How to Explain Neurodiversity to Kids Simply

DEI resources for parents, how to explain neurodiversity to kids

Neurodiversity (mental differences) can be an abstract notion and often hard to understand, especially for children.

This article is for parents (or whomever) with a child in their lives who is curious about someone with a mental difference. 

There's a really easy way to explain it. 

Offer a simple definition

First, instead of using the term ‘neurodiversity,’ you might consider using the term ‘mental differences.’

The last thing you want to do is use terminology that could make your child ‘tune out’ from the beginning. Of course, it’s up to you and your child’s developmental level.

Next, it’s crucial that your child feels confident that you’re knowledgeable about the subject. Start by offering a simple definition:

“Neurodiversity (mental differences) is when someone’s brain works differently which affects the way they think and act.”

Depending on their age, most kids don’t need an explanation beyond the basics. (Actually, they probably don’t want one!).

Wait to see how your child reacts to your definition. They’re likely busy applying your words to scenarios from their own world.

If they have a question about a classmate or family member, it’s usually because they’re worried about safety.

Take the time to answer their question honestly and thoroughly. Assure them that you take your job as a parent very seriously. And one of your most important jobs as a parent is to make sure they’re safe and feel loved at all times.

Tell them that they can come to you anytime with a question or concern. Look them in the eyes when you say this. When it’s clear they feel reassured, praise them for grasping such a complicated subject.

If your child looks like they’re not understanding your definition, consider comparing mental differences to physical disabilities. You could say something like:

“Just like someone who has muscles that don’t work well (some people may need to walk slowly, and others might need a wheelchair), a person with a mental difference might need a lot of help or very little. Each person is different.”

Let that sink in before moving to the next subject.

Explain that mental differences can be hard to detect

Children need to learn that just because someone isn’t using a visible ability aid (e.g., wheelchair, stair lift, etc.), it doesn’t mean they don’t have a different mental ability.

Remind your child that millions of people, including leaders and authority figures, have a mental difference. To find examples that your child can recognize, google the phrase ‘famous people with mental differences.’

Explain that we can never tell what someone is experiencing or has experienced just by looking at them. So, the smart choice is to treat everyone with kindness and respect. Let that sink in and say it again if you feel like it needs repeating.

Watch your child’s reaction during this conversation and make adjustment(s) if needed.

  • Do they look confused? Offer to (calmly) repeat what you just said.
  • Do they look anxious? Consider toning down your rhetoric or shelving the conversation. Depending on your child’s age, they might be feeling unsafe. Reassure them that mental differences aren’t contagious.
  • Do they look bored? Try asking them if they know someone with a mental difference that’s hard to detect. Try to engage them in the conversation as much as possible.

Whatever they’re feeling, validate their emotions. Your child needs to know that their thoughts and feelings are safe to share with you.

Finally, embracing neurodiversity means going beyond medical definitions and recognizing the whole person, not just their neurodiverse quirks.

When you boil it down, the only thing kids need to know about neurodiversity is that everyone, no matter how their brain functions, deserves kindness and respect.

More Resources


If you found this article helpful, please check out How to Respond to Disability Curiosity from Kids. It's a concise guidebook for parents that's full of more suggestions about how to respond to kids' disability curiosity including instructions for discovering (subtly) how your child truly feels about disability, explaining both mental and physical disability, and teaching manners for adaptive tools (service dogs, wheelchairs, etc.). 

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