Child Development

Ask the Expert with Headstart Academy: Raising Neurodiverse Children

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Every child is unique and different – that goes without saying! But when there’s an official medical diagnosis for that difference, parenting concerns shift drastically. In the hopes of supporting all of our mamas, we invited double the experts last month to dish out their professional (and personal) advice on the topic of raising neurodiverse children. Here are our Ask The Expert answers to your questions by clinical psychologist, Ms. Sofia Vijayakumar from early intervention service provider, Headstart Academy, and Ms. Siti Safiqah binti Mohd Noh, the parent of a child with mild autism and speech delay.

Ms. Sofia Vijayakumar, child psychologist (Left); Ms. Safiqah, parent of a neurodiverse child (Right)


Labelling, pathologising and medical self-diagnosis is never helpful. On the other hand, it’s also crucial to catch early signs of neurodiversity for early intervention to begin, if needed. Always be aware of red flags, and consult an expert, when concerned.

What are some red flags in a young child that signal early intervention is needed and how would an assessment/diagnosis be undertaken?

Ms. Sofia:

Red flags include not meeting milestones, a lack of social communication skills, and a lack of eye contact. The child does not engage with you or initiate communication, and may be lacking in terms of language development. With regards to behaviour, children may tend to be preoccupied with toys or unusual objects, such as staring at the fan spin, or the wheels of a toy car. They may also have difficulty to adapting to changes.

For children below 2 years old, diagnosis is not recommended as they are still picking up on skills and rapidly developing. If you do see red flags in children below 2 years old, it would be wise to get some help from a child psychologist for assessments and recommendations on what to do next. The earlier you provide support, the less skills your child will need to catch up on, in order to be on par with their typically developing peers. Early intervention is always key.

Learning and Development  

How do I set up a home for a 4-year-old with ASD and ADHD?

Ms. Safiqah: Here are some things to keep in mind –

  1. Dedicated space: An autistic person can be fully preoccupied on a preferred topic or subject (i.e. animals, numbers, puzzles). It is important to have a dedicated space for your child to carry out their activities without interruption.
  2. Sensory environment: Add some sensory tools for your child to stimulate their motor skills. White noise can help the child to remain calm.
  3. Mini gym: Physical activities help the child to strengthen their muscles and focus better. Try installing a mini swing and trampoline as it does not take up too much space in your house.
  4. Labels: It is a lot easier for an autistic child to follow instruction through labels with words and pictures. You may post the labels in the kitchen, bedroom, dining room and bathroom.
Source: Unsplash

If my child attends regular school, what extra-curricular activities would you recommend they engage in?

Ms. Safiqah: I believe that extra-curricular activities are important for neurodiverse kids. Some of these activities can lead to lifelong interests and even a career (in it).

These can be gym classes, arts, music, sports, coding classes, or martial arts, to name a few. It is best to engage your child according to their preference, and provide activities that have simple rules and are less competitive. Before signing up for any activity, try asking for a trial session.

What should I do if my neurodiverse child…

  • Engages in Self-Harm

Watching your beloved child self-harm can make you feel worried, desperate, and is outright heart-breaking. Here are some tips on how to manage these situations, should this occur:

Source: Unsplash

How do I handle it when my child starts to self-harm?

Ms. Sofia: It depends on the severity of the behaviour. It is usually about trying to communicate a need or want. Here’s what you can do to help: 

  • Find the trigger

Firstly, ensure you remain calm. Find out the trigger of the behaviour. This means trying to recall what happened just before the self-harm occurred. Finding a way to handle self-harming behaviour would depend on the function of self-harm.

1. If it’s task related, modify the task to suit what they’re able to cope with, in order not to overwhelm your child.

2. If the trigger is due to anxiety or trying to communicate a stressful emotion, find an effective way to communicate – for example, with the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). Giving your child the ability to communicate would reduce the need of him or her having to self-harm to get a message across, or to get your attention.

If you’re aware of the trigger, you will be able to remove them from a situation or avoid the trigger altogether.

  • Do not reward the self-harming behaviour

It is important to note your reaction to any self-harming behaviour, as you do not want to unintentionally reinforce their behaviour. For example, giving your child their favourite toy when they self-harm may encourage further self-harming to get what he or she wants. Taking that into consideration, ABA therapy would be helpful in getting your child to learn how to redirect the behaviour with a range of methods.

Source: Spectrum
  • Provide a calm-down space

I think it’s important to realise that when a child is having a meltdown and begins to self harm, trying to physically stop them may result in you getting hurt as well.

One approach is to have an area, preferably a room, that is set up specifically to calm your child down in a safe environment. This may include removing anything that may be of a danger to them, and only having soft items, or items that are calming sensory-wise. Padded walls or protective gear sometimes prove to be helpful in more severe instances. Sometimes, they need to ride the wave of overwhelming emotions before regulating and calming down. By providing these options, they will be able to do so while keeping themselves safe.

  • Exhibits Speech Delay

My 7-year-old daughter has speech delay. Aside from private tutoring, what else can I do to encourage her and enhance her learning and verbal communication skills?

Ms. Sofia:

1. Keep the communication going:  Encourage two-way communication, ask your child to tell you stories, and keep conversations fun and light. Try to avoid “yes” or “no” questions. Instead, ask more open-ended questions, so your child will be encouraged to explain and express themselves more. Conversations can happen anytime and anywhere.

2. Read together: Reading together is good not just for reading skills, but also to get your children to practice their speech.

3. Bring the strategies learnt at therapy back home: Try and get some strategies from your speech therapist and practice it at home. The more your child is exposed to these strategies across different situations, the more effective it is, in terms of having continuity and repetition for the skills that they have learnt.

  • Demonstrates Accelerated Learning

Source: Unsplash

What would be the best way to support gifted kids (accelerated learners)?

Ms. Sofia: 

1. Focus on mental stimulation 

Be supportive of their interests by providing them opportunities and the means to explore areas they are gifted in. This encourages learning according to their strengths. In a school environment, ensure that the child is given tasks appropriate to their level of ability. It should be noted that giving them more to do may not necessarily help, but rather overwhelm them as it is about getting the suitable level of mental stimulation, and not about doing more of something that isn’t stimulating further learning. This would require the parent speaking to the school and working together to support the learning journey of the child. 

2. Give breaks from expectations 

Another way to support a gifted child would be to note that, although they may be gifted in certain areas, they may also require some help in other areas. Being gifted in a specific area does not necessarily mean the child is gifted across the board. This also includes allowing the child to learn that imperfection and making mistakes are allowed, and normal when it comes to learning.

As a parent, it is important to acknowledge that gifted children are still children, and require the balance of being allowed to hone their skills, while also given ample time to have non-structured play and take breaks from expectations placed upon them.

Supporting the Caretakers

It takes a village to raise a child. This proverb shows the important role the wider community plays in the development of every child, including children with disabilities. It’s up to each of us to advocate for inclusivity, celebrate differences, and support those who are actively involved in the lives of neurodivergent kids.

How can I best support my family and friends with neurodivergent children?

Ms. Safiqah:

Neurodivergency covers a broad range of conditions, including Autism, OCD, Dyslexia, and ADHD. Knowing their specific conditions can help us provide the appropriate support. For example, individuals on the autism spectrum do not like being in big crowds. We should try to understand their perspective, and can instead opt for smaller groups during gatherings together.

*The contents of these interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.

We hope these answers prove useful in providing our readers with some valuable insights, and wish our #makchicmumtribe of both neurotypical and neurodiverse children a beautiful parenting journey ahead!

From our team of purposeful, multi-faceted mummies. For editorial or general enquiries, email to us at hello@makchic.com.