Caring For and Educating Neurodiverse Children

Members of ECLC’s Communications Team recently had the opportunity to speak with two experts in the field of caring for and educating neurodiverse children.  The following article takes a closer look at what we learned while in conversation with Camille D’Amico, Principal of Abilities First; and Bethany Williams, MS Ed, from Child Care Council, Inc.

As the Principal of Abilities First Executive Drive Preschool, Camille D’Amico leads a team of educators who work tirelessly to provide a safe, supportive environment for children with a range of developmental and neurological differences. Abilities First is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization that provides comprehensive services and support to individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities in the Hudson Valley region of New York.

Bethany Williams, MS Ed, is the Special Needs Services Coordinator for the Department of Health and Social Emotional Wellness at Child Care Council, Inc. Bethany has been working for Child Care Council for 13 years, helping parents of children with disabilities find child care and offering a variety of technical assistance to the child care providers in their area. Located in Rochester, NY, Child Care Council provides information, training, and resources to parents, child care providers, and businesses in Monroe, Livingston, and Wayne counties.

D’Amico’s passion for this work began when she started teaching at a preschool called Eden School. Her desire to help children and develop new pathways for their learning led her to pursue a master’s degree in special education and teaching from NYU (New York University). Since then, she has focused on working with neurodiverse children, providing 1-on-1 therapy and developing innovative programs to support their needs.

Williams’ first inspiration to do this work came from being a mom. With a daughter who has special needs herself, Williams remembers how stressful it was trying to find consistent care. This led her to want to do more for parents who also struggled to find the right program for their child. After working as an inclusive preschool teacher, she realized she had an opportunity to learn more about the needs you cannot see. “I recognized in myself that I was not providing the best care for children with special needs in my classroom, so that led me to go back to school and get my degree in Special Education.” After earning her degree, Williams joined the staff at Child Care Council.  There, she has been able to utilize her training and engage in work on a daily basis that she is deeply passionate about.

But what exactly is neurodiversity?

To both Williams and D’Amico, it encompasses a broad range of neurological differences that are not always visible or easily understood. Children with neurodivergent conditions, like Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), may respond differently to their environment than their neurotypical peers. This can make it challenging for educators and caregivers to identify and support their unique needs. Williams recalls working with students who were nonverbal, and how their needs looked very different from other neurodivergent children. Learning about the child on an individual level to meet their needs makes inclusion successful.

One misconception that D’Amico hopes to clear up is the idea that neurodiverse conditions can be “cured.” While Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy and other interventions can be helpful, these conditions are not something that can simply be eliminated. Neurodiverse children have different brain structures and ways of processing information, so they require specialized care and support. Williams made a similar distinction, emphasizing that learning and meeting milestones may look different for neurodiverse children. She added that there is a widely stated misconception that neurodiverse children are dangerous or violent, which just isn’t true. For Williams, it is not about changing these children but about meeting them where they are and helping them to achieve.

Williams made note of two programs that have generated a great response from the parents and providers. The first is their loan equipment program. This program allows parents or educators to receive materials at zero cost to the child or family. These can include sensory items, iPads, or other communication tools for nonverbal children. Child Care Council has also expanded their special needs consultation program. Consultants work with providers for 6 to 12 months, focusing on increased and targeted support for providers, with a goal of reducing suspensions and expulsion. So far, they have worked with over 30 children and trained over 100 providers.

One program that D’Amico is particularly proud of is Positive Behavior Supports, which uses cartoon animal characters to model good behavior for children to follow. For example, a friendly fox might demonstrate how to share toys or take turns. By leading children through example, this program helps them to develop critical social skills in a fun and engaging way. Another of their newer programs is called LifeMap, designed to help individuals with disabilities and their families navigate the complex system of services and support available.

So how can educators and parents better provide for neurodiverse children?

D’Amico stresses the importance of creating a Zone of Optimal Performance, where children are not overstimulated by their environment. In large groups, neurodiverse children may struggle to cope with too much stimulation, which can lead to meltdowns and other negative behaviors. By providing a calm, supportive environment, educators can help these children to thrive.

Williams emphasizes the importance of collaboration and building relationships between parents and providers. She urged that “Goals at home must be articulated and continued at school. Overall, we need to make sure that parents and provider are on the same page, especially with what the needs of their child are.” Williams added that developing inclusive spaces, in which all children can benefit, helps to ensure that neurodiverse children are fully included in the classroom. To create these more inclusive spaces, D’Amico recommends that early educators become Certified NYS Childcare Trainers. By learning how to provide specialized care and support, they can better meet the needs of neurodiverse children.

Ultimately, D’Amico and Williams believe that we need to do more to advocate for neurodiverse children in the early education field. This means providing enough physical space for programs, as well as ensuring that parents and caregivers have access to resources and support. By working together, we can create a more inclusive, supportive environment for all children.

Some recommended resources for educators include: Autism Society, the NYS Pyramid Model, and the Autism Self Advocacy Network (ASAN). D’Amico also recommends the Think Differently initiative, which aims to raise awareness and understanding of neurodiversity among first responders and other professionals. Parents who are looking for affordable daycare programs for their neurodiverse children may also benefit from programs offered by local community centers or other organizations. Williams added three books that she finds helpful for parents and providers to utilize: 10 Things Every Child With Autism Wishes You Knew, Taking Autism to School, and My Brother Charlie.

By creating more inclusive spaces and advocating for these children, we can help them to reach their full potential and lead fulfilling lives. As parents, educators, and community members, it’s our responsibility to educate ourselves and create more resources and support systems for neurodiverse individuals. With the right tools and understanding, we can create a world where neurodiversity is celebrated and valued, and where everyone has the opportunity to thrive.

Jessica Havens

ECLC Community Education Coordinator