A Feb. 28 webinar explored the topic of neurodiversity, a term that encompasses a wide range of conditions, including autism, ADHD, dyslexia and Tourette Syndrome.
The talk, organized by PJ Library, Jewish National Fund of Canada Pacific Region, the Jewish Federation of Greater Vancouver, the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver and JCC inclusion services, was part of this year’s recognition of Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month (JDAIM).
“So often there is a grand stigma that a child has to fit the mold of what society wants of them. Our differences are what make us so valuable and so integral to creating positive change. I am thankful for my differences,” said Margaux Wosk, an autistic artist and entrepreneur, who provided introductory remarks.
The panelists for the evening were Dr. Janet Mah, a registered psychologist; Suzanne Ferera, a family counselor and registered occupational therapist; and Michele Shilvock, a certified behaviour analyst. Lisa Romalis, a teacher who is also a parent of a neurodiverse child, was the moderator.
Mah began by discussing common misconceptions regarding ADHD, or attentive deficit hyperactivity disorder. ADHD, she noted, is the broad term applied to capture three manifestations of the disorder: inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity. She explained that ADD (attention deficit disorder) is an outdated term that would fall into the ADHD umbrella.
Children with ADHD might not be easy for educators to spot. “Often they are the quiet daydreamers that don’t disrupt the classroom, or the highly intelligent kids who are underachieving in relation to their own potential,” said Mah, an associate at the Cornerstone Child and Family Psychology Clinic, a clinical assistant professor in the faculty of medicine at the University of British Columbia and an expert in behavioural parent training and cognitive behavioural therapy.
Another misconception stems from the word “deficit” in ADHD. Frequently, a child’s attention will show signs of inconsistency, rather than a deficit, she explained. That is, a child with ADHD may be able to focus on subjects that are of interest to them. The difference lies within the executive functions in the brain, i.e., the ability to make transitions to a less-preferred task, time management, peer relationships, flexible thinking and emotional regulation.
There is, as well, a misconception centring around the use of medication, Mah pointed out. Many fear that those who take medication for ADHD will suffer a “zombie effect” or be susceptible to an increased risk of substance use. Proper treatment, she said, helps increase a positive trajectory for a person. Grades and behaviours may improve, bringing about more self-confidence and better friendships.
Mah emphasized the importance of external supports or adjusting the environment for those with ADHD. “ADHD is not a knowledge deficit,” she said. “It is more of a performance deficit. Most kids with ADHD know what the right thing to do is; they just have difficulty doing it in the moment.”
Ferera shared with the audience some of the parenting strategies she employs. A practitioner of the “calmer, easier, happier” method, founded by British learning and behaviour specialist Noël Janis-Norton, Ferera works as a school counselor and goes into family homes to help children who have behavioural difficulties.
One of the strategies Ferera uses with parents and teachers is descriptive praise. Rather than correcting behaviour or using vague or over-the-top praise to bring about improvement, descriptive praise recognizes the positive behaviours of a child, such as honesty, hard work and kindness.
“When we say ‘good job’ to a child, we are not giving them any useful information about what they did right so that they can do it again. Also, words like ‘awesome’ are not particularly believable to a child who knows they haven’t done anything awesome,” she said.
Descriptive praise is more specific. For example, if a child is being cooperative, a parent might say to them, “I asked you to put your toys away and, look, you’re putting your toys away.”
“The reason it is so important is that we all, as human beings, want to be appreciated, so, if we can use descriptive praise, it helps children understand that they can do the right thing and that they can do it again,” said Ferera, who believes this strategy can bring about a positive attachment in the parent-child relationship.
Shilvock, who has worked in the field of autism and neurodiversity for more than 23 years, supporting children and families through direct intervention design, supervision and parent coaching, described her approach as a behaviour analyst as follows: “Good therapy should be reflective about how learners learn. I am not about turning children into anything other than into the amazing individuals they already are.”
She, too, underscored the importance of environment and celebrating the diversity in neurodiverse children. Further, she stressed understanding a child’s social skills by gathering information and knowing where the “landmines” or potential triggers are. For example, if a child is attending a birthday party, a parent should find out what the plan for the party is ahead of time. This way, they can ascertain if there are any potential issues and decide if it is best for their child to go there without them or if they should accompany the child.
In concluding remarks, Michael Sachs, executive director of JNF Pacific Region, thanked the participants and recognized the wide range of topics covered in the webinar, as well as the need for more conversations on the topic in the future.
Sam Margolis has written for the Globe and Mail, the National Post, UPI and MSNBC.