If you're the parent of a child with autism or intellectual disability, you have likely pondered (and pondered) what it means to have brain differences. Psychiatrist Gail Saltz, M.D., has written a a book about that: The Power of Different. In it, she examines so-called brain "problems" including learning disabilities, autism, ADD, depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder and demonstrates how they can be directly associated with the potential for great talent. In fact, the glorious diversity of the human mind makes the world a better place, she posits, and we'd do well to work with what's there rather than reshaping it. Disorder? No! Vive la différence? Yes!! Here, Dr. Saltz weighs in on explaining brain differences.
How do you explain your child's brain differences to him?
Even a child aged 5 to 10 can tell that they are perhaps struggling with something that other children their age are not. So explain to your child that everyone has things they struggle with, and things that they are better at. "We all have different kinds of minds," you can say. "Some minds are great at reading, some are great music, art, making new friends and understanding how other people feel. There are so many different areas that one might find more difficult and others that they might excel in.
"Every person's job, and the job of their parents, is to understand their own brain and to identify and help them with areas which are a struggle while at the same time try lots of different stuff to figure out what they are good at—and perhaps even like—so they can develop those things. So, for example, you may say we know that your brain difference means reading is really difficult for you, and we get you extra help to keep that from preventing you from doing things you want to do like like participate in school. But we also see that you are very good at puzzles/organizing/building Legos and that is a strength we want to help you develop and enjoy."
For older children, in addition to the same message, its helpful to point out that as many as half of all people will struggle with a difference at some point or another, meaning different isn’t entirely different. Teens are particularly focused on their identity and fitting in with their peers, so it's an especially difficult time to be feeling different. So in addition to discussing how everyone has strengths and weaknesses and identifying theirs, you might make extra efforts towards opportunities to find peers who struggle with similar issues. Again, though, even within this kind of peer group they will still be able to see there is variation in peoples strengths and weaknesses.
What do you say to a child's siblings about his brain differences?
It is just as important for siblings to understand that due to brain differences which are wired in, their sister or brother may be unable to do some things, but really be able to do others. Siblings tend to struggle with guilt (Why did it happen to them but not to me?) and concern that their sib gets all the attention because they need it. Explaining that each of them have weaknesses you will tend to that are nobody’s fault, due to brain differences, and strengths that you hope to encourage is a good start.
You can guide a sib in terms of ways that they can connect with their brother or sister via the strengths you can identify. Explain to your child that the brain is an organ and like any organ, when something that changes functioning happens, it can limit doing things they may take for granted such as making friends easily, playing a sport, managing a lot of commotion or explaining their feelings. Yet unlike other organs the brain is plastic and it can keep changing, which is why you get help for their brother or sister so they can learn new things. Give them these words so that when friends ask them what’s going on, they have a way to explain that is comfortable and doesn’t put down their sibling. For example: "Julia has a difference with his brain that makes talking to you really hard, but he is great at counting."
Sometimes relatives don’t get it because they don’t want to get it; they are avoiding what they perceive as upsetting. When you speak about a condition, it's most helpful to be clear about what it is with specific descriptions that relate to interactions your relatives have with your child. For example: "Alex has autism so making eye contact is difficult. He likes playing piano, though, and would enjoy showing you his music." Explain to relatives that this is not a matter of willfulness and willingness; this is about a brain difference, and that it's most helpful if family can be flexible about accommodations you might need at gatherings on your child's behalf.
And what do you say to teachers?
School systems are mostly designed the child with no issues, which is why you need to be your child’s advocate with individual teachers regarding both difficulties along with potential strengths. You'll want to share coping strategies you employ to manage weaknesses, and ask for their help in finding new ways to do that specific to school tasks. But perhaps more importantly, ask your teacher to help identify strengths and provide space and tasks at school that play to those strengths. Request ways to do projects that employ your child's strengths. For example, can they show a math concept by building a block model? Can they create a musical presentation that captures the way a book made them feel? You're simply helping the educator see that while your child has a brain difference that makes certain things difficult, there are areas of relative strength that you hope as a team to develop and encourage. You're helping her see that a brain difference in one arena does not affect every arena. There are different types of intelligence and aptitude, and each child deserves to find theirs.