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Your Neurodiverse Child: A Collaborative Relationship Works

It’s important for kids to weigh in when helping them manage their ADHD.

Key points

  • Asking your child to describe their ADHD helps you understand your child’s behavior.
  • Brainstorm with your ADHD child to find solutions that work for them, not you.
  • A relationship based on collaboration and trust involves independent decision-making by our ADHD kids.
  • A strength-based approach to helping our ADHD kids can lead them on the path to success.

In our book Andrew's Awesome Adventures with His ADHD Brain, my son and I wanted to highlight some well-known individuals with ADHD. One of our favorites is scientist John B. Gurdon. When John was 15 years old, his biology teacher did not believe that John should become a scientist. The biology teacher wrote on John’s report card that he had trouble listening in class, did not complete his work, and struggled to learn simple facts. Despite the comments from his teacher, in 2012, Gurdon won the Nobel Prize for his research. Maybe if that biology teacher understood the underlying cause of young John’s behavior, Gurdon would have been able to demonstrate his potential. ADHD makes it difficult to show what you know if your environment doesn’t set you up for success. What can we do as caretakers to create an environment where our ADHD kids can thrive?

Ask your child what it’s like to have ADHD

So far, there are 25 possible genes associated with ADHD and each person may only express four or five, making ADHD symptomology highly variable. Even if you are a parent with ADHD, you may not have the same difficulties as your ADHD son or daughter. If you are a parent without ADHD, understanding your child’s behaviors will be even more of a challenge.

When my son was in middle school it dawned on me that I had no idea what it was like to pay attention to everything all the time. Our brains are constantly bombarded with incoming information from the world around us and can process the amount of information equivalent to watching 16 movies every day. Can you imagine if your brain didn’t weed out the irrelevant information so you could pay attention to what’s important? When I asked my son what it was like to have ADHD, his response was eye-opening. He described his brain as an overstuffed garbage can with a lid that doesn’t stay on, and everything is falling out all over the floor. This was the first step to understanding my son and helping him manage his ADHD.

Let go of how you think something should be done and ask your child for their input

Recently my son and I spoke to a parent group about our experiences with his ADHD. My son chose the title for the session: Doing It My Way With ADHD. He wanted to focus on the importance of understanding that what works for neurotypical individuals may not work for neurodiverse individuals, like those with ADHD. As caretakers of those with neurodiverse brains, we need to think outside the box (like they do) and steer clear of the majority rule mentality.

When I set out on the task of helping my son to become organized, I found out that my organization techniques didn’t work for an ADHD brain. I love my bins and baskets, however my son, on the other hand, is a throw-it-on-the-floor-table-or-countertop type of organizer. He also lives in a constant state of near-hoarding and doesn't want to get rid of anything, which presents another challenge to being organized. After several failed attempts to help my son, I realized I needed to enlist his help to find a solution that worked for him and not one that worked for me. Creating and maintaining an organizational system requires planning, knowing what needs to be organized and initiating that task, and finding a place for something based on how often it is used. These complex processes require working memory and are a challenge for an ADHD brain. I had to let go of my precise way of organizing, it was okay if he preferred to throw items into a few bins. Brainstorming together helped us to find a solution suited to my son’s unique way of thinking.

Your ADHD child can make decisions on their own

I admit it, I was a helicopter parent when it came to my ADHD son. Because he struggled daily with executive function deficits associated with his ADHD (planning, organizing, remembering, time management, emotional control), I felt that I had to be his replacement frontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for executive functions). However, once I started collaborating with my son, instead of just trying to do everything for him, our relationship became less stressful. It’s important to recognize how intuitive your child is about their ADHD, including their own strengths and weaknesses. This will help you gauge how much input to give your child when working on strategies to help them manage their ADHD.

My son and I worked together to create a contract when he was in high school to help him get his school assignments done on time. My son decided on most of the parameters (like what favorite activity he would lose for the week if his assignments weren’t turned in on time, and what day of the week I could check in with him to make sure he was staying on track). My part of the contract was one simple task, I wasn’t allowed to nag my son to complete his homework (super easy for a helicopter parent, yeah right). Setting up a contract may not work for everyone, but it was an activity where we could learn to collaborate, and that was important.

It takes time and energy to develop a collaborative, trusting relationship with our children. But it’s time well spent and allows us to appreciate the different perspectives a child may have.

Focus on your ADHD child’s strengths

Kids with ADHD are often singled out for what they can’t do instead of for what they can do. Michael Jellineck, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Harvard Medical School has estimated children with ADHD could receive as many as 20,000 corrections for their behavior in school by the time they are 10 years old.

Donald Clifton, PhD., considered the father of strengths-based psychology by the American Psychological Association, posed the question:

"What would happen if we studied what was right with people versus what's wrong with people?"

Focusing on our child’s strengths can go a long way toward ensuring their success. Creativity, independence, risk-taking, high energy, curiosity, humor, artistic gifts, and emotionality are traits that have been identified in entrepreneurs, and children with ADHD. Moreover, creativity is important in successful job performance, healthy relationships, and careers involving science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and art. Noted ADHD expert, Edward Hallowell, believes individuals with ADHD have an edge because they are intelligent, creative, imaginative, and risk-takers.

As caretakers, we need to put time and effort into finding and nurturing our child’s strengths. What does your child like, what can they do well, what do they hyperfocus on? For my son, it was his relentless learning about space travel and technology. His passion led him to become a national finalist in a NASA-sponsored competition for his spacecraft design, and ultimately to attend a small aeronautical university where, as this proud mom will say, he is “crushing it.”


Bohn, R., & Short, J. (2012). Measuring consumer information. Int. J. Comm. 6:980–1000.

I have written more about this topic in the post, Game-Changing Advice for Neurodiverse Thinkers.

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