Top Five Misconceptions of Neurodivergent Learners that I Wish Families Knew

By Jess Corinne
December 24, 2021

The holiday season is upon us—which means many of us will spend time with our immediate and extended family, whether in person or virtually. For neurodivergent learners, the holidays can present challenges: sensory overload, feelings of anxiety or being overwhelmed, social isolation…the list is practically endless. I sat down with Suchi Deshpande, Learnfully co-founder and a parent of two neurodivergent learners, in order to uncover all the ways we can embrace our learners’ needs during the holidays (and frankly, all year long). In this timely discussion, we went over many of the common misconceptions family members have regarding neurodiversity, and the impact these misunderstandings have on learners. We strategized about ways that we (as parents) and our loved ones can advocate for better awareness and acceptance for our neurodivergent children to allow them to become their authentic selves. 

Here are some of the notable misconceptions (along with their more reality-based counterparts) that we discussed and felt were important to pass on to our community:

When a family member expresses incredulity at a child’s diagnosis, e.g.“Matthew doesn’t act like he has ADHD.”” We know diagnoses are often invisible, and stereotypes are superficial. Assume your family member has the best intentions, and acknowledge them for making an effort even if their observations are incorrect or don’t tell the full story.
When a family member assumes a caregiver does not want to be asked how they are doing, e.g. “I’m sure you’re tired of being asked about Lexi’s dyslexia diagnosis.” It’s important to understand the human side of caregivers as well as their learners. We want to be heard and seen and feel supported. While we aren’t looking for sympathy or offhand solutions, it’s important to consider (and nice to know) that family members genuinely care and want the best for our children.
When a family member thinks every diagnosis falls into a cliche or stereotype, e.g. “Since Adam has autism, he’s super smart, right? Like the Rain Man?” As caregivers we know not to assume or draw conclusions based on a societal impression of a learning difference. It’s important to impart this understanding to well-meaning family members, and help guide them to ask the right questions to learn more about a child.
When a family member misinterprets a diagnosis as the result of poor parenting, e.g. “Sara needs discipline—she’s just being naughty and acting out because she wants attention.” We know that neurodivergent learners are processing what is often an overwhelming amount of sensory information and trying to cope the only way they know how. Emotional and behavioral regulation come with effort and practice, and family members need to understand that it takes many small steps to meet these big goals.
When a family member incorrectly believes learning differences are related to IQ, e.g. “Jonah seems really smart, why doesn’t he perform well in school?”. IQ has no correlation with the natural brain variations that result in learning differences. Parents and caregivers of neurodivergent kids know that they are sufficiently intelligent individuals, and that it takes repetition and consistency to build the underlying skills to help these learners succeed.

Caregivers of neurodivergent learners ultimately want what is best for their children, and it can sometimes feel like a tightrope act to balance this with the natural desire of their family to feel included. By leaning into this discomfort and airing potential misunderstandings with your family, you’ll set a course for them to embark in an honest discussion and orient them to better embrace your child for who they are. You’ll also be doing your part to debunk the many common misconceptions about neurodiversity and help our community evolve into a warmer and more welcoming support system. Try to release your preconceived notions. Instead, listen attentively to your family’s concerns and seek to understand their actions.  Do your best to afford every family member the level of involvement and understanding they need to accept your child and feel accepted themselves.

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