Understanding Neurodiversity in Young Children

Neurodiversity or neurodivergent may or may not be a term you are familiar with. It is a relatively new term in the popular vernacular, although it has existed since the 1990s. Neurodiversity refers to the diverse functioning of the human brain. Neurodivergent individuals are those with brain functioning outside typical brain development. Often, it is difficult for parents of young children to understand if their child has a simple developmental delay or is neurodivergent. This blog aims to help parents and educators understand neurodiversity in young children.

What are Neurodivergent Conditions?

The term neurodivergent has strong links to the autism community. But also includes people with ADHD and learning disabilities like dyslexia and dyscalculia. Neurodivergency also refers to Tourette syndrome, sensory processing disorders, and mental health disorders like anxiety. And genetic conditions like Down Syndrome, Prader-Willi Syndrome, and  Williams Syndrome. Perhaps the only neurodivergent condition diagnosed before birth is Down syndrome. Down syndrome is caused by a chromosomal abnormality that doctors can test for if there is a supposed risk. Most others, such as ADHD, Autism, and learning or mental health disorders, may not be diagnosed until a handful or, in some cases, many years later.

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Some children will have physical, emotional, or mental developmental delays that correct themselves in time or with therapy—for example, OT (occupational therapy), speech therapy, or PT (physical therapy). A developmental delay does not signify a neurodivergent condition. However, many neurodivergent children have one or more developmental delays.

How Do I Know If My Child Is Neurodivergent?

Only medical professionals and education specialists can officially diagnose a neurodivergent condition. For example, a speech-language pathologist can diagnose dyslexia. A child psychologist or pediatric neurologist can diagnose autism. And your child’s pediatrician can diagnose ADHD. Regular check-ups with their pediatrician will also help discover any possible neurodivergent conditions. Your child’s pediatrician will ask you to complete ages and stages questionnaires to assess your little one’s development. Therefore, it is essential you answer the questions as truthfully as possible.

You also know your child and may be able to tell if something doesn’t seem right. However, be careful not to compare them too much to other children since each child develops differently. Likewise, if you only have one child and no other comparison, you may not realize your child is missing or falling behind on crucial developmental milestones.

Your child’s teachers or caregivers may also notice signs, symptoms, or developmental delays. While educators are not allowed to diagnose children, educators are trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of various neurodivergent conditions. They will likely be the first person who recommends your child for further diagnosis. Think of it like the ultrasound technician cannot tell you the results of what they see, yet they are trained to look for and understand anomalies.

As a result, educators sometimes bear the brunt of parents’ frustration and anger. No one wants their kid to be “different.” But as the parent of two neurodivergent children, I affirm that early intervention is the best thing you can do for your child! If your child’s childcare, preschool, or elementary school teacher comes to you with developmental concerns, keep an open mind and listen. Working as a team benefits your child!

Signs and Symptoms of Neurodiversity in Young Children

There are many neurodivergent conditions; therefore, no blanket list of signs or symptoms exists. However, some more common conditions, like the autism spectrum, ADHD, sensory processing, and dyslexia, have recognizable traits.

Autism Spectrum Disorder

These are some of the most common signs of autism spectrum disorder from the CDC:

  • Avoids or does not keep eye contact
  • Does not respond to name by nine months of age
  • Does not show facial expressions like happy, sad, angry, and surprised by nine months of age
  • Does not play simple interactive games like pat-a-cake by 12 months of age
  • Uses few or no gestures by 12 months of age
  • Does not share interests with others by 15 months of age
  • Does not point to show you something interesting by 18 months of age
  • Does not notice when others are hurt or upset by 24 months of age
  • Does not engage in play with peers by 36 months of age
  • Does not engage in pretend play by 48 months of age
  • Does not sing, dance, or act for you by 60 months of age
  • Lines up toys or other objects and gets upset when the order is changed
  • Repeats words or phrases over and over (called echolalia)
  • Plays with toys the same way every time
  • Is focused on parts of objects (for example, wheels)
  • Gets upset by minor changes
  • Has obsessive interests
  • Must follow certain routines
  • Flaps hands, rocks body, or spins self in circles
  • Has unusual reactions to the way things sound, smell, taste, look, or feel


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Here are some of the most common signs of ADHD from Healthline.com:

  • Has trouble focusing on activities and becomes easily distracted
  • Has a low attention span while playing or doing schoolwork
  • Often fidgets, squirms, or otherwise has trouble sitting still
  • Constantly needing movement, frequently running around, needs to touch or hold objects
  • Engaging in activities loudly or disruptively
  • Excess talking and interrupting other people
  • Can hyperfocus on an activity for lengthy periods

Sensory Processing Disorder

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There is debate about whether sensory processing disorder is a stand-alone condition or a side-effect of other conditions like autism or ADHD. Nonetheless, here are the most common signs of sensory processing disorder from Medical News Today:

Children with a low tolerance for sensory input are often

  • Overwhelmed by people or places
  • Startled easily
  • Dislike and avoid bright lights
  • Avoid contact with others
  • React strongly to smells, sounds, or textures

Children who are under-sensitive to sensory input may

  • frequently touch objects and play roughly
  • have a high pain tolerance
  • fidget or move regularly
  • be clumsy and uncoordinated


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Dyslexia and other learning disabilities are usually not diagnosed until a child is in school. However, a few early signs may indicate a child has dyslexia. Here are the common signs of dyslexia according to the Mayo Clinic:

Early Signs

  • Late talking
  • Learning new words slowly
  • Problems forming words correctly, such as reversing sounds in words or confusing words that sound alike
  • Problems remembering or naming letters, numbers, and colors
  • Difficulty learning nursery rhymes or playing rhyming games

School-Age Signs

  • Reading well below the expected level for age
  • Problems processing and understanding what is heard
  • Difficulty finding the right word or forming answers to questions
  • Problems remembering the sequence of things
  • Difficulty seeing (and occasionally hearing) similarities and differences in letters and words
  • Inability to sound out the pronunciation of an unfamiliar word
  • Difficulty spelling
  • Spending an unusually long time completing tasks that involve reading or writing
  • Avoiding activities that involve reading

Neurodivergence and Intelligence

Neuodivergency is not an indicator of low intelligence. A stigma is attached, especially to those with learning disabilities like dyslexia and ADHD, that they are not intelligent, cannot be good students, and don’t learn well. This stigma exists because not all educators and parents understand the conditions, and until the last few decades, these children were not recognized in schools as needing learning accommodations. Many neurodivergent children and adults are extremely intelligent and may even have genius-level IQs. Albert Einstein, for example, was Dyslexic and did not speak until he was nearly six years old!

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While individuals with Down syndrome typically have an IQ on the lower-than-average side, that does not mean they lack intelligence or the ability to learn. The same can be said for children on the autism spectrum. Because it is a spectrum, some children may have a lower-than-average IQ. A study done in 2011 indicated that 55% of the children had a lower-than-average IQ. However, 28% scored in the average range, and 3% were above average. Therefore, there is not a direct relation between intelligence and autism.

Take Away

This brief blog is only an intro to what it means to be neurodivergent. Many parents have questions and concerns about their young children when it appears they are not developing typically. In many cases, a kid behind on a milestone or two is just that, a little behind, and there is no need for concern. However, if you feel your child may be neurodivergent or have other developmental delays, it is always best to speak with their pediatrician and teachers. Understanding neurodiversity in young children may be confusing or even scary. The best thing you can do for your child is to advocate and provide them with the tools and early intervention needed to be successful!

August 25th, 2023, by L. Elizabeth Forry

written by

L. Elizabeth Forry 

L. Elizabeth Forry is an Early Childhood Educator with fifteen years of classroom teaching experience. She earned a Master of Science in Early Childhood Education from The University of North Dakota and has a Bachelor of Arts in English and one in Music from Lebanon Valley College. She has taught children in Japan, Washington D.C., Chicago, and suburban Maryland. She is trained as a reading therapist, has a TEFL certification, and has done extensive work with children regarding mental health, social-emotional development, gender development. She has written curriculum for children and educators and has led training sessions for parents and educators on various topics on early childhood development. She is the mother of two boys and resides outside of Annapolis, Maryland.

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