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Helping neuro-diverse kids thrive in the modern world - SE2EP5 Sivan Hong

Helping neuro-diverse kids thrive in the modern world - SE2EP5 Sivan Hong

Today's podcast is about helping neuro-diverse kids thrive in the modern world.

To help us explore this topic, I am joined by Sivan Hong, a best-selling children's book author and illustrator.

Sivan's books, the Super Fun Day Series, focus on neurodiverse children and how they can succeed. Her inspiring stories have touched the hearts of many and have been featured on NBC and News12.

Sivan is also a Trustee on the Boards of the Rita Allen Foundation, Read Your World, and the ASPCA.

To connect with Sivan:



This episode is sponsored by Skill Samurai – Coding & STEM Academy www.skillsamurai.com.auhttps://www.youtube.com/live/ze6Y9IFezLA?feature=share

Speaker 1 (00:08):

Welcome to the Parenting in the Digital Age podcast. Many parents are concerned that their child might be falling behind. Others are just looking for ways to help their children thrive, not just in the classroom, but socially and well into their future careers. Each episode we explore the challenges facing parents in the modern world, from behavior, education, and nutrition to device and gaming addiction. We interview a range of leaders in the area of childhood development to help you successfully navigate parenting in the digital age. Here is your host, Jamie Buttigieg.

Speaker 2 (00:47):

Good morning parents, and welcome to the Parenting in the Digital Age Podcast. We'll, we explore the challenges and opportunities of raising kids in a world filled with technology. Today's podcast is about helping neurodiverse kids thrive in the modern world. Now, to help us explore this topic, I'm joined by Sivan Hong, a bestselling children's book, author and illustrator SI's book. The Superfund Day series focuses on neurodiverse children and how they can succeed. Her inspiring stories have touched the hearts of many and have been featured on NBC and News 12. Sivan is also a trustee on the boards of the Rita Allen Foundation. Read Your World and the as. P c a Sivan. Welcome to the show. Please share with our listeners in your own words what you do and what you are passionate about.

Speaker 3 (01:35):

Uh, thank you so much for having me. D i, um, as you say, I write children's books, but really I tell stories of experiences that neurodiverse children have as a way to, um, normalize their differences. And to say that even though they may be neurodivergent, their differences come with incredible strengths that we as a society should capitalize and they should feel so good and so proud of themselves. I also happen to be neurodivergent myself. Um, so I come to it from a, a place of authenticity and am raising two neurodivergent kids. So, um, this is the world I live in.

Speaker 2 (02:20):

Absolutely. And, and for those listening who may not be familiar with the concept or the term, um, can you give us a bit of background on neurodiversity?

Speaker 3 (02:29):

Absolutely. So, um, neurodiversity isnt a medical term, so to speak. It, um, is a construct that was kind of coined in the 1990s to say that there are lots of different differences that we have in the way brains are formed in the way they function. And these differences are natural variants of human biology, the way some people are tall and some people have blue eyes. And with these differences come strengths and come challenges, but, but that these differences are not deficits. They're just differences. And that society should look at these differences and say, let's embrace them for all the gifts that they have to offer.

Speaker 2 (03:11):

Yeah, wonderful. That's, that's a great, uh, explanation That is clear. And, uh, I'm sure many parents, uh, will understand. Um, you're a, you're an author, you're an illustrator. Just before we get into the, uh, depths of neurodiversity, uh, maybe just share with our listeners, uh, you know, where you came up with the ideas or the inspiration for your books, uh, in the super fun Day series.

Speaker 3 (03:33):

Um, so a while back, I noticed as trying to be a good parent for neuro divergent kids, that there was a gap in the market. There weren't a lot of books out there that highlighted kids like this in particular. Um, at the time I had a kindergartner who wore headphones every day to school because of sensory issues. And for the life of me, I couldn't find a picture book that showed a child wearing headphones, and he did not wanna wear them to school one bit cuz it was weird and it was different. And what if the kids were gonna make fun of him? Um, and, and a picture book would've allowed me to show him that it was normal, and frankly, it would've allowed his teacher to show the entire class that it was normal and not weird, and not different and not strange. And so I realized that, um, that parents and educators needed more tools like this because picture books are this incredible way of making a child feel like their experience is felt by others, that they're not alone. Um, and so I decided to go and start working on these books and writing and illustrating these books so that kids can have access to seeing themselves in books and, and neurotypical kids can also see them in books to grow empathy and understanding of what their peers may be going through.

Speaker 2 (04:55):

Yeah, that's sensational. Um, and, uh, your book, uh, or, or one of your books I should say, because I was doing a pre some pre-show research and this book is called Avery G and The Scary End of School. And this particular book highlights the creative problem solving and communication, uh, highlights those as key factors in helping kids navigate, uh, tough transitions. And I guess the question is here, can you speak to the role that parents play in modeling these skills and, uh, building their children's resilience?

Speaker 3 (05:25):

So, look, the end of School was one of these places where, as a parent, I didn't realize it was gonna be hard, right? In your mind, you're like the end of school and soon there's gonna be summer and fun and, and all the things that come with the end of school, but particularly for neurodivergent kids. But for many kids, frankly, the end of school means an awful lot of change, right? They've had a set routine for nine or 10 months, they've been in a class of kids and friends with a teacher that they know and they trust. And all of a sudden we're saying, this is all gonna go away. Um, and with that comes a lot of fear and worry. And so what this book does is it walks kids through steps that they can take, of course with the help of their parents.

Speaker 3 (06:09):

In order to make that transition a little easier, one of the recommendations in the book is to go to the class that you're gonna have the following year. So say if you are a kindergartner, you go visit a first grade classroom to get a sense that, you know what, it's not all that different than what I had before. Maybe it's not this giant scary thing. Um, or parents can create a schedule for a child to have over the summer that lays out when they're going to camp, when they're going to visit their grandparents, when they may be going to the beach because these children are used to having a schedule for so long that giving them a schedule is a great tool to kind of build in that sense of control and security to make change a little easier. Um, so it's, it's the recognition that the change is hard, that's the biggest step parents can take. And then talking to your child and understanding kind of what are those drivers of that fear to then come up with the plan to work through those and advocating for your kid and saying, this is what my kid needs, is obviously one of the best things that parents can do.

Speaker 2 (07:20):

Yeah. And, and look, they're great tools for all kids, not necessarily just neuro kids Exactly. As well. And uh, exactly. I I love how you talk about, um, you know, uh, taking that child and say from kindergarten into a first grade class to see what that is like and to lessen that fear and anxiety. And do you recommend that's done with, uh, the parent as well? Or just a teacher? Or do you recommend teachers take the whole class? Like what, what, what is there a right approach here?

Speaker 3 (07:46):

I don't think that there's a right approach. I think it depends on the child. If this is the child, um, that may need a little extra support, then having the parent and their teacher there would be great. But if this is a teacher who says, you know what? This may benefit all of these kids. Let's make it a class trip to go up to one grade and see what that classroom is like. Um, and maybe even have those first graders partner with one of the kindergartners to show them around the room, you know, to really create that, that sense of comfort. I think you can do it any which way. What's important is that you do it so that you alleviate that fear.

Speaker 2 (08:27):

Yeah, absolutely. And even little, uh, tools that we use in our own classrooms, uh, at Skill Samurai, we teach coding and, and stem and we have a lot of neurodivergent students and our educators are trained, uh, to be able to accommodate them and to make them feel, uh, inclu included. Um, uh, you know, just even the end of class wind up, just giving them five minutes notice at the end of class to say, Hey, we're about to change. We're about to shift, or the class is about to end, or, you know, we're gonna stop this activity soon. Uh, and little things can go a a mighty long way to, to making those students, uh, um, you know, feel included and to, uh, be successful.

Speaker 3 (09:03):

Absolutely. Because they know what's coming. It's not this kind of abyss that somebody kind of pulls the rug out from under them. They can mentally prepare for the change that's ahead that gives them control. And for all of us, when you have control, that's what alleviates the fear and the worry.

Speaker 2 (09:21):

Yeah. Yeah. Well said. Uh, so what advice do you have for parents and teachers perhaps who wanna support Neurodiverse children in their academic and personal development?

Speaker 3 (09:32):

So one of the topics that, you know, your so obviously focuses on is technology. And to me, having technology is such a gift for these kids because when I grew up, um, children who were nonverbal were put in a separate classroom, if not a separate school, and assumed that they weren't intelligent. Right? And now we know that that has absolutely nothing to do with their intellectual capabilities, right? That it, it has to do with the connection the brain has with the way you speak and not how smart you are. And so, obviously in a situation that is more extreme like that, having technology really allows these kids to show what they've got because it provides them a tool for communication. But even going back to thinking about books, when I grew up, books were really hard for me, reading was really hard, spelling was really hard, writing was really hard.

Speaker 3 (10:31):

And I didn't have any technology that was gonna assist me with all of these things. Today, I'm a voracious reader, but I listen to audio books, right? Because that's the way my brain works. And, and what I tell my kids and what I tell educators is that listening to an audio book is just as good as reading a physical book. We wouldn't tell somebody who was reading with braille that they weren't really reading because the words were getting into their brains because of their fingers. Instead of their eyes. Why would we tell somebody who's neurodivergent that words coming in through their ears are not as, as valid? And so you have these tools. Some of the text to talk technology that we have on computers are unbelievably helpful for kids who have, um, challenges writing because of, of their fine motor skills, right? To talk the story. You don't have to hand write something in order to be a great writer. These tools exist and it, using these tools does not lessen the child's education. If anything, it levels the playing field and allows them to truly thrive. So I'm, I'm all for leveraging technology to help these children succeed.

Speaker 2 (11:51):

Yeah. Yeah. That's, uh, that text to talk is a good example. And, you know, we see in some of our classes, uh, those students, um, uh, obviously we teach coding is, is our main drive, but, uh, uh, these students use coding as a tool to express themselves by creating animations, by creating cartoons that are communicating in their language. And it's so amazing to see, and, and you are, you are a perfect example. You know, you just said, you know, you shared that, uh, struggle openly about, uh, reading, yet you're, you're an author and illustrator. Like, what's Right? Beautiful. What a beautiful example.

Speaker 3 (12:23):

That's right. And look, it did, this is something I would've never imagined in my life that I would ever have done, um, because I hated these subjects so profoundly. Um, and what a great gift to now be able to say that I love reading that. I love books, that I consume literature all the time. And how sad it was that, you know, my high school, I was not reading anything, right? I didn't get those experiences. But all of these kids can, we just have to be open about it. We can't just look at it and say, this is, there's one model to learn. Cuz there isn't because all of these brains are different. And it's not nec not just neurodivergent brains. Everyone's brain is different. We all learn differently. Let's think about ways to teach and educate these kids to get the fest out of their brains, not to limit them to say, if you don't fit this mold, you're not good enough.

Speaker 3 (13:21):

An example I love to give is that parents often worry when they have a child who's dyslexic that because their child can't read in a traditional way or struggles that somehow this child isn't gonna succeed. And Harvard recently did a study that looked at astrophysicists and they said, okay, we're gonna divide these astrophysicists really smart PhDs, like really smart people into two groups, those with dyslexia and those without. And, and then they showed them lots of images of black holes. And the ones with dyslexia we're able to identify the black holes three times better than the ones without. Because if you are dyslexic, you have much higher levels of visual intelligence than a typical person. And so are we turning around and saying to the typical kids who don't have dyslexia, that somehow you're not as good because you who don't have this visual intelligence. No, we should look at these kids and say, these are your gifts, these are your challenges, but these are your gifts. And those gifts make you just as good as everybody else.

Speaker 2 (14:30):

Yeah. Yeah. Very well said Sivan. Very well said. Um, and you know, with, with all the benefit and excitement that technology brings, uh, to, to not just neurodiverse kids, but all kids, uh, in general, um, as parents, that also come with a risk, you know, and, and we see it, uh, even in our own experience, those, uh, kids coming in and they are, you know, they're addicted. Uh, there, there's no other way to say it. They, they've, they've been given access to technology to, to help them and enable 'em to succeed. But then, uh, by the same token, perhaps the tools they're using or the tools they favor, uh, haven't been the best tools, whether it's social media, whether it's certain games, um, uh, you know, so with that risk, how can we as parents support neurodiverse children's learning and social skills while balancing that use of technology in their daily lives?

Speaker 3 (15:21):

Look, you said it yourself, with every kid, there's this risk of, of technology being used in the wrong way. You know, my kids are not old enough to have a cell phone yet, much to their, um, dismay and their fight for it. But even when they get it, they're not getting social media because I understand the struggles that go into that. That said, my eldest son thrives multitasking. That's how he learns. He needs to have various inputs into his brain in order to absorb information. And so he will listen to an audiobook and play a video game on his switch. And, and I'm okay with that because I know that's how he learns, but I'm still not gonna be okay with him sitting there listening to an audiobook and going on TikTok all day. Right? And so it's, it's all of our responsibilities, whether you have a neuro divergent child or not, to be able to understand what those limitations are.

Speaker 3 (16:20):

And look, many, many kids, neuro divergent or otherwise, find it much easier to socialize through technology and don't build those tools. And look, many neuro divergent kids struggled with socialization already. So as parents of neurodivergent kids, you have to be aware of that. And you can't say, well, they're having a friendship over social media, so that's good, because at least they have a friend because we know that that's not real friendship in the, in the same way as social interaction would be. So do something like you are doing, which is go to a class with other kids to do technology if you love technology, because then you're in a room with other people, right? You don't want the kid who's just gonna be locked in the basement all day long. None of us want that.

Speaker 2 (17:09):

Yeah. Yeah. And that's one of the, the beautiful outcomes of what we see in our own classrooms. It's not just about, you know, has this student achieved some academic success or learn a new coding language? It's actually the fact that many of these neuro divergent kids find their tribe, like when they come into Skill Samurai or other science clubs or code, not just us in particular, but, but these, these like-minded environments. And I encourage more parents to get, uh, get their kids into these environments. Uh, they're fighting, you know, pe this, this wonderfully warm and inclusive and diverse space where perhaps at school that may not be the case for them because, you know, whether, whether we like it or not, you know, uh, I I think we're biologically hardwired to exclude the black duck. Mm-hmm. <affirmative>, you know, and that kid that walks into school with the headphones.

Speaker 2 (17:54):

Uh, no matter how much empathy we teach our kids, there's only so much a five or six year old or a 10 year old can have. And it's not till we get to our age, uh, you know, it takes time to develop those, uh, empathy skills and those acceptance skills. Um, so maybe let's talk about classrooms for a minute. Like, in your view or your opinion, um, what can schools or even sensors like, uh, ours do to create a more inclusive environment for Neurodiverse kids, uh, especially in terms of, you know, technology in the classroom? What, what ideas or suggestions would you offer us?

Speaker 3 (18:25):

Look, I'm a big proponent that technology is there, right? Like, we are not living back in the seventies when I was in school where you hand Rowe everything, um, and technology is a great leveler, right? It allows a level of inclusion, but doesn't happen otherwise. And so the younger we get them started with some of this stuff, the better. Um, and to your point, this notion of finding your tribe really kind of struck at my chord because so many neurodivergent kids will have a special interest in some area around technology. And allowing them to build on that, um, in a school environment will give them an opportunity to thrive. And you want to give them those points where they can show how great they are in front of a group of peers and, and, and highlight their strength, because then they will have the confidence to do some of the other stuff that they may not feel that good about. Right? And, and, and setting that up in a, in a school environment, I think is really, really important.

Speaker 2 (19:34):

Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. Um, Sivan, we're sort of coming to the end of our time together, unfortunately, but, uh, you've shared so many wonderful tools and thoughts that I know parents are gonna benefit from. I've, I've certainly taken away a lot from today's podcast, so I appreciate your generosity. Um, before I start to close off and ask our closing questions, is there anything that perhaps, uh, I, I could have asked or should have asked that I, that I haven't? Is there anything else that you wanna share with parents?

Speaker 3 (20:01):

Look, I think this notion of positive parents parenting and focusing on the strength of your child is so critical because, um, if we as parents can't keep pointing to all of the strengths that our kids have, there's no way these kids are gonna be able to point to it themselves. And there's certainly no way that the world around them is going to recognize it. So, so it's our job to be the cheerleader to say, yes, you may have a really hard time with your handwriting, but look at how great you code, right? To constantly reinforce the positivity and recognize that it's not easy, right? Parenting anybody is not easy, right? And, and constantly staying positive and, and, and doing this is not easy, but particularly for neuro divergent kids, reminding them of their strengths is the greatest thing you can do for them.

Speaker 2 (20:54):

That, that's a beautiful and powerful message. There is nothing wrong with our kids. Uh, focus on those strengths and, uh, uh, you know, just, it's amazing what can be achieved. Um, uh, Siva, a question we love to ask all of our guests in closing, it's a bit of a lighthearted. One is, if you could get in your proverbial time machine and travel back in time to your 10 year old self, uh, what's one piece of advice that you would share with your 10 year old self?

Speaker 3 (21:20):

Um, you're actually smarter than, you know, <laugh> because my 10 year old self felt very dumb, um, in many parts of my education. And, um, and I wish I could have looked in the mirror and seen the strengths.

Speaker 2 (21:36):

Yeah. And, and largely the system makes us feel that way. Like when you said that it took me right back to school and that there was certain subjects that, uh, I didn't do so well in, and, uh, that test result or what the teacher vocalized told me that I was no good at that, and that just wasn't the case. You know, some of those subjects that I wasn't good at, I'm now thriving at in a business capacity and <laugh>, uh, you know, but, uh, to go back and to have that knowledge at that age, uh, that's a powerful message for parents, uh, you know, to help our kids understand that. Uh, thank you for that. Now, uh, where can our listeners find you online? How can they connect with you? Where can they find your books? More importantly, share?

Speaker 3 (22:13):

So, I'm the only Sivan Hong on the entire planet, which makes finding me very easy. Um, I, I have a website, sivan hong.com, where you can get my books. I also have free, um, educator lesson plans for every single one of my books that you can download for free on the website. But based where you are, Amazon is usually the most cost effective place to buy my books, um, because it's shipped directly, um, from you as opposed to coming from the states. And then, um, I do have a, a pretty large Instagram following where I post a lot of information about positive neurodiversity and parenting tips for parenting neurodiverse children, and that's sivan underscore hong underscore author. So follow me there and you'll get a lot more advice.

Speaker 2 (23:03):

We will definitely get those links up in the show notes. Uh, Sivan, thank you so much for your generosity and time today. Um, it's been a, a pleasure. I know we've, we've been, we've had this plan for so many months and it's never happened a few times. We finally got there and I'm, I'm glad we did. So thanks for your time. Generosity, uh, hope we crossed paths again soon. And, uh, bye for now. Cheers.

Speaker 3 (23:22):

Thank you, Jamie.

Speaker 1 (23:24):

If you enjoyed the show, please connect with Jamie on LinkedIn or Instagram. You'll find links in the podcast description. Parenting in the Digital Age is sponsored by Skill Samurai Coding and STEM Academy for Kids Skills, samurai offers afterschool coding classes and holiday programs to help kids thrive academically and socially while preparing them for the careers of the future. Visit Skill samurai.com.au.