Neurodiversity and Parenting

When it comes to Mental Health, our society is making a lot of progress is how we discuss the topics, address the issues, and remove the stigmas associated with things like therapy, medication, and mental illness (to name a few). But of course we know, there is so much room to grow.

The State of Mental Health in America

For the 8th year in a row, Mental Health America (MHA) has undertaken a collection and analysis of data concerning mental health in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The resulting information is compiled into The State of Mental Health in America 2022 Report.

Here are a few key findings (keep in mind, most of this data was collected primarily in 2019. This means that the current mental health status, especially in relation to COVID-19, are most likely being under-reported.)

  • 19.85% of American adults experienced a mental health concern in 2019. That’s more than 50 million people.
  • 24.7% of Americans with these mental health concerns are not receiving the care they need – a number that has not declined since 2011.
  • More than 50% of adults with mental health concerns are receiving no treatment whatsoever.
  • Almost 5% of adults report experiencing suicidal ideation. This number has been steadily increasing for the last 10 years.

While anxiety and depression are being discussed on the daily and more widely as people are recognizing that it affects a huge portion of our society, there are lesser discussed aspects of mental health that can have a huge effect on families.

In one of my own personal deep dives into Instagram land, I stumbled upon a few accounts that were discussing the topic of “neurodiversity”. Neurodiversity commonly refers to people who are “differently wired”. For example, those with ADHD, autism, learning differences, or highly sensitive personalities would be considered Neurodiverse. All of these differences make up a piece of someone’s mental health – how they view the world, how they interact with the world and others. Some of these differences may come with a formal diagnosis and medical help, others may not.

The following women are creating space in the social media world for parents and children who are Neurodiverse to have resources, support, and community when they need it. I got to ask them questions about their own journeys, being neurodiverse parents parenting neurodiverse kids, and more.

Tell me about what you do. What inspired you to specialize in families with differently wired kids?

I am a psychotherapist, parenting coach, and online course creator. I became inspired to focus my practice on differently wired, primarily autistic, kids because I noticed a huge gap in knowledge in my field of mental health. In becoming a mother to my own differently wired and spirited daughter, I learned a tremendous amount of knowledge on how to parent these kids with dignity and respect, and I wanted to share the wisdom.

Why is gaining an understanding of neurodiversity so important? Both for families with differently wired kids and the community around them?

It’s important for families and the broader community to understand that human brains function differently on a neuro-cognitive level. Some of the differences include autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and sensory processing disorder, but there are many conditions that may cause a brain to diverge from the ‘neuromajority.’ Brain differences influence behavior that may appear atypical and sometimes perplexing.

The term “neurodiversity” was coined by an autistic sociologist and pioneer, Judy Singer, as way to conceptualize brain differences in a neutral way rather than a deficit based or pathological way.

When society is accepting of people with brain differences the benefits are similar to accepting other types of diversity, such as racial and ethnic diversity. As Maya Angelo said “in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.” When we respect differences the world is a kinder and more fair place.

When families understand the reason for their child’s behavior, they can better strategize on how to support their child with gentle leadership. They can learn to accommodate their child’s ways of moving, socializing, and processing information. They can learn to set up the environment to allow their child the best chance at thriving, and making these changes can improve life for the entire family.

What have you noticed is the biggest struggle for these families?

Families struggle to find schools and classrooms that properly support their children’s differences. In my practice the biggest struggle is hands down, the school. Many school environments are still trying to fit a square peg into a round hole and that comes at a great cost to our children’s mental health and learning.

What are their strengths?

Once parents begin to settle into the idea that their child is neurodevelopmentally wired differently, such as with autism, these parents become fierce advocates. The parents of autistic kids in particular are often very loving and dedicated to their own growth. They come to me because they want to make sure they are doing right by their kids.

What are a few practical tips you’d give to parents that are differently wired to help them thrive in their parenting journey?

Find support for your own mental health and aim for good enough parenting. Don’t overcommit to activities and slice your responsibilities down to essentials only. Make sure and give yourself a lot of down time to recover after social events and do get comfortable asking for help. Set up your home in a way that feels regulating to your nervous system.

What about some tips for parents who are parenting differently wired kiddos?

Observe what sensory and movement experiences your child enjoys and join with them in these experiences. Doing this is a great way to build connection and strengthen the attachment relationship. If your child appreciates being silly, consider using humor to teach them new skills or encourage cooperation. Pay attention to your child’s special interests and use these interests to expand developmental learning and relationships with other kids.

One of your beliefs is that neurodiversity is beneficial to society? Can you share why?

Neurodiversity is like biodiversity. Our differences complement each other. What an awfully boring place the world would be if our brains were all alike 🙂

The neurodivergent people I know are innovative and a bit eccentric. Gosh, life would be so bland without neurodiversity.

Do you feel like neurodiversity isn’t talked about enough? Why?

Neurodiversity is beginning to be spoken of more, however, with that there is some concern about it losing its meaning and losing its original spirit, which was to be accepting of autism and autistic people. Neurodiversity symbolizes the beginning of the autistic civil rights movement. It’s not a marketing scheme, it’s about the lives of our loved ones.

Since autism is a legal disability, I think the absence of autism and neurodiversity from discussions on Diversity & Inclusion demonstrates a potential prejudice against people with brain differences and disabilities.

Anything else you’d like to share about your personal story or work?

When my differently wired child was an infant and toddler, wearing her in the Ergo saved my life. Due to her sensory processing, motor and relational needs, she had a desire to be glued to me what felt like 24/7. I am so thankful I had the Ergo to allow me to meet her needs more comfortably.

Parents who would like my support through live coaching, consulting, or online courses can find me at and on Instagram @neurocurioustherapist.

Explain what Gentle Parenting is and why you’re an advocate of this parenting approach. Have you used Gentle Parenting from the start? How has it transformed your relationship with yourself and your kids?

Gentle parenting is parenting that prioritizes the relationship above everything else. We still discipline and guide our children, but we do so in a way that keeps the integrity of the relationships intact. I was not always a gentle parent. I was a very permissive and uninvolved parent at first, so we have made several changes. Our relationship is completely transformed. We are so much closer and more connected and we are much more confident in our ability to face challenges as a team.

When were you diagnosed with ADHD and what were your feelings when you received the diagnosis?

I was diagnosed with ADHD last year (2021). I was actually relieved. I couldn’t understand why such simple “adulting” tasks were so difficult for me. I’ve had so much success in creative spaces from being able to hyper focus on a specific topic/activity. But outside of my passions, my life was really chaotic. Simple things like have a consistent cleaning routine felt impossible.

What have been the challenges of parenting with ADHD? What have been the benefits? 

The challenges have been consistency. It’s really hard to teach discipline to your children when you really struggle with it yourself. You can’t give what you don’t have.

The biggest benefit has been my ability to get on their level! We can get wrapped up in play, imagination, or researching something random for hours. While other things may have gotten a little neglected sometimes, it’s definitely helped so much with our connection and relationship.

How has your understanding of your ADHD helped you with parenting? 

I believe that the better I take care of myself, the better my relationship with my kids gets. So the more I learn, the easier my life becomes and that shines in every area, including my parenting. I’m learning how to be more consistent, how to take care of myself, and how to support my journey as a mom with ADHD. And those skills are making it much easier to be consistent in my parenting. We have consistent chores so our home feels more like a home and less like the back of a thrift store! We have consistent special time with each other so our relationships are nourished. We go to bed and wake up at more consistent times, so our bodies feel better. I’m more responsible with my money so we can do more things together. Little by little, our lives are being pieced back together.

Why do you think more parents aren’t talking about their own struggles with mental health or being honest about their neurodevelopmental differences?

I think there’s this unspoken rule that parents should know what the heck they’re doing. So most people don’t like to talk about it when they are confused or lost or struggling. But I am a parent coach. I talk to hundreds of parents every week and let me tell you, we are ALL struggling to some extent!

What do you think would open up the conversation for more parents to embrace these differences in each other and in our children?

I think what I’ve seen help the conversation get started is leaders in the parenting space being open about their neurodiversity. We sometimes seem like we have it all together so when they see our vulnerability they feel less alone in their challenges.

How would you encourage other parents who also have ADHD, or trauma and emotional distress related mental health issues?

I would say this:

Your brain is perfect! It supports you in so many ways. And you get to support your brain right back. You may be like me and benefit from therapy, medicine, and mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga. For you, supporting your brain may mean eating whole foods and exercising often. For others that may mean buying a llama farm! I don’t know! All of our journeys are different. But the one thing we have in common is capability! We are capable of supporting our brains. One step at a time. We can all get better and better… and even better!


How did you get to where you are now? I know that’s a loaded question!

Professionally I have a masters degree in Occupational Therapy and additional post-graduate training as a psychotherapist. I have an integrative psychotherapy practice here in Toronto, Canada, where I support clients struggling with anxiety, depression and trauma-related symptoms.

I’m also a mom to two boys, and my experience with my first is what introduced me to the world of highly sensitive people and really lit a fire under me to start advocating and educating in the parenting space.

I remember heading back to work with my clients when my son was 5 months old – many of whom happen to be survivors of trauma (both childhood trauma and acute traumas like car accidents) – and then going back into my world of parenting my son, and I remember seeing so many parallels between what I was experiencing with him and what so many of my clients were experiencing themselves.

Not only was my son acting in ways similar to someone who’d experienced a trauma, with his very dysregulated nervous system, but my experience of parenting this baby who screamed so often and slept so little and rarely smiled or seemed happy, was itself a traumatic experience for me.

And once I had that language to explain my own parenting experience to myself, through this lens of the nervous system, I wanted to help explain it to others.

And when I stumbled upon the highly sensitive literature, it just provided even more depth and breadth and understanding to this experience we were having.

So I sort of started down this road with this mission of wanting to provide parents with the language and knowledge I felt so very grateful to have so that they could feel less lost and alone in all that they were experiencing as well.

How did you come across the idea of Highly Sensitive People? Did you know about this concept before becoming a mom? How has it transformed your relationship with yourself and your kids?

I’m pretty sure I came across it in the depths of my sleep deprivation with my first son. When he was around 4 months old and everyone I knew were sleep training their babies and talking about how their babies were sleeping in their cribs, mine was still attached to me 24/7. And while I was exhausted and the promise of sleep training seemed so enticing, something about it just didn’t sit right with me. Well so much about it didn’t sit right, but especially when it came to the experience I was having with my baby, who seemed so different from my friends’ babies who were sleeping so beautifully on their own, in their cribs, for long periods of time. Whereas my little boy woke up multiple times a night, could not be put down for a nap during the day, and needed to be rocked and bounced before he’d finally pass out.

Now I work as a psychotherapist, and I do a lot of trauma work, so I was paying close attention to his sensitive and reactive nervous system from the get go. And I’m also trained as an occupational therapist, and began noticing from a very early age all the ways the sensory world was too overwhelming for him.

But it wasn’t until I went down the rabbit hole of researching infant sleep that I came across the term highly sensitive and highly sensitive people and the work of Elaine Aron. And it filled in a lot of the missing pieces.

Did you receive an official diagnosis or are HSP’s typically self-diagnosed? When you gained this understanding of yourself, how did you feel?

We don’t get a diagnosis of HSP because it’s not a disorder. It’s a way of being in the world. A way of understanding ourselves. With gifts and challenges. But it’s not a medical diagnosis.

For me, the language around high sensitivity provides more nuance to understand what it is to go through this world with a more sensitive nervous system. Which is very much how I interpret the language around high sensitivity – we have a highly sensitive nervous system.

Prior to learning this language I understood my nervous system through the research and language on trauma and complex trauma, so, for example, I had always understood that my tendency to have a startle reflex existed because of my own childhood trauma.

But then comes the literature on highly sensitive people saying that maybe that tendency to startle was always there, maybe my traumas exacerbated it, but I was potentially always a person with this more sensitive and attuned nervous system and a predisposition to startle, and now I suddenly have a broader understanding of my experience.

Also, I used to understand my tendency to smell smells no one noticed or hear sounds others might not hear through the world of sensory processing that comes from the field of occupational therapy.

But then here comes along the research on HSPs to frame this tendency of mine as an evolutionary advantage, a trait that helps protect me and my tribe and alert us to danger, and I can now see these tendencies of mine through a much more positive lens rather than a lens of being less than or too much.

What have been the challenges of parenting as an HSP? What have been the benefits?

I think one of the main challenges of parenting as an HSP comes from the overstimulation and overwhelm. HSPs are constantly taking in information, and are therefore more easily overwhelmed by all that stimuli, so being around loud, yelling, whining kiddos or crying babies can be incredibly hard on us and we reach our breaking point a lot faster the others.

The benefits are that we’re so incredibly attuned to our kids. So we know when they’re sad or disappointed or hurt in some way. We know how to show up and support them in the way that they need. Which helps take a lot of the guesswork out of parenting. But also helps foster a really strong parent-child relationship and attachment.

Additionally, as HSPs were deep thinkers and we tend to be people who gravitate towards self-development. So odds are good that as parents we’re taking the time to ask the hard questions, about our kids but also about ourselves, and do the work we need to try and foster the kinds of relationships we want to have with them. We’re also far more likely to seek out therapy than others, which means we’re more likely to be doing the inner work that helps us show up as the parent our child truly need

How has your understanding of HSPs helped you with parenting?

I think it’s allowed me to understand two things:

First, that the reason my experience of parenting felt so much harder than others is because in many ways it was. Having a baby who cries all the time and who rarely sleeps is hard. Having a toddler who has dozens of meltdowns a day is hard. Having a preschooler who finds other kids too loud so he hates school or birthday parties or the park, it’s hard. Because we so want our kids to be happy and we’re conditioned to believe those thighs are important. Which we have to unlearn. Which really brings me to the second thing, which is this:

It forces you to let go of all those external expectations a lot faster than a parent who has a more neurotypical child. It forces you to trust your instincts and follow your child’s lead at a much younger age, which is truly such a gift. For us and for them. Because you have no other choice.

Why do you think more parents aren’t talking about their own struggles with mental health or being honest about their neurodevelopmental differences?

I do think we’re getting so much better about talking about our struggles as parents, I really do. But of course there is still a lot of shame and stigma out there. And a lot of expectations around perfection and how we should be as parents. So it can be scary for a parent to say “I’m not ok”,

I also think that when parents are in the thick of it, they’re just trying to survive. They’re putting one foot in front of the other and trying to get through the day. And often, they might not even know how much they’re truly struggling until they’ve come out the other end. Until their kids are a bit older and they have some breathing room and they look back and go “woah, things were so not ok”. Which is why we need other people out there talking about all of this, sharing their mental health stories, so parents in the thick of it who are really struggling, but maybe don’t have the language to understand what exactly might be going on, can see their experiences reflected back to them and maybe understand for the very first time that they need more support and that they don’t have to navigate this all on their own.

What do you think would open up the conversation for more parents to embrace these differences in each other and in our children?

More dialogue. More stories. More honest and authentic connection where we share our experiences with each other. That’s how we learn. That’s how we combat shame and stigma. That’s how we create the villages of support we all truly need.

How would you encourage other parents who identify as an HSP and have children with the same trait?

I would just remind them, “it feels hard because it is hard”. And because this parenting experience can be harder than most, we need more support.

Maybe that’s more physical support so we can get a breather and respite from parenting.

Maybe that’s emotional support so we can process some of the stuff parenting is bringing up for us and we can learn some tools to take care of ourselves and our well-being.

And maybe that’s a community of support, where you can meet others with similar stories and experiences, who can remind you that you and your child are normal. That yes, you are someone who experiences the world more deeply and more intensely. And yes, some days that can be hard. But on other days, it’s the most beautiful gift you could ever imagine. And we can’t have one without the other.

Vittoria Allen

Vittoria is a writer based in San Diego. A lover of good food, slow living, and a good novel, she shares her life with her husband and two daughters trying to squeeze out the beauty in every moment.