

Know your support network

Being diagnosed with ADHD as a woman can be challenging, long and expensive. I wish it were otherwise. It really helps if you have one or two people in your corner that you can talk to about what is happening so that you know you are not alone. Try and find that person in your network who has been there themselves, or the close friend or family member who always has your back no matter what, and don’t be afraid to be honest with them about your journey. Having support will make it so much easier for you.

Talk to your GP

In Australia, your GP will usually run through a few questions to determine whether you have enough symptoms to warrant a referral to a psychologist or a psychiatrist for a potential diagnosis.

Whilst GPs are getting better at understanding the nuances of women with ADHD and how we may present, some are still hesitant to make the referral. If you feel strongly that you may have ADHD seek a second opinion. Remember, at this point, all you are doing is asking for a referral to a specialist who can assist with your symptoms whether it’s ADHD or something else. Once you have a referral, your specialist will advise their diagnosis process as these may differ.

Help yourself

While you wait to see the specialist or find the GP who understands you, while you save the money or even if you receive a negative result after testing, you can take some matters into your own hands.

Many ADHD resources are available to support women with symptoms, including podcasts, books, YouTube videos and websites. You may also find a counsellor or coach (like myself), who cannot medically diagnose you, but has more immediate availability to work with you to put in place systems and plans to help manage your symptoms (regardless of their cause).

After all, the diagnosis is only part of the process. What we are all really after is an easier life, and a little understanding. Understanding yourself and supporting yourself just as you are can be done without diagnosis so don’t be afraid to start now.

[1] Solden, Sari & Frank, Michelle, A radical guide for women with ADHD, 2019, New Harbinger Publications.

How to Have a Happy Family

My passion is to support families, and the individuals within them, by equipping them to connect, communicate and have fun together.

Families of all shapes and sizes struggle with the same fundamental issues of different agendas, standards and expectations. Every member of your family may need something entirely different to the rest, especially in families with neurodiverse members who can often struggle to feel a sense of belonging. 

Embracing the values that make your family unique by learning to connect (or reconnect) through communication, compromise and prioritising relationships within the family can take your family from stress to a place of family joy and happiness.

Communication

One of the first steps towards healthy family communication is mastering the I-message (not the phone variety!). This starts with recognising the problem is not the person you are speaking to, but rather their actions and how they impact you.

I-messages are a simple form of communication that are particularly helpful in conflict situations, or encouraging children to adjust behaviour without punishment. I-messages comprise three parts:

  1. A non-blameful/non-judgemental description of the child’s (or adult’s) behaviour
  2. How you feel about the behaviour
  3. The impact or cost to you or some other person

E.g. When you twirl around in the lounge room, I feel worried because you may hit the television and we cannot afford a new one. If it broke, none of us could enjoy the shows we wanted to watch.

Using these I-messages, instead of blaming with ‘you-messages’, we explain to the other member of our family (yes, this works with adults too!) how their actions impact us. If it doesn’t work in the first instance, actively listen to their point of view or needs, then move towards a solution that works for both parties.

No Lose Method – Compromise!

Traditional (or might I say old fashioned?) family models focus on parental discipline and child obedience. This win-lose conflict resolution style may compel behaviour choices in the immediate, but it seldom influences values and choices next time. Unfortunately, this parent wins/child loses parenting style often leads to children who resent their parents.

The opposite style of conflict resolution, where child wins/parent loses, is similarly ineffective, as it leads to parents resenting children (yes, it happens) and children who become selfish and inconsiderate.

The trick to having a happy family is to compromise and you meet the needs of both parties by finding a solution that is acceptable to both. In so many cases, between adult members or between adult and child, the act of both offering a solution, discussing and then actioning a win-win option can bring you closer together.

E.g. When a child wants to twirl, and an adult wants to keep the TV safe, the Child can twirl outside or in their room.

Put the Relationship First

I know from personal experience that shifting family dynamics is challenging, and long-held behaviour patterns are particularly so. But I also know it is worth the effort. Many of us parent as we were brought up ourselves and have to unlearn before moving forward. It helps if you focus on the end goal.

You are reading this because you value your family. You want to know the secret ingredient to have a happy family. I’m here to tell you that the secret is to prioritise your family relationships. Once you have done so, the changes and shift in dynamics will seem easier, and your neurodiverse family will become the happy family you want it to be.

If you would like to learn more about how you can have your own happy family, I invite you to join me at my FREE Recharge Family Joy Sessions with Wendy Marman. In Canberra on Wednesday 16, 23 & 30 March from 7:30 – 9:00 pm at Western Community Hub (also available live online).

Christmas Tips for Neurodiverse Families

There are three simple rules I keep coming back to. I recommend them to my clients and I try to remember them myself. They are essential for neurodiverse families at this holiday time of the year. So my Christmas Tips are similar to my everyday life tips.

1. You know your family best.
2. You are your neurodiverse child’s best advocate.
3. Keep your own cup full to benefit your whole family.

The pressure of Christmas expectations, long summer holidays, visiting family or friends that may not know your child as well all deplete your child’s energy bank. This is especially true of neurodiverse children. My Christmas tips help my family and many of my clients.

You Know Your Family Best

Many families experience the challenges of different personalities and often unwanted parenting advice over the holiday period. For families with neurodiverse members, including autism, ADHD or any number of diagnoses, the judgements from these large gatherings can be painful and lead to meltdowns or confrontations. There is no one solution here, but I want to remind you to trust your instincts.

You know your family best. Even if you don’t have a solution all the time or an easy way to avoid triggers as they change. Trust your instinct as a parent.

Perhaps you think it would help if you stayed in a hotel rather than with family, so there is a quiet place at the end of the day where your autistic child can recharge. Maybe you realise that the sugar for Christmas Breakfast triggers ADHD reactions in your child and can offer to cook up a savoury special for everyone instead.

Planning ahead and listening to your inner voice will help your child have a neurodiverse friendly Christmas that everyone will enjoy.

You Are Your Childs Best Advocate

Advocating can be difficult, but it is also rewarding. As parents of neurodiverse children, we get used to advocating on their behalf to schools and other child based activity groups. It’s much harder at Christmas when it becomes our job to advocate for our child to our parents or grandparents, even to our crazy Aunt who cannot understand difference at all.

I have been there. I have chastised my child for behaviour when I should have been more empathic. I have chastised my child for behaviour when I should have chastised the other party for disrespecting my child. And I have felt guilty later. So have many of the parents I work with.

You may experience a moment of discomfort respectfully explaining to your parents/or other awkward family members that you are taking your child for a quiet walk instead of punishing them.

For your child, this could become the most significant part of their holiday. Knowing you had their back. Others will have to get used to modern parenting and respecting children too.

Keep Your Cup Full To Benefit The Whole Family

I have spoken about this before and will likely again because it’s so important. It can be challenging to advocate for your child to other family members or pre-empt meltdowns or confrontations. It may feel like I am asking too much of you, and it is adding more worry. Please love yourself more than this. I want you to feel empowered, capable and to know that it is ok to make mistakes!

You will be more capable, more empowered, and more forgiving of yourself if you fill your cup too. If you love Christmas with your family, then go forth and enjoy. However, if it is a day filled with arguments and judgement that depletes both you and your neurodiverse child, can you alternate years? Spend the alternate on holiday at the beach filling your cup?

If you can look after yourself as a parent, you will better advocate and smooth the path for your child. Neurodiverse or not.

Christmas tips take away: take that bubble bath on Christmas Eve, limit your time with family members who wind you up, or take a long walk before you see them. What you need is important too.

Sending you peace, love and joy this festive season.

Patricia

Preparing for High School on the Spectrum

The key is early and ongoing communication

Starting High School is a big change for all students. For our neurodiverse children, this change can be magnified and have a much greater, often negative, impact. Anxiety, sensory overload, reduction in structure and reduced 1:1 support for our children can be significant challenges.

The key to successful transition is communication and preparation. By working with your child’s High School as their Primary School draws to a close for the year, both student and school will be in a better place to prepare. Preparation and understanding reduce student anxiety and set in place support and structure.

Communicating effectively with High Schools as a parent can also be a new experience as there is no longer one classroom teacher who knows your child well. But it is possible, and it can be a positive experience.

Be Prepared and Informed

Before you begin to consider transition to High School it is helpful to take a good look at where your child is now. If it has been a while since your last conversation with their classroom teacher, start by setting aside a time for a discussion with them. Talk openly about your own observations and ask theirs. Try to put together the best picture of your child as they are right now.

The ACT is fortunate to have a small number of public schools dedicated to working with significantly impacted neurodiverse (and intellectually disabled) children. Including Woden School and Black Mountain School for students in year 7-12. Many other High Schools, including Canberra High School have a Learning Support Unit dedicated to catering for each students unique needs. This can include structured learning or social skills requirements. These are not necessary for most neurodiverse students but may be worth considering if you feel your child may benefit.

The first step to a smooth transition to High School is to know the options available. Then either choose your school accordingly or use that knowledge to start the conversation at your chosen High School.

Communicating (and Advocating) with High School

Regardless of formal options available, or which High School your child attends, the school, and its teachers, will want your child to succeed as much as you do. Most teachers will happily make accommodations where possible to ensure the success of a student.

Start by contacting the school administration and asking who the best person is to speak to, and how to make an appointment with them. Take in your questions, your observations of your child and any requests or ideas you have that may assist your child. You might consider my earlier Top Tips:
  • Arrange as many transition visits as possible to orient your child
  • Request a sample copy of the year 7 timetable and a school map. Use these to start discussions with your child about how to use them to their advantage
  • Ask for a final copy of your child’s actual timetable as early as possible so you can work through it with your child and demystify before the first day.
  • Request a peer support older child that your child can meet and be mentored by. Knowing a familiar and experienced peer who is there for them can be an enormous help in the early days.

Be sure to leave that meeting with a firm idea of what supports will be provided, or what the next steps are. You may need to wait until Timetables are finalised or class lists complete. But you should know when your next meeting is, or what supports will be put in place. Some questions to consider are:

  • Will you provide this information to each of my child’s teachers?
  • Will my child have a home room teacher who is responsible for their wellbeing?
  • Where should my child go on day 1?
  • What policies do you have in place to ensure my child does not fall behind?
  • Who do I contact if we are having difficulties either learning or socially at school?

Need More Help Transitioning Your Neurodiverse Student from Primary School to High School?

The earlier you begin these conversations, the better the outcomes for you and your child. More notice means more capacity within the school system to accommodate early requests for timetables or setting up of transition visits and mentoring relationships.

If you are finding the conversations difficult, or not feeling comfortable with how they are progressing, please give me a call. I can liaise either on your behalf or with you and your child to ensure the best possible outcome for this often challenging transition period.

And remember: Some neurodiverse students thrive in High School. With more control of their own study habits, new friends who understand them as they are or the opportunity to select subjects that match their passions, High School can be the making of some neurodiverse students as they develop into the wonderful young adults we know they will be!

Support your neurodiverse child as they resume Face to Face Learning

For neurodiverse children dependant on routine for security, returning to Face to Face learning may feel like a new routine, which may undermine their sense of security and comfort. Even those excited to return to school may find themselves quickly overwhelmed, just as some adults will be in returning to work.

Now is the time for practicing compassion. Compassion for your child and compassion for yourself. Just like oxygen masks on aeroplanes, it is just as important to look after yourself first, so you can be there for your child when they need you. Take it gently, accept your child (and yourself) where you are, and consider using an energy accounting practice to keep all your cups full.

Take it gently – triggers may be there even if they don’t articulate it

Children through to early high school often lack the emotional intelligence, regulation or even the language to fully identify how they are feeling and why. It is up to us as parents to step back and observe or ask the questions. Without your child realising it, their anxiety triggers and stressors may be present in their lives again.

For many students it has been 11 weeks since they last saw their friends or had to engage socially in a classroom. Maybe their day is more tiring now, maybe the class bully is back in their life, maybe it just takes too much effort to follow instructions all day in a noisy classroom. Every day may be different, and the best support you can provide is to accept your child where they are now.

Accept your child where they are now

When children feel truly accepted, they are freed to move forward and think about how they might want to change.

In the days and weeks to come there will be (as there always are) good days and bad days for your child at school. Actively listening, through empathic reflection of their words and feelings, will allow your child a safe space to express themselves. It is important during this period of change that your child is heard and accepted in any of their feelings.

By accepting your child exactly as they are each day, you will be able to provide them compassionate support, that meets them where they are in any given moment. Don’t plan too much in the diary, don’t race back into everything all at once, take it day by day. One way to gently identify where your child is at on a given day is to use a system of energy accounting.

Energy Accounting – building back up after a day of deficit 

A system of reflecting on and keeping track of the things that have drained or increased personal energy during the day.

Energy accounting is a simple way of reflecting over a day (or planning a day), where energy is treated like a bank balance. Withdrawals are activities that reduce personal energy levels. This might include making a mistake, being teased or an unpredicted change. Deposits are positive activities that increase personal energy levels. For children this often includes time on iPad, ice cream after dinner or an enjoyable play with friends. Not all energy impacts equally so each deposit or withdrawal is given a value between 1-100 that is relevant to your child. This method assists communication between you and your child and allows for adjustments to be made when you can see or know in advance that deficit is likely.

Energy accounting is a great way to support yourself too. By making sure that you are putting into your energy supplies too you can better be there for your child. Review the activities in your own day that fill or deplete your energy books. Take some time out to enjoy a coffee with friends, prioritise going to the gym or let everyone know Sunday morning is me time for running a long hot bath. Parents needs are important too and by looking after yourself you not only provide a good example for your child, but you are also better placed to support them in the here and now.

Small steps are ok

Both parents and children should remember that it is ok if you need to take a day off school for mental health improvement. It is ok if your child doesn’t want to play with friends on weekends yet. It is ok if you are also tired as a parent and need to relax more, take a day off work, or remain quiet on weekends. Small steps back towards a new normal for 2022 are all that is needed of any of us right now as we wind down the school year.

Take care of yourselves and your families at this time.

Send me an email if I can be of any assistance to you.

Patricia

NOTE: All transitions can be a challenge for students, particularly neurodiverse students. If your child is starting High School next year, you may also like to read my article on Transitioning to High School

Life skills series: Part one cooking with your special needs child

At Social Living Solutions, we are all about helping your child meet his or her potential.  Coming up over the next few months is a series of helpful blogs centred around life skills that will help your child to flourish.  Today I am going to talk about the essential life skill of cooking.

Love it or loathe it, cooking is a necessary life skill to survive.  Apart from it’s obvious necessity, let’s look at the benefits of cooking for our special needs children; and the skills and benefits it can provide them with.

Using the example of a simple task such as baking a batch of biscuits, I will demonstrate how we can teach and provide children with many life skills.

When you have jointly decided which recipe to make, assist the child to check through the pantry and the fridge to determine which ingredients they already have in the home, and which ingredients need to be purchased from the supermarket.  The next step would be to construct a shopping list together.

This simple straight forward task assists with executive functioning as it requires planning and forward thinking.  It also assists with working memory, as the child is using their immediate conscious and perceptual memory and linguistic processing.

Then plan two things in collaboration with the child: plan when would be a good day and time to bake or cook the recipe, depending, if it is a family meal or a baked item.  Also plan what would be a good day and time to go to the supermarket to purchase the missing items.

The next step is the trip to the supermarket.  I ask the parent/carer to be available at the supermarket but not to find the required items for the child.  Instead, I ask them to assist the child in negotiating to find their way around the supermarket and locating the required items.

This again assists with executive functioning, and working memory but also helps with slow processing, growing self-esteem, confidence and independence.  After several visits like this to the supermarket, the child will eventually be able to negotiate the supermarket independently and confidently.

Another step in this process is to teach the child to examine the price of the items and ascertain which item by weight, volume and price is the best value for money.  Here we are teaching them the value of money and to consider the parameters of working within a budget.  We are also incorporating math principles in this exercise.  Again, we are using executive functioning, working memory and processing speed as they are having to plan the best value for money, and think about working within a budget.

I ensure that the parent/carer provides the child with cash to purchase the items as I want them to understand the value of money as well as the concept of change. I encourage the parent/carer to assist the child in working out what the amount of change will be, prior to receiving it.

This transaction also is an excellent opportunity to teach the child the social skills involved in having to interact with a complete stranger whilst purchasing the items.

Following on from this experience the child then cooks or bakes the recipe.  Whilst cooking or baking, a variety of life and math skills are addressed.  The child may have to weigh out or measure ingredients.  They may have to use their fine and gross motor skills to cut items up and mix them together.  They will also have to utilise their fine motor skills when stirring ingredients in a pot or cake mixer.  This is also fantastic opportunity to teach them the considerations around using a hot stove or a hot oven.

Naturally, they are also learning the valuable life skill of cooking.  When they have completed cooking, or baking the item they will feel a real sense of accomplishment.  They have been able to successfully produce the dish and/or baked goods.  This will enhance their self-confidence and belief in their own abilities and belief that they can accomplish new and complex tasks.

In conclusion, the life skill of cooking has wonderful benefits, and helps develop important skills for your special needs child that most of us take for granted – planning and preparing a meal.  If you would like more information about how I can assist and support your family, with this life skill or any other issues then please email me at jpnfalcetta@gmail.com.

Transitioning to high school – My top 5 tips to support your special needs child:

Many of you will be becoming increasingly aware of how to best assist your child to transition from Year 6 into Year 7 and the different challenges associated with this major transition time.

Parents often get in contact with me at this stage of their child’s lives to assist and put different strategies in place as to how to best support and guide their child in this daunting transition phase of their lives.

 

So, I thought I would share with you “My top five tips” for children of varying special need transitioning for primary school to first year high school:

 

  • Familiarity – It is important that your child is able to gain as much familiarity of his/her new school as possible. Arrange as many transition visits to the new school as possible. If you attend a transition visit with your child, video the school and the new surroundings. Make sure you video classrooms, toilets, lockers, canteen, playground areas, any oval or PE areas and the library. This way your child can then watch the video as much as he or she needs.
  • Ask the school to provide you with a sample Year 7 timetable. This way you can familiarise your child with the concept of timetables, having subjects at different times, having multiple teachers and changing rooms.
  • Find out if the school has a map with all the different classroom numbers, and if not consider making one. This is to assist when going through the transition visits and timetable your child can then work out the best way to navigate around the school and to get to classes.
  • Ask the school to provide your child’s new timetable at least two weeks prior to the new school year commencing. Upon receiving the new timetable colour code each subject on the timetable with a highlighter colour.  You can then purchase specific colour coded folders whereby the colour of the folder corresponds with the colour of the subject.  Your child can then keep text books and materials for the specific subject in the folder, so then they can obtain the specific folder out of their locker for the next subjects without having to find text books etc.
  • Ask the school whether they can implement a specific peer support person for your child. Another boy or girl in an older year who can take on the role of being both a mentor and contact point for your child.  This is to assist against any bullying that may start, and provides a familiar person as a reference point and stability for your child.

 

In addition, it is also good to implement checklists and timetables for the mornings and afternoons to ensure homework is well understood and completed.  If a child has impaired executive functioning and poor working memory this will really come into play in the high school years.  These checklists really do become imperative.

 

These are just some of the tools and skills that I can assist your special needs child with at this very important stage of their life. If you would like more information about how I can assist and support your child as they transition into high school and navigate their way through the crucial first few months then please email me at jpnfalcetta@gmail.com or you can find out more at https://sociallivingsolutions.com.au/ where you can get in contact with me and book an appointment.