Why Neurodivergent Kids aren’t ‘Lazy’ or ‘Naughty’

Exploring Neurodiversity Podcast – Episode 21

by Adina Levy

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Show Notes:

‘Naughty’ and ‘lazy’ are two words that I can’t stand, especially when it comes to describing young kids, neurodivergent kids.
I don’t believe, in the vast majority of cases, neurodivergent kids are lazy or naughty. However, unfortunately, these are some of the labels that often get placed onto these kids by people who don’t understand them much.

In this episode, I break down these ideas – why neurodivergent kids aren’t lazy or naughty.


My free webinar for Allied Health Professionals – available for you anytime! Neurodiversity Affirming Practice Kickstart Webinar – I share three actionable tips that you can do right away when you watch it – Register at www.playlearnchat.com/free-neurodiversity-webinar




Welcome to the Exploring Neurodiversity Podcast. I’m Adina Levy from Play. Learn. Chat. I’m a neurodivergent speech therapist. And I’m obsessed with creating a world when neurodiversity is understood, embraced, supported, and celebrated. Join me as we have conversations about autistic, ADHD, neurodivergent experiences, and I share how you can support neurodivergent children in your world.
Let’s all work together to make change where change is needed so that the world can be a more friendly place for neurodivergent people and for everyone.


Naughty and lazy are two words that I can’t stand, especially when it comes to describing young kids, neurodivergent kids.
I don’t believe, in the vast majority of cases, neurodivergent kids are lazy or naughty. However, unfortunately, these are some of the labels that often get placed onto these kids by people who don’t understand these kids so much.
So in this short episode, I hope to break down these ideas about why neurodivergent kids aren’t lazy or naughty.
As always, the concepts that I talk about might very well apply to all children, we’re going to zoom in to talking about neurodivergent children because this is who I work with and who I teach about supporting mainly. However you are very welcome to generalise to even your own situation as well.
Let’s start from the premise that kids do well when they can. Hat tip to Dr Ross Greene, who’s quite well known for coming up with this wonderful quote and sharing his ideas extensively about how we can have unconditional positive regard for all children, especially for neurodivergent children.
And rather than see lazy or naughty or challenging behaviour as something intentional, we’re actually flipping the script and seeing neurodivergent kids as trying their best, and if they’re not meeting our expectations, or if there’s a problem, then the root of that problem might well be in either our expectations not being aligned with the reality of where that child is, and also their support needs not being met.
So let’s keep this in mind as we think through some more specific aspects of why neurodivergent kids are not lazy or naughty.
Reason number one why neurodivergent kids aren’t lazy is that many kids experience this element of constant hidden efforts. Where the effort that this child is expending is internalised and is not so visible or obvious to other people around them, which might make them look lazy. Some of these constant hidden efforts could be due to experiencing sensory overload on a regular basis.
Autistic children especially, can experience very heightened sensory needs and can often spend a lot of their time In a state of trying to keep regulated enough to just be a regular person doing what appears to be regular person things. Which doesn’t leave many spoons for somebody to do extra efforts, or even meet the expectations grown ups around them might have.
Simply the effort of trying to remain in a regulated state is a lot. Another hidden effort that can be hugely impactful, and it’s one I’m very practiced and experienced in myself, is the effort of masking. So that’s where a neurodivergent person is hiding their true natural inclinations, their ways of acting, of talking, of interacting. And there’s a massive energetic and cognitive toll that can come with masking.
Reason number two why neurodivergent kids are not lazy is that many neurodivergent people experience executive function differences.
Executive functioning is the ability to think and prioritise, focus your attention, make plans and execute plans.
This is again something that I experience on a huge level, and I put this down to the ADHD side of my brain. It’s a very common ADHD trait is to have a lot of difficulty with planning and executing a potentially complicated plan.
If I need some medicine, I need to perhaps make a plan, book in an appointment with my GP, turn up to the appointment on time, remember to request that particular script to be re-written or refilled, have enough time to go to the chemist.
Remember to bring my script or to find the message where the script is. There’s so many pieces of that particular puzzle. So this is my grown up version of it. If I haven’t filled my script for a week, it’s not because I’m lazy. It’s because I have a lot of difficulty with executive functioning. And yes, I’ve got many compensatory strategies as a grown up.
I’ve practised and I’ve lived through a lot of this. And I’ve tried out all kinds of strategies. But it still is incredibly effortful, where for some people, perhaps some neurotypical people, all of those steps might feel like they’re just things you do, you just get on with them and you do them.
So when you extrapolate this to a child who doesn’t have as much experience in life or insight or practice, putting into place strategies that help them get things done, their natural differences in executive functioning, compared with neurotypical kids might mean that what looks like laziness is actually them really doing their best.
The third reason why neurodivergent kids aren’t lazy is that there can be many co-occurring physical differences and conditions that come along with being neurodivergent.
Weak muscle tone, things like Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, difficulties with coordination many other body factors that can lead to physical differences and again, a lot of hidden effort.
Even for a particular child to remain sitting upright in their chair might be so, so challenging, let alone for them to be listening to the teacher’s instructions and doing what a teacher is asking of them in class.
So just because they’re not doing their maths activities doesn’t mean that they’re lazy. It might mean that all of their energy is being expended in just trying to sit in that chair.
Let’s turn our attention to this word I really, really hate, ‘naughty’. Here are my top three reasons why neurodivergent kids are not naughty.
The first reason is that many neurodivergent kids have different communication skills and in some cases delayed language skills compared to their neurotypical peers.
This can show up as looking ‘naughty’ in inverted commas for a few reasons. If a neurodivergent child has difficulty with receptive language skills. That means understanding what other people communicate to them.
They may look naughty because they’re not doing the thing. But rather than not doing the thing because they’re being naughty and choosing not to… They may simply not be doing the thing you’ve asked because they have not understood what you’ve asked of them, or they’ve misunderstood.
Many autistic children and grown ups too, have difficulty interpreting non-literal communication, so Essentially where there’s a mismatch between the words that somebody says and their true intention. Now this mismatch can happen for many reasons. It can be in sayings or idioms, it can be in jokes, in tricks, in sarcasm, and also in less kind things like teasing and bullying.
So an autistic person having a preference for literal communication a difficulty interpreting non-literal or mismatched communication can be a big source of misunderstanding, or a child appearing to be acting naughty or defiant, where they’re actually doing their best to interpret the language and the communication of the world around them. But the world around them is giving them really confusing messages.
Some idioms that are super confusing. Things like if a teacher says to a bunch of children, let’s put on our thinking caps and answer these questions. Rather than get down to answering the questions, an autistic child might be stuck on this phrase, put on your thinking cap and might leave the room looking for their cap or their hat. Taking a literal interpretation of a phrase that is an idiom or a saying that is not intended to be interpreted literally.
In that situation, the teacher might assume that the child is being naughty by simply leaving the room and not following instructions. Where actually, that child is trying to do exactly what they think they were being told to do.
One of the most affirming ways that people around neurodivergent children can support the understanding of neurodivergent kids is to use more literal language, and also to interpret any misunderstandings in the light of perhaps it was you, the communicator, who shared a message in a way that was not easy for that child to interpret.
And you might need to clarify or rephrase or share that message in a different way.
The last two reasons why neurodivergent kids aren’t naughty are around a lack of control in certain scenarios. As I’ve mentioned before, many neurodivergent people, especially autistic people, have significant sensory needs and differences, and can react in quite heightened ways to things that might not look like much to the world around them.
I am very auditory sensitive I’m really tuned in to environmental sounds. I find it really, really hard and sometimes impossible to filter through background noise so that I can do thinking or interacting or communicating.
In fact, right now I can hear in the background there is some kind of truck, I think it’s a truck picking up a skip over in the distance, and I can hear some birds. Birds don’t distract me too much, but traffic noise and trucks really trigger me for some reason. And so it’s incredibly distracting, to the point that I actually just had to pause this recording so that I could come back to it when I was feeling a little bit more focused.
Sensory dysregulation can leave a person completely not in control of their body and mind. When that dysregulation gets so heightened, it can lead to total out of control meltdowns. That is not a child being defiant or being naughty, that is a child in distress, who needs support, positive regard, meaning you think the best of them rather than the worst of them.
And they need pressure taken off them in that moment. They do not need to be accused of being naughty.
They do not need judgement around their responses because those heightened responses are completely out of their control.
A neurodiversity affirming way to support kids here is to provide as much sensory support as you possibly can to prevent a child going into this out of control dysregulation, and if a child is already there, your job is to support them. Support their basic needs, help them feel more regulated and access their preferred calming strategies.
Our third reason why neurodivergent kids aren’t naughty is around impulsivity, another aspect around lack of control of responses.
This is a feature that may be a bit more common for kids with ADHD and also for PDA ers.
So technically PDA stands for Pathological Demand Avoidance, which is a pretty horrific term, and a lot of people like to use a different term for PDA that is more affirming, Pervasive Demand for Autonomy.
Many PDAers describe that any form of demand, even subtle ones, can lead to this innate response to back away from that demand, to do the opposite of that demand and even if that person really would want to do that thing they may be quite incapable and unable at that moment to actually override that impulse to not do the thing.
There can be a big layer of impulsivity that many ADHDers experience as well where they act in a certain way that can feel quite disconnected from their thinking, their planning. Again, this comes back to executive functioning difficulties.
It’s leading to a child acting in a way that they really don’t want to be acting, but their neurotype, the way that their brain works, makes it incredibly, incredibly hard for them to actually aligned with how they would choose to, if they could control their actions further.
So it’s really complicated. I think there’s never harm in seeing the best in people before we jump to assuming the worst. So if we can try to erase ‘lazy’ and ‘naughty’ from our vocabulary in the way that we support neurodivergent children, I think we’re all going to go very, very far as a society and as individuals in making big leaps towards being a more neurodiversity affirming society.
I love to dream big. I love to think that we’re all going to move towards acceptance of difference rather than a sense of punishing or needing to change people. I’d much prefer we’re changing the world around individuals while still building individual skills and understanding as well.
If you’d like some more support around the Neurodiversity Affirming Practice Pathway, I hope that you’ll join me for one of my webinars. If you’re a professional new to the journey of neurodiversity affirming practice, or you’re thinking about how you can understand these principles better so that you can start to formulate your own answers when interesting questions like this pop up for you, I’ve got a free webinar that’s available for you anytime.
It’s called the Neurodiversity Affirming Practice Kickstart Webinar, where I share three actionable tips that you can do right away when you watch it.
It’s definitely for you if you’re an allied health professional supporting autistic and neurodivergent kids, and you’re either quite new to these ideas of Neurodiversity Affirming Practice, or you’ve been thinking, learning, listening a little bit, but you’re just not quite sure where to head next.
What I do in the webinar is share some really practical tips that you can kick off your journey or progress in your Affirming Practice journey straight away.
I love to make things practical, that’s what I do. So I’ll pop the link for that in the show notes, or you can head to playlearnchat.com/free-neurodiversity- webinar. Or just head into the show notes and tap the link there.
If you found this episode helpful, please share it with a friend and join me on Instagram and Facebook. I’m @play.learn.chat

that’s Play.Learn.Chat, you’ll find all the links that we discussed in the show notes.

Have a fabulous day.

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