Michele Portlock is a wife and mother to four neurodivergent children. Both Michele and her husband consider themselves neurodivergent as well, as both have a recent ADHD diagnosis. Michele’s children have a variety of diagnoses which include but are not limited to autism, ADHD, and dyslexia. Michele is the founder of Navigating the Spectrum, LLC and she deeply enjoys the work she does which includes coaching parents in areas such as executive functioning skills, meaningful resources for neurodivergent children, meeting the various daily needs of neurodivergent children, and IEP coaching.
While the church teaches that we should be inclusive of others, implementing that acceptance and inclusion on a more interpersonal level can be challenging. These are my three biggest takeaways from my own learned experiences in general and specifically with those who are neurodivergent.
- Focus on being a listener.
- Focus on being an observer.
- Focus on Loving.
Connection Before Correction
Focus on being a listener.
I often see leaders get caught up in advising and guiding, which can be meaningful avenues, however, when an individual comes to you to express concerns or feelings regarding their unique experiences, the most effective tool is simply to listen.
The goal of listening is to truly understand what the person is experiencing as opposed to focusing on a response. It’s a beautiful thing when a person can walk away from an interaction and say, “I feel understood.” As opposed to, “They gave me lots of advice.” The idea that connection comes before correction rings true here.
When we are listening to the unique needs of an individual, we will not always have the “right” words to say and this can feel uncomfortable. It’s okay to experience discomfort. Growth often stems from places of discomfort. It allows us to examine where our discomfort comes from. We might question:
- Did I overstep?
- Is the topic discussed outside my comfort zone?
- How can I resolve this discomfort within myself?
- If my discomfort has no immediate resolution, can I sit with it?
When we choose to first regulate our emotions rather than act on them, we allow the other person’s needs to take priority. This is important because listening helps create a culture of trust.
Clear Communication is Kind Communication
Focus on being an observer. Pay attention to what is being said through body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. These are powerful methods of communication in addition to spoken words. Learn to feel where they are actually hurting. It takes practice, but as President Nelson has said so perfectly,
“The Lord loves effort”
Our oldest child would often message me or my husband during her second hour of class at church. We would receive texts full of frustration and sometimes anger.
“I hate this class?”
“Can I please go home?
“I don’t want to be here.”
What she was expressing were feelings of isolation and being misunderstood by her peers. Hurt was the underlying issue.
Our daughter is autistic which led to her peers finding her odd. One of her young women’s leaders noticed that she was feeling isolated and began to invite our daughter to movies and game nights and shopping at mall. This leader’s observations and action changed the way our daughter viewed attending church. Even though she felt disconnected from her peers, she continued to attend church because of the connection she felt with this leader. The action based on observation changed our daughter’s church experience and helped to build her self-worth.
Part of being an observer is also knowing how to respond effectively. When communicating with someone who is neurodivergent, particularly autistic, speak to the person directly and respectfully. Give specific, clear, and complete instructions. Say exactly what you mean. Clear communication is kind communication and that stems from being an observer.
Love Them Where They Are
Focus on loving.
Love without the need for personal validation. We may not align with another’s thought processes or personal choices, but we can love them right where they are and accept that our thoughts and experiences differ from theirs. We can meet others with patience and love as opposed to judgement from misunderstanding. We can love people when we understand them.
Neurodivergent brains are unique in many ways. Often this means stating the obvious because it just makes sense, as opposed to reading the room and commenting according to social norms.
It’s the Irish goodbye because any other goodbye is just drawn out and unnecessary. (The Irish goodbye is just quietly leaving a social setting without saying goodbye.) A neurodivergent brain puts task completion before personal connection. It prioritizes task completion and schedule adherence over what others may deem as more important.
When we not only understand but love these differences, we can also better know how to include neurodivergent individuals.
As an example, when my same daughter was called into the young women’s presidency as a youth, she was given a new and specific calling as the note taker for all meetings. She absolutely crushed it. Her notes were color coordinated, dated and clearly organized. This calling helped her to feel more included and accepted while also bringing value to her presidency. The leadership specifically chose our daughter for this calling based on her strengths and skill sets.
We can learn to lean into another person’s strengths as opposed to trying to change them to meet our own needs. This is what loving someone for who they are really means. In Ephesians 5:2 we read,
“And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us.”
God is telling us to walk continually in love by valuing one another through the practice of empathy and compassion. And in doing so, we are seeking the best for others. When we put ourselves in the shoes of another, we are increasing our own capacity to love as the Savior loved. To build an environment of inclusion and acceptance. It is through love that we begin to see ourselves and others more clearly.
By applying these three simple principles, we can better understand how to show up for neurodivergent children and adults in a meaningful and respectful way.