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        the author Jessica Harter with her daughter on a front stoop

        In My Own Words

        Lessons From My Neurodivergent Daughter

        Nobody knows how to be a parent until they become one. No amount of books or classes or sage wisdom, solicited or not, can scratch the surface of what it takes. Without their knowing, it is our children who teach us. I always wanted to be a mother. I understood the basics, I picked up a few things along the way, but really, it’s my kids who taught me the most.

        Written By
        Jessica Harter

        My oldest daughter is neurodivergent. It’s a broad concept but one that our family fully embraces. Neurodevelopmental differences are just that, variances in how the brain functions, and while they are differences, they are not deficits. Neurodivergent people experience the world in a way that is unique and important, and like all diversity, diversity of the brain enriches the world for the better. Her beautifully different, magical brain teaches me every day. The four lessons below changed me not just as a parent, but as a person, and definitely for the better.

        Be who you are with no apologies:

        My daughter is truly her own person. It is what I admire most about her, what I strive to be myself. I often find myself leading a double life of sorts, the person I am and the person I present to most of the world. My daughter does not have two selves—she is who she is in everything she does from the way she dresses to her all-consuming passions. If it speaks to her, she goes for it. People are incredibly powerful when no energy is wasted on the judgement of others.

        Take Greta Thunberg, a rather high-profile member of the neurodivergent community, yet before she testified at the UN Climate Actions Summit, before she won the International Children’s Peace Prize, before she was the Time Person of the Year, before millions of students across the world followed her in a historic climate strike, before she had over 12 million Instagram followers, she was a fifteen-year-old-kid who really, really, cared about climate change. Before she had the support of millions, she launched a climate strike alone. She sat on the steps of Swedish parliament totally alone, no friends by her side, no supporters cheering her on. She didn’t care. She knew she was right. I’m 39 and still trying to be this brave about my convictions. My daughter is 11—she might not be a famous climate activist, but she is that brave.

        Follow your gut and don’t second guess yourself:

        I overthink everything from the jeans I put on in the morning to the sentence I am currently writing. Thank God for the sake of our entire family, my daughter does not. She makes a choice and goes with it, no false starts. Striped shirt, polka dot pants, flowered socks—somehow it always works and is way cooler than anything I might choose. When I stupidly try to intervene, she is never swayed.

        For her camp talent show this summer, she decided to read a poem she wrote followed by the solo “You Will Be Found” from Dear Evan Hansen. It was a bold choice amongst a line-up of tween girls shaking hips and cartwheeling to pop songs. I gently questioned the choice, gave her an out, a few other options. Girls can be so cruel, I thought silently. She never wavered. She was right. Standing alone, in the blazing August sun, before rows of antsy, chattering campers and scorching, bored parents, she spoke and then sang and brought everyone to complete silence. They were amazed. She was amazing.

        Hold your judgement. Be curious instead:

        I find kids in general are better at this than adults. I’m not exactly sure what the age is when judgement starts to take over one’s sense of curiosity, but somewhere along the way it does. Recently my daughter openly shared her neurodiversity with her class. In fact, she blurted it out during a Zoom session last year. The teacher asked how their weekend was, she responded “I just want everyone to know I’m neurodivergent.” I held my breath. I’m proud but I’m also protective. They all took it in stride. Later, she clarified that she didn’t want anyone to think she was a “cry baby,” that sometimes she has a hard time controlling her emotions and impulses. Don’t we all, but she is a bit more extreme. In the same way she doesn’t hide who she is, she doesn’t hide her emotions either. Her peers were receptive, they asked questions, she answered. Some even offered that they too might be neurodivergent.

        Her behaviors are not always typical. She wanders a bit, walks with her face glued to a book, doesn’t always respond to questions and occasionally climbs trees not always meant for climbing. It’s who she is so for the most part, I let her do her thing. I notice other parents, shooting the evil eye, assuming I’m an indulgent parent without a grip on her kids. Some comment under their breath, others offer snarky advice. I mostly pretend not to hear. They claim open-mindedness but judge anything out of the ordinary.

        Kids, however, are refreshingly open. My daughter often bounces in a chair so fast she appears to levitate beyond the laws of physics. My younger daughter had a playdate the other day. Her friend noticed and asked point blank, “Why do you do that?” Not mean, just blunt. “It’s what I do when I’m excited. How I release energy.” The little girl nodded. “Cool, can you teach me?”

        Nobody fits in a box:

        My daughter is neurodivergent but that is just one part of her. Neurodiversity explains why her brain works a bit differently, it helps her advocate for accommodations she may need, but it does not explain her as a person. On the flip side, she is just one neurodivergent person and as with any group, her experience is singular and does not represent the whole. Neurodiversity does not explain her love of novels and plays, her passion for Greek mythology and historical fiction, or the stories and poetry she writes so prolifically. It cannot tell the world about her adoration of all things tiny and cute from babies to puppies to caterpillars, or the fact that at age 11, she still squeezes my hand to say she cares and isn’t embarrassed by her mom in the school yard. She may not express interest in the details of my day, but if I’m down, she is the first to want to make it better. She experiences the world in a unique way—I feel lucky to sometimes get a glimpse of that view.

        Jessica Harter is a mother of 4, a writer and a graduate student in Human Development at Columbia University.