2 adults, 6 kids. Multiple neurodivergences. That’s my family.
Bipolar, Autistic, Anxiety, Depression, Sensory Sensitivities, Sleep Challenges.
We have variety. We have diversity. We have strengths and challenges. We have lots of different interests, lots of different preferences. And we have many differing needs and a big range of coping strategies.
As with most families, we can work through our different preferences without too much trouble. We can balance our differing interests without much stress. But when our needs and coping strategies conflict with each other, that is a bit more tricky.
So, how do we respectfully negotiate to make sure all 8 of us do get what we need? Simply put, we give and take, we compromise and we have a variety of strategies available.
In practical terms what we do probably looks somewhat unorganized and disjointed. But there are reasons behind the way our home is set up the way it is and why we do things the way we do. For my husband and I as parents, there was a fair amount of unlearning old habits and relinquishing of control. We had to make conscious decisions to do things differently than we had been modeled. We had to be prepared to look rather unconventional to some of our family and friends. There was a period of discomfort. But ultimately, it was simple, because it was what was needed, and when you decide to do what is needed, things do fall into place.
Here are some of the strategies we use.
In our family we have sensory seekers and sensory avoiders. We try to provide spaces that meet the needs of both. Some rooms in our house are quite cluttered and others are quite simple. Some rooms we leave to be pretty messy most the time and others we aim to keep clear as much as we can. This allows a balance of spaces available to meet the needs of those who don’t like clutter and those who find it comforting and stimulating. And for those who find both serve their needs at different times it is easy to move between. We have set up lamps and lights around the house so we can easily change the brightness in any room at any time. Curtains are often closed during the day for periods of time to suit someones needs.
For our sensory seekers we try to provide a wide range of stimulus in our house. This means we have a lot of differently textured rugs on our floors. We have plenty of cushions about for piling into and under and on top of. We bounce on the lounge and bed. We have small spaces around the place, curtained off beds, pop up tents and hidey holes in wardrobes.
In our family some need noise to relax and some need quiet. We are really fortunate to be able to offer the kids who need quiet a room of their own. Those who handle noise well share space with each other. In shared spaces, those who love loud music usually wear earphones to listen to their music. During times when music is playing in shared spaces for all to hear, there are ear defenders available for those who prefer less volume. The combination of earphones and ear defenders means there is usually someone in a shared space with something over their ears.
In our family meal times are not a family affair. There is no expectation that we all sit together at the table to eat. Some of us do, some of us eat in other parts of the house. Some of us eat at different times of the day. Some of us have quite particular preferences for foods and so choose not to eat the main meal that has been prepared. There is no requirement that we conform to any expectations around food other than being aware of the impact our choices make on our health. This has lead to great discussions and varying choices. Our kids are all healthy and much happier for having control over their choices about food.
In our family we encourage self advocacy. It is always acceptable to say, ‘no I can’t do that right now’, ‘no, I will not share that at the moment’, ‘no, you can’t touch me’, or ‘I cannot be in this space while that is happening’. We acknowledge that shared space is just that- shared. If we do not have the capacity to cope with what is happening in shared space we remove ourself from that space to somewhere we can be alone. When we need to be alone, it is always ok to say ‘I need to be alone in my space for now’. Those who share a room have a place in that room that is recognized as theirs in which they are not disturbed.
We find that when we implement these strategies, life is easier for all of us. The cross over and conflict in needs is balanced out and everyone has space to advocate for and have their needs met. Of course, sometimes we forget, or become overwhelmed and need to be reminded how to best look after ourselves and each other. Sometimes adults remind children, and sometimes children remind adults.
Over all, our large and neurodiverse family exists happily and peacefully together in this space we have worked together to create. It is a fluid space, a dynamic place, where we move with each other and around each other. It is a bit of a dance, in a way, and we are learning, improving and becoming more co-ordinated as we go. We sometimes collide, we sometimes brush past a little awkwardly, we sometimes slip by gracefully.