One night five years ago, my then ten-year-old daughter Lucy wriggled on her stool at the dinner table. She stood up, sat down.
“Lucy, put your bottom in the chair,” I barked. I just needed everyone to eat so we could get to bedtime.
She popped up to standing and bent over her stool; she studied top, sides, legs, underneath—the opposite of what I’d asked. My instinct was to scold her. Six months before I would have. But my fledgling research on neurodiversity had taught me when things didn’t make sense to me to get curious before angry. I took a breath.
“What are you doing, Lu?”
“You told me to put my bottom in the chair, but it’s made of wood. I can’t.”
I paused as my mind bent around her words. I chuckled when I realized she thought I wanted her to climb inside the wooden chair somehow. Exactly what I’d said.
“I wasn’t clear. Sit on top of the chair and don’t get up until we’ve finished eating.” She sat down and didn’t get up. Amazing.
Literal versus abstract thinking is for real for Lucy. It is for many people with neurodiversity. It has taken me years to teach myself how to speak literally. Our language hangs on metaphors, idioms, even sarcasm (though I try to steer clear of that one). When I communicate in a way she understands, we have fewer confused meltdowns—me feeling disrespected by her not following my instructions; her feeling punished though she’s done what I’ve literally asked. I’ve taught Lucy the definitions of “literal” and “figurative.” We practice identifying both. I clarify that she knows what I mean ALL THE TIME. We’ve learned much together. We laugh a lot.
At my Neurobehavioral Model trainings I often say, “Curiosity is your superpower.” I believe it. We pause—in our strong moments—to observe and wonder about challenging behaviors rather than jumping to interpretations (often moral judgements). We’re gentle, and curious, with ourselves when we can’t. We take a couple of deep breaths before a contemplative practice. Notice where our bodies hold tension and where they are at ease. Come to practice with a sense of wonder rather than expectation. Growing awareness.
Powerful words: pause, wonder, notice, attention, awareness, curiosity. They invite wisdom. Often solutions. They also ground us in our shared humanity, respect, and creativity.
I wonder if you can get more curious? Who knows, you might even end up with a cape!