Is it ADHD or something else?

179: Parenting Neurodivergent: Helping Your Child Be a Successful Adult with Zhara Astra

For today’s episode with Zhara Astra – a filmmaker, professor, and advocate for neurodiversity – we’ll be exploring more about the challenges, triumphs, and essential tips for supporting neurodivergent children on their journey to adulthood.

Parents of neurodivergent children fear that their kids will encounter challenges they can't overcome, potentially leading to a lack of progress and feeling stuck. This fear can weigh heavily on parents throughout their parenting journey with their neurodivergent child, driving them to seek out strategies and support systems to help their children thrive despite these fears.

For today’s episode with Zhara Astra – a filmmaker, professor, and advocate for neurodiversity – we’ll be exploring more about the challenges, triumphs, and essential tips for supporting neurodivergent children on their journey to adulthood.

Autism diagnosis and self-discovery.

Zhara reflects on her journey of realizing her own neurodivergence while navigating the diagnosis and journey of her son's autism and oppositional defiant disorder. Initially feeling shocked and resistant to the idea of being autistic, she eventually embraced neurodivergence after deep introspection and research.

She shares about her lifelong hypersensitivity to various stimuli, including food, smells, sounds, and textures, which often left her feeling overwhelmed. She attributes much of her emotional responses to being misunderstood and her unique perspective on life, contrasting with typical interests of other girls her age. Despite her challenges, she finds solace in her children and cherishes the moments of connection and understanding they bring.

Feelings of being misunderstood and labeled as difficult or dramatic.

For Zhara, there’s a need for a controlled environment to avoid any discomfort or sensory overload incidents. Reflecting on her sensory sensitivities and restrictive eating habits, she acknowledges her unique upbringing with supportive, hippie parents who allowed her to embrace her individuality without judgment. Grateful for their acceptance and encouragement to be herself, she credits them for fostering a sense of confidence in her differences.

From a young age, she felt like an outsider, believing she didn't belong and even considering herself an alien on this planet. Unlike other girls her age, she found herself drawn to deeper topics like philosophy and the meaning of life, which felt out of place in her Texas upbringing. Despite knowing she was different, she couldn't pinpoint why, leading to a sense of internal confusion and self-analysis from a young age. She grappled with feelings of being misunderstood and labeled as difficult or dramatic, internalizing these perceptions and keeping them to herself. Although these labels may have been intended lightly, these took a toll on her self-esteem and sense of belonging over time.

Everybody needs their own Christina – this is what Zhara refers to as the Christina Theory which emphasizes the importance of the invaluable role of such a friend who not only accepts but also supports them unconditionally, serving as a loyal confidant and ally through life's ups and downs. Zhara expresses deep gratitude for Christina's enduring friendship, emphasizing the profound impact it has had on her journey.

Through various stages of life, Christina has provided stability, companionship, and unwavering support, serving as a constant source of strength and understanding. This theory extends beyond their personal bond to emphasize the universal need for supportive friendships, particularly for neurodivergent individuals.

Neurodivergent children and their social struggles.

Neurodivergent individuals often have intense and focused interests that may not align with typical childhood interests, making it difficult for them to connect with peers and share their passions. While other children may be reading stories about everyday topics, Zhara's son prefers stories about killer dolls and other dark themes. This difference in interests can create social barriers and lead to feelings of isolation and alienation. Other children may not understand or share his enthusiasm for horror, making it challenging for him to find friends who appreciate his interests.

Moreover, neurodivergent children may struggle to express themselves verbally, particularly when it comes to explaining their interests and emotions. This communication barrier can further compound their feelings of frustration and isolation, as they may struggle to connect with others and express themselves effectively.

However, as Zhara demonstrates with her son, finding supportive friends who share similar interests can make a significant difference in a neurodivergent child's life. These friendships provide a sense of belonging and acceptance, allowing them to express themselves freely without fear of judgment or rejection.

Neurodivergent quiz

Parenting neurodivergent children and self-regulation.

It’s important to tap into visual and kinesthetic senses for neurodivergent individuals. By accessing these sensory channels, individuals can better understand and articulate their feelings, enabling them to differentiate between various emotions and develop coping strategies.

Developing communication strategies, such as the “checks or x” technique, can help neurodivergent children communicate their thoughts and emotions more effectively, fostering better understanding and connection with others. Through this method, Zhara helps her son express his needs and emotions effectively, fostering understanding and connection between them.

Compassion and understanding are also vital as effective support for neurodivergent individuals, especially when addressing their unique behaviors and challenges. These individuals often experience the world in a significantly different way, with sensory sensitivities, emotional regulation difficulties, and social communication disparities that can lead to misunderstandings and misinterpretations by others.

By practicing compassion and modeling appropriate behavior, Zhara believes parents can help neurodivergent children develop self-regulation skills and empathy. Moreover, fostering a culture of compassion and understanding within families, schools, and communities can help reduce stigma and promote acceptance of neurodiversity.

Additionally, for Zhara, creating impactful films like “Understanding Autism” and “ADHD Wired Differently” provides a platform for showcasing the experiences and perspectives of neurodivergent individuals and their families. By including interviews with experts and highlighting the lived experiences of those affected by autism and ADHD, these films aim to educate and advocate for greater understanding and support for neurodiversity in society.

Autism, gender differences, and neurodiversity.

Owning your flaws and mistakes is important particularly in modeling accountability and self-awareness for your children. Zhara shares candidly about her own parenting journey, including moments of vulnerability such as public meltdowns, demonstrating the challenges and complexities of raising neurodivergent children.

Reflecting on her journey of self-discovery, Zhara discusses the gender differences in autism diagnosis and the challenges faced by neurodivergent women in obtaining timely identification and support. She underscores the need for greater awareness and inclusion of females in research and advocacy efforts, challenging societal norms that perpetuate gender stereotypes and hinder the recognition of neurodiversity in women.

Through her advocacy work, Zhara seeks to empower neurodivergent individuals, particularly women, to embrace their unique strengths and experiences. She champions the celebration of neurodiversity as a fundamental aspect of human variation, striving to cultivate environments that foster understanding, acceptance, and support for individuals across the neurodivergent spectrum.

Ultimately, Zhara's advocacy work is guided by a deep-seated commitment to social justice and equity, as she strives to dismantle systemic barriers and create a world where neurodivergent individuals can thrive, contribute, and be celebrated for their unique strengths and perspectives. Through education, outreach, and community engagement initiatives, she seeks to dismantle misconceptions and foster a culture of empathy, respect, and accommodation for neurodivergent individuals in educational, professional, and social settings.

Autism and ADHD diagnosis, experiences, and differences in restricted interests.

Zhara introduces the “horse girl theory,” highlighting how many autistic girls develop a strong fascination with horses or cats. These animals provide a source of comfort and companionship without the social expectations that come with human relationships. Unlike inanimate objects, these living beings offer unconditional love and acceptance, making them a preferred focus of interest for many autistic girls.

This perspective sheds light on why certain interests are more prevalent among autistic girls and underscores the importance of understanding and appreciating the diverse ways in which restricted interests manifest across genders. By recognizing the underlying motivations behind these interests, we can better support and connect with neurodivergent individuals, regardless of their gender.

Managing eating disorders, sensory sensitivities, and restrictive eating.

Eating disorders and sensory sensitivities are prevalent issues among autistic individuals, often intertwined and contributing to complex challenges around food. Zhara shares her lifelong struggle with eating, which stemmed from sensory sensitivities to textures and smells. She was often dismissed as just a picky eater, facing ridicule from peers who accused her of having an eating disorder. However, Zhara's experience was far more complex, leading her to avoid certain foods due to sensory issues, particularly with meat.

She learned about ARFID (Avoidant/Restrictive Food Intake Disorder) from one of her students and realized she might have this condition. For Zhara, the fear was not only about the taste or texture but also the visual aspect. She vividly imagined the animal and couldn't reconcile the idea of consuming it. And so, she gradually reintroduced foods she had previously avoided. Her approach focused on dismantling the fear surrounding food and challenging her sensory sensitivities.

Parents often struggle with introducing new foods to their children, especially if they have sensory sensitivities or conditions like ARFID. While offering options and giving children a choice can be helpful, it's essential to recognize that forcing a child with ARFID to eat something they don’t want is unlikely to be successful. Sensory techniques can be crucial in making food more palatable, such as cutting it into small pieces or incorporating strong flavors or textures.

Engaging children in the food preparation process and making meals visually appealing can also encourage them to explore new foods. Additionally, being proactive about addressing sensory issues and understanding the underlying reasons for restrictive eating behaviors, whether related to sensory processing or other factors like OCD, is vital for effective support.

Autism, OCD, and mental health.

Understanding the root causes behind behaviors is crucial, and having open conversations can help unravel complex issues like OCD. For individuals with OCD, rituals provide a sense of control and relief, even though they may seem irrational to others. Parents can support their children by giving them space and understanding rather than dismissing their behaviors as strange or abnormal.

Additionally, the stigma around autism diagnosis can be daunting for parents, but understanding and accepting neurodiversity is essential as society becomes increasingly diverse. Rather than viewing autism as a negative, it's important to recognize that diagnosis rates are increasing due to better recognition and understanding.

Managing sensory overload and regulating the nervous system are ongoing challenges for neurodivergent individuals. Strategies such as finding calming activities, setting boundaries, and seeking professional support can help individuals and their families navigate these challenges effectively.

Parents of neurodivergent children can best support their child by trusting and listening to them. It's essential to create a safe space for them to express their emotions without judgment and to meet their needs in the moment. Rather than trying to make their child neurotypical, parents should focus on making their child comfortable and empowered.

It's okay for children to have meltdowns or big feelings in public, and parents should prioritize their child's well-being over societal expectations. Embracing neurodiversity and allowing children to lean into their natural interests can lead to great innovation and impact in the world.

For more information, visit:

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147 therapist endorsed self-regulation strategies for children a practical guide for parents
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