It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking about child development in terms of “normal” and “abnormal”—defining development in terms of standard milestones and trajectories. While these concepts can be a helpful starting place, it’s important to recognize and celebrate the diversity of the pathways that each child takes to reach their optimal development.
A child’s developmental pathway is influenced by many factors including identity, personality and culture, and also by abilities, special needs and neurodiversity. For children on the autism spectrum it is “normal” to begin to speak at age two or five or eight, or they may never speak with their mouths and instead learn other ways to communicate and engage with the world.
How can we get better at recognizing, supporting and celebrating each child’s unique strengths and abilities in the service of optimal child development? One example is thinking through how to leverage special areas of interest or “hyperfocus” that are common among many individuals on the autism spectrum. These special areas of interest can be powerful bridges to support optimal development. For example, students on the spectrum can be supported and engaged through incorporating these interests into curriculum and classroom work. Special interests can also be a powerful platform to connect with friends and family, and to broaden social networks.
Neurodiversity can also include unique strengths and abilities, which when nurtured can lead to meaningful and successful careers down the road. For example, Shawn Bolshin at CIBC, a young professional on the autism spectrum is able to detect hard-to-spot breaches in the banks online network, which has made him a rising star.
How can we better recognize and celebrate the diverse developmental pathway that each child walks? Using a strengths-based approach will help to unlock each child’s diverse gifts, and support them to develop optimally.