Analysis: Children with ADHD and ASD are often rejected by their peers and can suffer poor self-esteem and a lack of self-worth because of this.

I can see Sarah is excited as I collect her from school. She squeezes my hand and tells me she has been invited to a birthday party. Sarah is 7 and has Autism. This is the first time since starting school she's been invited to a party. Molly from her class put invitations in all the schoolbags Sarah tells me. We get to the car and Sarah starts searching her schoolbag but can’t find the invitation.

So I start searching too, and realise after emptying the bag that I shouldn’t have. I can see Sarah’s face drop as the reality sinks in. I hug her as she sobs and explain that maybe Molly could only invite one or two girls, maybe Molly forgot to put the invitation in her bag? We both know this is unlikely. But I have to try to say something to make my girl feel less hurt and rejected.

This type of experience is not uncommon for children living with additional needs and attending mainstream school. Autism or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurological disorder which can make communication and adjusting to new environments challenging for children who live with this.

ADHD, also known as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a mental health condition which affects impulse control, attention span, and hyperactivity levels. Children with ADHD and ASD are often rejected by their peers and can suffer poor self-esteem and a lack of self-worth because of this.

Children who don’t have additional needs are often referred to as neurotypical children. Also to note some children may have emotional, communication or behavioural issues, but may still be waiting for an assessment and diagnosis.

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From Radio 1 The Ray D'Arcy Show, the parents of children with Autism Faye Hayden and Elaine came into studio with Ray today to share their experiences with Ray.

Children with ASD and ADHD may act differently to other children in the classroom. Children with ADHD might jump out of their seat, find turn taking challenging and may be rough in their interactions with others. While those with ASD may suffer severe anxiety in the classroom setting and may find the sounds, smells, and proximity of other children completely overwhelming.

This might result in complete withdrawal from interaction, behavioural outbursts, or stimming. Stims are repetitive behaviours children with ASD can display such as rocking, clicking fingers, spinning around or pacing up and down.

This is their way of soothing themselves when they feel overwhelmed. But stims can be confusing for other children who may not understand what they are and this may cause them to feel fearful. Equally if a child has frequent outbursts or shouts out of turn, other children can view this as bad behaviour and may feel less like interacting with them.

Take for example Sam who is nine and has ADHD. Sam and his Mom arrive at the kids soft play area. They pay and Sam gives the attendant his shoes and heads toward the bouncy castle. Sam sees a little boy from his class. He waves, the boy doesn’t wave back. Then another boy from Sam’s class runs past, then another, and another. Sam’s Mom looks around and notices some of the other Moms from school.

Slowly, it dawns on her, she has just walked into a birthday party for one of Sam’s classmates. A party he didn’t get invited to.

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From Radio 1 Morning Ireland, Ailbhe Conneely reports on St Paul's Child and Family Centre in Dublin which has continued to offer respite to children with autism throughout the pandemic

What could help children with additional needs to feel included?

Both teachers and parents could talk to neurotypical children about children who might have different needs.

Normalising differences can create a space for neurotypical children to accept and embrace children with additional needs. For example, explaining to children when they start school that some of their classmates may act differently, might have stims or tics. Some children might scream or shout, or maybe not speak at all, and that this is okay.

When children are open to other children with needs different to their own, they adjust very quickly and soon differences don’t seem that different at all. Some children might have meltdowns in class, may need the support of a special needs assistant, or might need to attend school for just a few hours as opposed to a whole day.

Encourage your child to make friends with and include children who are on their own at school. Every interaction a child with ASD or ADHD has is an opportunity for this child to feel included, valued and accepted. This is a valuable opportunity for neurotypical children to begin to understand that in childhood and adulthood people will have varying and unique abilities.

Parents can also remember when giving out birthday party invitations that such an event, although insignificant to many children and parents, can be momentous for a child with ASD or ADHD.

Invite the child who sits in the corner alone, invite the kid who rocks when people make eye contact with him, invite the girl who shouts when she’s talking.

These amazing little people are imaginative, loving, vibrant and so very loyal. Open the door to these interactions for your children and encourage them to think outside the box when it comes to friendships.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ