5 ways to meet neurodivergent children’s needs without using behaviour modification strategies.

You can listen to this article by clicking here (link will open in a new window). Many thanks to Alex of The NeurodiveCast for recording this article.

In my article “Behaviour Management” I said,

There is a different way to support change in a child’s behaviour than imposing our own will over theirs. It begins with letting go of the temptation to manage behaviours, and replace it with the goal of meeting needs.

I talked briefly about the idea that when any person’s needs for autonomy, understanding, respect of their communication style, and feelings of being safe and valued are not met that it is normal to find the person engaging in challenging behaviours in order to communicate their distress. I also discussed briefly the impact of having needs ignored on the child and the lessons they learn from forced or coerced compliance.

{If you want to read my Behaviour Management article you can do so by clicking >> here << to open it in a new window. If you would like to read more about the goals and effects of Autism specific behaviour modification therapies you can find my previously published infographic on this topic by clicking >> here<< }

What I didn’t go into in that article is what sort of strategies we use in our family instead of behaviour modification strategies in order to meet everyones needs and reduce the necessity for them to communicate their distress in challenging or confronting ways. So, I’m going to do that in this article.

Before I do, I am going to provide some context, because a common response to my stance on this topic is for others to assume that my life is significantly different than theirs in ways that mean we experiences less challenges. This could be true and neither you nor I would know because we don’t live in each others houses, or we could compare notes find that your life is “easier” than mine (whatever that means!).

However, neither engaging in assumption making nor comparing lives helps anyone, and I am not prepared to give details that will compromise my childrens rights to privacy. I will say for context that we are a family of 8 ranging in age from 42 (me!) to 3, and we are a family in which we are all neurodivergent. The formally identified neurodivergences in our family are Autism, Bipolar, Sensory Processing Disorder, Sleep Initiation Disorder, Depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Generalised Anxiety Disorder.

This means we experience significant challenges in sleep regulation, anxiety, mood regulation, sensory processing, sensory seeking and sensory avoidance, language processing and communication, auditory processing, executive function, socialising, oppositional behaviour, self harming, meltdowns, shutdowns, overwhelm, and all sorts of conflicting needs on a daily basis. Please, as you read about what we do to support our needs, do not assume our family is so different than yours.

So, with that background and context, here are

5 ways to meet neurodivergent children’s needs without using behaviour modification strategies.

In families that are neurodiverse (having members with different diagnoses), or families with members who are multiply neurodivergent (have more than one neurologically based difference or disability), meeting everyones differing needs is certainly a challenge. I  know this because my family is neurodiverse, with some of us being multiply neurodivergent.  The challenges change and evolve constantly and it requires conscious and deliberate attention in order to effectively meet everyones needs. It’s not possible to meet everyone’s needs all the time, but we do our best. We have a most of the time expectation, that is, most of the time we can do things that mean everyone gets what they need. Here are the key things we do:

1. Change the environment to meet the child’s unique sensory needs

Everyone has sensory needs and preferences. That’s why we are comfortable in certain clothes, have preferences for hot or cold weather, favour sweet or savoury foods, enjoy different textures, and like or dislike things like roller coasters, air or car travel, and swings and trampolines. {For a resource on the 7 senses visit SPD Australia’s page The Seven Senses (will open in a new window) for information that is helpful for people with many kinds of neurodivergence.}

In our family we have in place numerous strategies that help meet all our varying needs- sensory seeking, sensory avoidance, and sensory deprivation.

We provide a variety of opportunities in our house for temperature and light regulation, adjusting volume and intensity of sound, variations in texture for sensory seeking, variations in visual stimulus, wide range of activities to choose from in and out of the house, wide range of options for meals- both in food provided and places and times to eat it.

These opportunities are reasonably simple to create, but do involve a certain amount of trial and error, and the resources do cost money. I am not sure about other countries, but if you are Australian it is likely you will be able to find some funding to help you with the costs. NDIS, for example, will help pay for Occupational Therapist and Psychologist recommended resources.

{If you are interested in reading a more specific explanation of the things we do to meet conflicting sensory needs in our family you could read my article, “Meeting conflicting needs in our neurodiverse family” published on the Respectfully Connected website (link will open in a new window)}

2. Support the child’s unique communication style

Do you know someone who says they hate the phone, or someone who dislikes text messaging? Do you have a friend who, long after everyone else you know has ceased sending cards, still sends a card every birthday and christmas? These are evidence of difference in communication styles.

In neurodivergent people the differences can be more striking. They can show up in an inability to use spoken communication , in a preference for written communication even though spoken communication is possible, a lack of understanding of non verbal communication cues, a strong aversion to social situations that involve large numbers of people, or any number of things that pose challenges to engaging with “typical” society.

In our family we experience differences in the ways we receive information and in the ways we express ourselves. We provide opportunities for communication through verbal speech and non verbal communication, including gesture (informally devised as well as using some sign language at times) and written language- inclusive of handwritten words, typed words and drawn images.

We are currently beginning to use screen readers and speech to text programs to see how useful they are for some of us. If we had access to apps like “Speak for Yourself” and “Proloquo2Go” 15 years ago we would have used those.

We do not insist on immediate communication (unless there is an emergency). We acknowledge that some of us need time to process and we give that time by waiting for responses and by having important conversations in sessions over a number of days if needed.

We do not expect people who are stressed or distressed to conform to social conventions when communicating. This is not to say that we condone hurting or upsetting others being excused by a person’s distress, but we take steps to ensure safety in the moment by removing others from the area. If something happens during those moments that does hurt another we will speak about it only when the moment has passed and people are calm and feel safe again. We keep those conversations respectful, never shaming, but offering comfort and ideas for new things to try to help avoid the entire situation occurring again.

3. Do not punish or impose consequences

When we realise that our children’s challenging behaviours are evidence of their frustration, stress and distress, it is easy to see why punishment would be harmful. We would never impose negative consequences on a child who was screaming in pain as a result of a broken limb, and it makes just as little sense to punish a child who is expressing mental or emotional pain. It is also well worth acknowledging that it is possible they are in physical pain, and sensory processing challenges can indeed be a cause of physical pain- the fact there is a lack of external evidence in the form of bleeding or bruising does not diminish that.

Something else we need to think about is whether our approach to challenging behaviour includes things like consequences or the enforcement of binary choices. By this I mean, if you react to your children’s behaviour by telling them their actions have consequences like they must have time out, or choosing between this thing or that, to help them learn from the experience, this is pretty much the same thing as a punishment. It is still enforcing your will over theirs in response to them having done something you didn’t like, and it will be seen that way by the child, no matter how you present it.

Natural consequences are different. A natural consequence is simply what happens as a result of an action. For example, If I throw a toy and it break, now I have a toy I can’t use anymore and there is a mess that needs cleaning. If I am then forced by an angry parent to clean it up or pay for the damage, we have moved away from natural consequences into punishment.

Natural consequences teach us to take responsibility for our actions. Punishment and imposed consequences teach us to do whatever it takes to keep others happy. This is dangerous for all children, but especially for neurodivergent children who struggle with low self esteem, feelings of inadequacy based on their differences and inability to conform and comply, and the knowledge that others see them as flawed (you would  be horrified to realise how young children are when they start picking up on this pervasive messaging in our society).

We acknowledge that we all (adults and children) are learning and growing and developing skills, and we presume that everyone will do their best in every situation. We know it is uncomfortable and embarrassing to make mistakes and we do our best to be gracious to each other when that happens, even if we were the one who was hurt, because we know how much we appreciate it when others act with graciousness toward us. And we try to be gentle to ourselves in our reflections on our experiences.

4. Offer alternatives

When things go wrong, and needs aren’t met, it is uncomfortable for all of us. Sometimes, we just can’t prevent unexpected sensory input, or social overwhelm, or massive frustration at communication breakdown. This is expected, and it is accepted as part of our normal.

We do our best to have alternative options ready for when this happens. I’ll give a specific example to explain: In our home we have designated quiet spaces for people to retreat to. The understanding is that when a person is in a quiet place they can expect it to be quiet there and they expect they will not be interrupted by others who see them there. Sometimes quiet areas, for reasons out of our control (e.g. roadwork, neighbours mowing or chainsawing, etc) are not quiet at all, so we have noise cancelling headphones available to help reduce noise and stim toys or activities the person finds soothing ready to help manage stress and anxiety until quiet is restored.

Having alternatives ready does rely on having had experiences of things going wrong, unfortunately. But a simple process of reflection, asking “what would have helped and make that situation easier?”, then acting on those reflections, helps make the next time easier.

5. Slow down, calm down, look after yourself

If we are in crisis this one often has to come last, but as things shift and settle we can start doing this as part of our whole family care routine.

As the adults in the family we are responsible for our own self care. We need to identify what triggers us to react outwardly to our feelings of stress. We need to make a plan for how we can avoid stress when possible and how we can respond to our children when experiencing stress is inevitable. We need to understand that our children do not do what they do to annoy us or to make our lives harder- they do it to communicate their needs to us, in the way most available to them in the moment.

For me, self care is aided by
*putting limits on the amount of things I plan to do in a week (including appointments for the kids, homeschool activities, and out of the home work commitments)
*having a small trusted group of friends with whom I can privately debrief,
*having a couple of hobbies I engage with regularly (I garden, practice  karate, and love to watch tv series based on historical events and cartoon superheroes),
*making sure I take a little bit of time alone in the quiet each day (I do this late at night even if I’m really super tired because I sleep better if I unwind first),
*and making sure I eat often enough (and for that matter, use the bathroom often enough, which I know other busy parents and/or people with executive functioning challenges will relate to).

Everyone’s self care habits will be different, and it can take time to figure out what you need. It’s something that is so worth doing. It is also much easier to support our children in developing their own insights into how self care works best for them if we are modelling good self care to them. It is good for both them and you for your children to see you looking after yourself.




15 thoughts on “5 ways to meet neurodivergent children’s needs without using behaviour modification strategies.

  1. “Natural consequences are different. A natural consequence is simply what happens as a result of an action. For example, If I throw a toy and it break, now I have a toy I can’t use anymore and there is a mess that needs cleaning. If I am then forced by an angry parent to clean it up or pay for the damage, we have moved away from natural consequences into punishment.”

    Surely cleaning up (or at least helping to) the mess you made is a natural consequence? Why should somebody else do it? You broke the thing – now there is a mess to clean up.

    1. The need for a mess to be cleaned is a natural consequence. If you read carefully, you’ll notice in my example I did not say “I do not clean up the mess”. I said that if I am forced by an angry parent to clean up that is a punishment. Two different things.

  2. Very informative article. I found this article to stimulate the thought about “our” family and that even though we are not ALL formally diagnosed, we all have our sensory needs and our own communication that often results in clashes that create the chaos that festers in disappointment of our own unmet expectations of each other. Isn’t that the whole world’s problem?

  3. Help me out with an aspect of #3. What is the natural consequence if the thing broken is a) something that doesn’t belong to the person who broke it, therefore they have no attachment to it and don’t use it so don’t care that it’s broken. B) the broken something is an object used by the entire family i.e. a computer or TV, bathroom mirror, etc, so it being broken affects everyone not just the one who broke it.

    1. Hi Marian,
      a natural consequence in both those situations is that the person who broke the item knows that the items owners are upset or angry that the item was broken, along with the knowledge that the item now needs to be replaced and that the cost of that may be a problem. Sometimes the natural consequences of something don’t have as much of an immediate impact on the person as others inconvenienced by their action might like them to, but those inconvenienced are free to communicate their feelings to the other person.

  4. Dear Michelle,

    What a fantastic article, beautifully written around the challenges of finding a supportive and respectful way of helping a family to operate safely and with love. We do the same, getting loads wrong along the way!

    Thank you so much for writing it.

  5. Reblogged this on Fire Bright Star Soul and commented:
    “There is a different way to support change in a child’s behaviour than imposing our own will over theirs. It begins with letting go of the temptation to manage behaviours, and replace it with the goal of meeting needs.“

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