By: Laura Petix, MS OTR/LEPISODE 31

I’ve been getting a lot of requests lately from parents who are having a hard time explaining their child’s neurodivergent brain to family members or friends. 

You have that family party or barbecue to go to, and you’re dreading the stares, the looks, the unsolicited advice when they see your child not eat anything at the party, or when they have the meltdown about too many sounds, or when they tell you you’re spoiling your kid by letting them do whatever they want. 

So people ask me, what can you say and how can you say it so they can better understand your child better?

One thing to think about

Here’s one reminder for you. Not all family members are ready to hear the details and intricacies of how your child’s brain works. Some of them aren’t ready for it, some of them may not care to be quite honest, but I’ll bet it’s the fact that they may not be ready for it.

Especially for grandparents or close relatives, they may still be in denial or disbelief that there is anything “wrong” with your child, because they may not realize that being neurodivergent means different, not less than.

Luckily, I never have to have these conversations with family or friends, because they follow me on instagram 🙂 but I coach many clients through this exact scenario, helping them prep “scripts” for talking to family about their child’s neurodiversity, particularly their sensory or emotional regulation challenges.

Having “the talk” with your family or friends (5 things to say)

My first tip is to send either an email or text to open up the conversation, this needs to happen before the event, the party, the vacation.

You can definitely do this over a phone call or zoom call or in person if you see them before the event, but if you’re anything like me… written word is where I feel most confident in these sort of confrontational type conversations.

  1. I would start out by acknowledging THEIR own feelings about your child’s outbursts, meltdowns, challenges, etc.

 2. Then mention how you’re working on this at home, maybe with an OT or with the school to support your child through this.

3. Then you’re going to give them very clear examples of how they can help you and your child when they notice/see/witness one of these “episodes”.

4. End it with an acknowledgement of your appreciation for their care of your child.

5. (Optional) Offer a separate opportunity to discuss more if they want to learn more about it. 

Example script to send to family

So let’s apply this to a specific example.

Let’s say you’re child is a picky eater and everytime you go to a family party, your siblings and mom keep poking at you and your child for how he never tries any of the food and how you always bring food from home for him. So send an email to your mom that sounds something like this. 

“Hi Mom! I’m getting so excited for your party this weekend! I wanted to send you a quick note about Ethan. I know it’s really hard for you and everyone to see him struggle with food. I know how important sharing your recipes with him is and you just want him to taste it and love it like we all do. As you know, Ethan goes to OT every week and we are working on him adding new foods at home, it’s a slow and steady process, but he’s doing so well!

[Here’s the part where you give them examples of how they can help you]. I’m writing you because I wanted to let you know how you can help me help Ethan feel comfortable at the party. To make sure Ethan is regulated and able to make it the duration of the party without having a meltdown, I need to make sure he is full and has safe foods, so I will be bringing his favorite meal there. It would be most helpful to both of us if no extra attention or comments are made to him or about him when he eats his meal. Instead, you could ask him about his favorite show, Daniel Tiger, or ask him about school. I want him to feel comfortable eating at the table with the rest of the family, rather than hiding in the room to eat his meal. 

[Here’s where you end it on a positive] I know Ethan loves spending so much time with you at your house and thank you for always wanting the best for him. If you’re ever interested in learning more about how his brain works, let me know, I’m always up for a chat. “

And that’s it! Hopefully the response you get is more supportive rather than critical. You’d obviously put in the own details of your scenario, but just be clear with what exactly it is you need from them to support your child, be explicit about what you need and try to offer them something TO DO rather than just saying “don’t do this don’t do that”. 

So if your child has meltdowns, say something about them giving you space or letting you take the lead, vs just saying “Don’t look at us, don’t ask to help, don’t get involved”. Etc. 

How to explain SPD and neurodiversity

Now, let’s say they take you up on that offer and want to learn more about your child’s sensory needs and how their brain works. Great! That’s awesome! Here are some tips for talking to family members and friends about SPD.

One quick tip that is easy to explain it all is using the sensory cup analogy.

 If you have a child who is sensory sensitive, they have a small sensory cup, and it gets overflowed very easily by a lot of input, or a certain input.When their cup overflows, this is indicative of a sensory meltdown, or dysregulation.

 would tell your family very specific behaviors you see your child doing. E.g. “When you see Ethan’s body flop on the ground and see him having a meltdown at the party, it’s usually because his sensory cup is just too full, from sounds, sights, foods. It’s not about him being bad, it’s his brain and nervous system feeling stressed”.

For a sensory seeker, you would talk about them having a really large sensory cup, with holes in it, so it is really hard for their cup to be full.

When there is an empty cup, they can also be dysregulated. Again, I would talk about it in behavioral terms that they would recognize. For example, “When you see Ethan moving really fast, bumping into people, stomping around the house instead of walking, it’s not because he’s being bad, it’s because he has a huge sensory cup and doesn’t notice how hard he’s stomping and he needs more movement and feedback from the environment to feel good in his body”. 

You could include other details like talking about how their body looks like when they’re dysregulated and talk about how certain movements, actions, sounds, fidgets make their body feel calm. 

I would stress to them 2 things:

  1. Being neurodivergent doesn’t mean bad or wrong.
  2. Your child is not bad, they process the world and learn and communicate differently, and it’s not their job to make us feel comfortable, it’s our job to accommodate and let them know they’re loved no matter what. 

Oh, and here’s my definition of how I talk about neurodivergent:

Humans as a species are considered neurodiverse. Neuro means neurons (which are the wires in our brains) and diverse means different.

We all have differently wired brains and we all process the world, learn, behave and communicate differently and in our own ways. However, within the human species, there is a more common, typical pattern of brain wiring that follows a certain sequence and predictable pattern in development, we consider this pattern of brain wiring to be called neurotypical.

There are other people who have brain patterns that diverge even more than the regular variety of brain wiring, and they may communicate differently, they may behave or learn differently, and they’re called neurodivergent. Neurodivergent brains can include people with SPD, Anxiety, OCD, Autism, ADHD, and so many more cognitive and developmental diagnoses. So again, we are a neurodiverse species.

We celebrate the fact that EVERYONE has a different brain, we celebrate neurodiversity. I am neurotypical, my daughter is neurodivergent. 

Looking for more guidance on how you can support your child’s sensory needs? Let’s work together. I specialize in helping parents understand how sensory impacts behavior and how you can still use gentle parenting techniques for neurodivergent children.

Learn how to look at behavior through an OT lens and start decoding your child’s behavior into sensory and non sensory triggers, so you can start supporting them more effectively. Check out the Sensory IS Behavior mini course.

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Laura Petix, MS OTR/L

I’m an enneagram 6, so my brain is constantly moving. My OT lenses never turn off and I can’t “un-see” the sensory and other developmental skills that go in to literally every activity. I love taking what I see and breaking it down into simple terms so parents can understand what goes into their child’s behavior and skills.

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