Since March 2020, we have all assuredly witnessed firsthand the importance of our community – our friends, family, co-workers, and loved ones who supported us, helped us deal with the layers of adversity, and played a critical role in helping us come out of the pandemic stronger.
While ecosystems are important to all individuals, they are especially crucial to the caregivers and families of neurodivergent learners. Ecosystems for these individuals help provide a sense of belonging for those going through similar experiences, but also serve as a community or network of confidantes and advisors who can help give families direction when time is of the essence.
Educational professionals play a starring role in learner ecosystems and help bolster them as they provide a listening ear, a credible source of support and validate recommendations to parents.
Let’s take a look at how these ecosystems operate and examine the role they play for neurodivergent learners, their parents, and the professionals who comprise them.
What is a Learner Ecosystem?
I see a learner’s ecosystem as a community that provides layers of vital support to its members.
You may be working closely with a psychologist, a learner’s teacher, and a behaviorist. But what if your learner’s teacher says you need to start working with a Speech and Language Pathologist (SLP)? Many parents would instantly feel a sense of confusion or anxiety because they have very little idea where to begin in contacting an SLP, vetting them, and initiating support services. Maybe the psychologist recommends that you find an Executive Functioning Coach for your child, which sparks questions for many caregivers: Are there any in your area who have the availability to see your child, and what qualifications are required? Starting these processes can be daunting and therefore cause a time delay, preventing caregivers and their children from getting started on their journey towards reaching their full potential.
Creating an ecosystem for your learner–from the professionals you work with to your fellow parents to social media groups and online forums–can provide you with a powerful set of resources that can make your search for answers more effective and less time consuming. It’s also vital to reducing stress and anxiety, so you can put your best foot forward and set your learner up for success.
Professionals, as an important part of neurodivergent learners’ ecosystems, benefit from work with other specialists, empowering all who work with the learner to see greater strides. A strong ecosystem is a win-win for all involved!
How to Create Your Learner’s Ecosystem
The first thing you need to do in order to create your ecosystem is to understand what is the top priority, the most pressing need for your learner. Ask your learner’s teacher, school team, and/or psychologist about which specialists you should engage with first. If your learner has specific gaps in their learner profile, start there first. Address these gaps, and as you are doing so, start building your ecosystem by speaking with the professionals you are working with and the fellow parents you come across.
One of the best ways to make your ecosystem work for you is to build strong relationships with the professionals and peers you trust. Provide value for them – referring a great psychologist to new clients, for example – while also articulating what your current needs are: “If you know any Occupational Therapists you recommend, let me know.” Do the same thing with your fellow parents: if you have worked extensively with a range of behaviorists, try posting something on a social media group letting other parents know that you are happy to provide guidance in this area.
The same goes for professionals. If you have patient referrals from other professionals, ask them for any specialists that they would recommend. Start compiling a list of specialists, what age groups they serve, where they are located, and whether they have capacity to take on new clients. Check in with them consistently to see if their availability, expertise, or focus has changed.
In order to create your ecosystem, you need to be a lynchpin of other ecosystems. Like any relationship, you are going to get out what you put in.
Post Diagnosis: The Importance of Speed to Treatment
So many of us who have neurodivergent children know the feeling of stress and helplessness that sets in post diagnosis. Caregivers and family members feel overwhelmed, and yet time is critical: studies have shown that better outcomes are directly tied to early intervention.
At the same time, many people will encounter waitlists for treatment, as the learner falls further and further behind. This wastes critical weeks and months where a learner could be placed on a path towards a higher quality, more enjoyable long-term future.
Professionals play a key role through their ecosystems at this stage. Because parents are just starting along this journey, they do not have their knowledge base established. Caregivers will need more guidance at this time than any other. Furthermore, professionals have a better sense through their network of what specialists a learner may need to see and who has capacity to see them.
The faster a family and their professionals can develop a game plan for treatment, the better the outcome will be – while also expediting neurodivergent learners’ feelings of success and boosting overall self-confidence.
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