When parents learn that their children are neurodivergent, they are often advised to keep their children away from neurodivergent peers as much as possible. That is horrible advice. Keeping away from neurodivergent peers is only good advice if your goals include reducing a child’s self-esteem and self-understanding. (Although, in that case, “get some less abusive goals” would be even better advice.)
Social interaction fills a wide variety of human needs, and it is important for all kinds of people to interact with one another. Still, anyone who has tried to “fit in” during a social situation that simply wasn’t their cup of tea can perhaps begin to appreciate how difficult it would be to be put in that position every single day, for most of the day. Similarly, neurodivergent children who are not exposed to others with similar neurologies are at major risk for missing out on the joy and validation that comes from finding a person with whom they feel they “click.”
A growing body of research posits that the “theory of mind” concept, which was often used to blame autistic people for allegedly failing to recognize the thought processes and understandings of others, misses the mark. Rather, just as neurotypical people tend to understand each other’s brains better, neurodivergent people often have an easier time understanding other neurodivergent people. This understanding often gives way to the social “rewards” of self-esteem, self-understanding, and genuine connection. Many neurodivergent people report feeling more comfortable in themselves and in the world when they are surrounded by people who seem to inherently understand them – people with their own neurologies.
However, it is not enough to say that neurodivergent children should have regular access to interactions with their neurodivergent peers. We must also be vigilant about the setup of these interactions. With the dearth of understanding related to neurodivergent culture and social interaction, it’s no wonder attempts at facilitating interactions between neurodivergent peers often end up being just as problematic as avoiding neurodivergent peers altogether. For instance, there is a tendency for neurodivergent peers to be paired with other neurodivergent children and used as “model peers.” Relationships such as these then take on the same “mentorship” relationship to which neurodivergent children are typically subjected.
Like most parts of nuanced development, the best opportunities for neurodivergent community-building are often at home. Parents should support children in pursuing activities related to the children’s interests and should provide opportunities for their children to interact with others in whatever mutually-agreeable way is comfortable for the child and their peer. Additionally, parents should work to meet neurodivergent adults and include them in their lives, allowing their children to see what their own futures can look like and to see that their parents support such a future.
We all know that community inclusion is important. Community inclusion means inclusion in the neurodivergent community, too!