What Happens When Neuro-Typical and Neuro-Atypical Kids Mix

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When a neuro-atypical kid enters a room full of neuro-typical peers, most parents hold their breath. We worry that somehow, their differences will make getting along difficult. As parents of either type of child, we definitely want them to make friends. So how can we, as adults and parents, help?

When we started out on this post, we were hoping for powerful one-liners we could say to our neuro-typical or neuro-atypical kids. We contacted Niamh Daniels, mother to Essie, a 6-year-old child with Down Syndrome, and Wei Ling Lee, a teacher at Kindle Garden, an inclusive pre-school in Singapore. The more they answered our questions, the more we realised the answers are usually simpler than we expected.

See the World Through the Eyes of a Child

When Niamh talks about Essie’s relationships with her peers, she admits that she’s often more worried than is necessary. As a toddler, Essie blended in well with other children, none of them seemed to notice anything different about her. “Now she is 6 and differences are more obvious to them,” she says, before adding “I have realized, however, that I sometimes project this difference onto both Essie and her peers.

Niamh tells a story that we can all empathise with: during Essie’s first week at school, Niamh felt a kind of trepidation. She wanted to see how other kids would react to Essie in a school setting. When a boy approached Essie, Niamh was subconsciously holding her breath, wondering what would happen next. And he just asked her to play tag. Simple as that.

“It was a moment I will never forget as it reminded me to stop putting Down Syndrome first,” she says. The two children still play together every morning. “He has asked me how old Essie is, but other than he has never ever brought up anything about Essie being different – it is obviously not something that interests him!” she concludes. 

Kids are more interested in playing than knowing if one of them is different. Photo credit: HaiRobe on Pixabay

Wei Ling shares similar insight, describing neuro-typical kids interacting with differently abled pupils at school. “They do not treat them any differently than their peers but they do seem a bit lost at times when interacting with them for the first few times as some of them might be unable to respond appropriately to social interactions.”

So it seems the first conclusion is: let kids be kids, and you’ll notice they don’t care about these differences as long as they can play together.

Show Them By Example

Of course, this doesn’t mean they have nothing to learn. Wei Ling goes on to explain that the neuro-typical kids do notice the differences. At Kindle Garden,  “the teachers and staff play a big role and have to be conscious of how they speak and interact with children with added needs as the other children often take them as role models.” When all the adults treat these children with respect, their neuro-typical peers do the same.

A good way of nurturing the right kinds of attitudes is to develop empathy. This mindset is a powerful tool, that teachers use, not just to help kids with different abilities get along better, but even among neuro-typical children. “We highlight strengths and teach children that all of them have different areas they are stronger at and there are areas that each of them might need help with.” She also adds that discussions and collective problem solving helps promote a “growth mindset”.

This doesn’t mean everything’s always easy. “We do have some instances where children with Down Syndrome get frustrated,” she concedes. But the other kids are well equipped to react. “They learn how to communicate with them or how to seek help, like approaching a teacher or leaving them to calm down.”

Sometimes we project our own fears onto kids. Photo credit Free-Photos and Pixabay

Essie is also in a school with neuro-typical kids. Niamh thinks that one of the reasons she has been able to adapt so well is that she has always been used to routines. As the youngest of three, “she has had to learn to share from a very young age.” Today, “if Essie is told it is her turn next, or in 2 minutes, she understands – she may stomp her feet and get a bit huffy – but she doesn’t melt down and collapse in a tantrum.”

Give Everyone a Chance to Succeed

Niamh wants Essie to achieve her full potential. That’s one of the reasons she wanted her daughter to be in a mixed school setting. And with two other daughters, she has to cater to everyone’s needs and abilities.

When she first told her eldest daughter that Essie had Down Syndrome, they had a very striking exchange. Her daughter said “Oh, well I’m not going to help you,” to which Niamh replied, “You don’t have to help, that’s my job as her Mummy.” At the time, of course, Niamh was crushed, but she had actually managed to reassure her eldest daughter. Knowing she would have her own space to grow, she started asking her teachers about Down Syndrome and came to view it as “something that made her sister special, in a good way.”

At Kindle Garden, each child has their own learning path. No one has to wait for another child to understand something before the whole class can move on. This is positive both for the kids, who know that doing well doesn’t mean conforming and for their parents. “They are often reassured when we tell them that each child is always at their own pace.”

Giving each child the space to grow at their pace is key. Photo credit: Bess-Hamiti and Pixabay

The pre-school works to create a sense of community. “We have lots of family-school events where parents are invited to showcases or family school activities into their child’s classroom and this helps parents understand other children with needs -and also their abilities,” says Wei.

Kids First, Disability Second

For Wei, after working with children on a one to one basis, she loves seeing all these children in an inclusive environment, learning and playing together. She adds: “it is truly enriching and I feel very fortunate to witness growth in all of them daily!”

And when Niamh’s second daughter recently explained Down Syndrome to her class, she ended the presentation with the words: “at the end of the day, she is just my annoying little sister.” Her message was that Essie is her sister, who happens to have Down Syndrome, and not a child with Down Syndrome who happens to be her sister.

Says Niamh, “the wonderful thing about all children is that they rarely notice differences – kids are looking for other kids to connect with, make friends and have fun.” This is her biggest takeaway as a parent of a child that is different.


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Mélie Aboul-Nasr

Mélie is an English and French language writer who has worked in consulting and social entrepreneurship. She helps Irisada develop relevant content for carers and customers.

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