October 24, 2022

Ep. 77 – Debbie Reber – Differently Wired: Raising Atypical Children With Confidence And Hope

  • What the term neurodiverse means and includes
  • Early indications that your child may be neurodivergent
  • The importance of focusing on WHY a child is showing intense behaviours like meltdowns or explosions rather than trying to stop them

ADHD, autism, anxiety, learning disabled… neurodivergence is all around us. These are people who don’t conform and who author and activist Debbie Reber believes we need, to come up with creative solutions to see the world differently.

Debbie’s mission is to change the way difference is perceived and experienced. As Debbie describes in this conversation, being differently wired isn’t a deficit — it’s a difference.

Episode Guest

Debbie Reber

Debbie Reber, is a parenting activist, bestselling author, podcast host, and the founder of TiLT Parenting, a community aimed at helping parents raising differently wired children — including learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, and anxiety — from a place of confidence, connection, and joy.

For the last 18 years, Debbie and her partner have been parents to Asher, who is differently wired. Her parenting experience led her to start TiLT parenting, wanting to offer easy access to connection with other parents raising atypical children, and evidence-based resources for overwhelmed families.

Debbie is a regular contributor to Psychology Today and ADDitude Magazine. Her most recent book is Differently Wired: A Parent’s Guide to Raising an Atypical Child with Confidence and Hope. She spoke at TEDxAmsterdam, delivering a talk entitled Why the Future Will Be Differently Wired. And she co-created the Parenting in Place Masterclass series.

Additional Resources:


Ep. 77 – Debbie Reber – Differently Wired: Raising Atypical Children With Confidence And Hope

Rachel Cram – Well Debbie, thank you so much for meeting with me today as I read your book and I read your bio, you are an incredibly accomplished, highly productive person. And there is so much information that I want to glean from you today. I’m not even quite sure how the conversation’s going to go because there’s so many places that could go. But it is a joy to talk with you today. I’m really looking forward to this.
Debbie Reber – Thank you. I am, too. Thank you so much for having me.

Rachel Cram – Well, we start a lot of our podcasts with a question, I’ll be interested to see where it goes, because I’ve got some ideas from reading your book where you might land. Aristotle stated, “Show me a child at seven and I will show you the adult.”

And so, Debbie, I’m wondering, is there a story or experience from your childhood that you see as formative into the person that you are today?

Debbie Reber – Wow, that is such an interesting question. Does it have to be from when I was seven?

RC – No.

DR – Ok good. I don’t remember seven too much, but when I was pretty young, maybe nine or ten, I lived in Pennsylvania, but kind of in a rural area. And a nursing home was being built. And I was like, “Wow, I want to volunteer there.”

I would walk down this hill a mile plus in the heat, a couple of days a week to hang out with older folks and refill their water and do arts and crafts. And I don’t know why I felt pulled to do that, but I loved doing that. I’ve always been someone who has felt like I want to help other people and, well, change the world always. But, I just wanted to be involved with other people and helping to support their journey, to want to be actively supporting other communities, for some reason.

RC – That’s so interesting. And that’s not really something that you can make a child genuinely do. Like it really has to come from an intrinsic desire to serve like that. So that’s amazing.

DR – Yeah. I don’t know what it’s about.

RC – Well, you do see that in your life now. You seem to almost be born with a little bit of a rally cry to want to see the world differently.

DR – Yeah. I’ve always been someone who’s wanted to fight for the underdogs or just has noticed injustices or things I saw as big flaws in the way humans are moving through the world and wanting to be a part of the solution. So yeah, I would say that’s true for sure.

RC – Well, right in the introduction to your book, you say this. You say, “We live in a world where children who are in some way neurologically atypical, or what I describe as differently wired, a term to refer to the millions of people with neuro differences such as ADHD, giftedness, autism, learning disorders and anxiety, as well as those with no formal diagnosis but who are clearly moving through the world in a unique way, are being told day in and day out that there is something wrong with who they inherently are.”

What brought that passion into your life Debbie, to support kids who are being told, “who they are is inherently wrong?”

DR – Well, I was and continue to be raising a child who is neurodivergent, who’s differently wired, and when Asher was younger, especially, the preschool years and early elementary school years, I just noticed that that message that, “You’re doing it wrong. You’re too intense. You’re too loud. You’re too disruptive. You’re too explosive. You’re too precocious.”

Those were messages that were repeatedly being shared with Asher, whether verbally or just through actions that a teacher or an extracurricular activity leader would do or other kids. And I was so frustrated with that as I understood Asher’s wiring and learning myself that this is who this kid is and my child is not broken. And yet you’re looking at the way that my kid shows up as problematic. And I saw Asher internalizing that and I just thought, “That’s just not okay,” because Asher and, you know, my husband and I were being made to feel like Asher was an outlier. This is really unusual. This is a big issue, a problem that has to get fixed. And I knew that that wasn’t right. And I also knew that there were so many other kids who were living similar experiences and other families who were feeling the same way we were. And I just was like, “That’s not cool. That is not okay because our kids are amazing and you are the ones with the problem because you are expecting our kids to change who they are and you’re telling them that they’re broken and they’re just not.”

RC – You say in your book that right now it’s estimated that about 20% of kids are neurodiverse. Is that right?

DR – Well, that’s the statistic I used, but I will just go on the record and say it’s way more than that. So Neurodivergent would include autism, ADHD, learning disabilities, sensory processing issues, gifted, having one or more of these different labels or diagnoses. And it’s got to be way, way more than 20%.

I think so many adults raising these kids are realizing, “Oh, wait, this is me, too.”

Like so many people kind of slip under the radar because they can mask or overcompensate. And so I think this idea that there’s a normal or neurotypical way of being is just wrong.

RC – Are you familiar with the writing of Katherine Reynolds Lewis? She wrote the book The Good News About Bad Behaviour.

DR – Yes. Oh, yeah, you had her on. She’s a very close friend of mine.

RC – Oh, okay. Well, I was actually in my notes going to refer to her, and I thought you must know her.

DR – Yeah, Kakki and I met a couple of years ago. I think I had her on my podcast first and then I met her on a book tour. We were in the same cities. And now there’s kind of a small group of us that we meet regularly. We’re all kind of speakers, authors in the parenting space, and we support each other personally and professionally.

RC – That’s fantastic.

DR – Yeah, it’s great. I feel really grateful to have such smart people in my world.

RC – Well, and you are obviously one of them. Well, in our episode with Katherine, she quoted from the National Health Organization, that one out of every two kids by the time they were 18, would have a mental health crisis or a substance addiction or something that was causing them to not flourish in life. And so, yeah, I think 20% is a huge underestimate. And really causes you to question what does the word ‘typical’ really mean?

Especially when having your first child, what could make you wonder if your child maybe is neurodiverse? What were some of the first clues for you?

DR – Well, Asher, was colicky and that is often a first clue, kids who can’t settle easily. Kids who are really overstimulated by sensory information, noises or touch. You know, those could be signs. And so those things were happening. But we just thought, “Oh, we have a colicky baby who won’t sleep. That sucks. This is hard,” you know. But we didn’t think it was anything beyond just having a more challenging baby.

Also, Asher spoke very early and was that kid who just delighted our pediatrician by speaking in these really complex sentences and the pediatrician would look at us like, “Oh, my gosh, this kid is so cool.”

And Asher was really cool. That was fascinating for us. So we also knew that cognitively Asher was just operating on a little bit of a different frequency, which was cool to us and interesting.

It was when we started trying to be in more organized spaces, like drop-in daycare for a couple of hours a day. I got a lot of phone calls from the people running that. The first preschool we ended up pulling Asher out because the expectations started to be a mismatch with the way that Asher showed up in different environments.

When that mismatch happened, that’s when we started seeing more intense behavior. So the meltdowns or the explosions would be just kind of bigger than a typical child meltdown. This very rigidity of thinking and having, you know, I guess one of the first books I bought, this will give a clue. One of the first parenting books I bought to help address challenges was Setting Limits For Your Strong-Willed Child because we’re like, “Okay, this is just a strong willed kid.”

Then we moved on to, Raising Your Spirited Child.

RC – And were those books helpful to you, do you think?

DR – They were helpful in that I felt like there are other kids who are also challenging and that this isn’t a failure on our part. This is the way this kid is wired. However, a lot of the strategies that were introduced in those books weren’t helpful. And I, of course, got lots of advice from other parents, “Well just do this.” Or, “We do this.”

I’m like, “I’m doing those things. It’s not working.”

RC – Can you give some examples? Because I think this is quite a common way to think. You can feel like if I follow this age old behaviorist methods of how I raise my child, this will come to be. They will do what I tell them to do. And I think often that’s not the case. Can you give any examples of where that fell flat?

DR – Well, just even the approach of using natural consequences or punishments, You don’t really punish a three-year-old but having there be a consequence that is not to their liking for a choice that they made and thinking that child is going to recognize, “Oh, I made this choice and I got this thing I didn’t want but I’ll respond differently and then I’ll get a reward, right? or I’ll get praised,” or something like that.

That did not work for us. Or putting your foot down. I had a parent once suggest, “You know sometimes our kids really need to know that we’re serious and it’s okay if you yell or you really put your foot down and make a strong statement.”

I was like, “All right, I’ll give that a shot.”

RC – And how did that work out?

DR – It just exacerbated things. You know, it dysregulated my child, so much more. It was like pouring gasoline on a fire and did not get us any closer to the outcome that I was working towards in that particular situation. And so it was just clear that this isn’t a child that I could punish or behavior modify out of what was going on because I was only looking at behavior. And of course, now, many years later, I recognize that this wasn’t a behavioral problem. It was an issue of my child not having the skills or the ability to do something different because their nervous system is completely triggered and they just didn’t have the capacity to do it differently.

Musical interlude #1

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RC – I feel like I can so see how this happens, and I’m very sympathetic, trying to combat our child’s dysregulation with our own control techniques, like punishments or consequences because that’s how most of us were raised, but then if the meltdowns don’t dissipate and you can see that your child is still dysregulated or even more dysregulated, clearly you need a different plan and outlook.

You talk about volcanoes and why they erupt for differently wired kids. Can you describe why that happens? Why these meltdowns occur?

DR – Yeah. I think it’s interesting because oftentimes, especially if this is someone’s first child and they may not have as much experience, the eruptions can seem to come out of nowhere. And we might think, “Well, they were fine 5 minutes ago, and all of a sudden they just exploded for no reason.”

And there’s always a reason. And so we have to start getting really curious to try to identify what is actually dysregulating a child. And there’s so much great research out now. And Dr. Mona Delahooke is someone who’s doing amazing work in this space. Stephen Porges and Polyvagal theory and we now understand that everyone has a unique nervous system and that when a child is dysregulated, it’s because they’ve been pushed into this fight, flight, freeze or fawn mode. And that could be from so many things. It could be a sensory response to something. It could be incredible frustration for being misunderstood, not being able to communicate needs. It could be a child who is very perfectionistic and something doesn’t go the way they expect. It could be a child who’s very sensitive to rejection.

There are so many different things that could cause this child to become emotionally dysregulated. And it might not come out right away. It might be something little then that causes the actual explosion. And then we as parents are like, “What happened?”

And we really do have to often unpack it and try to discover the underlying cause of what’s dysregulating this child.

RC – I think sensory based reactions are a big clue that your child is differently wired – parents realize their child is…”out of sync,” that’s a common term now – their child is experiencing emotions, or physical sensations, or their interactions with the world, more intensely than other kids.

DR – Yeah, for sure.

RC – In your book you outline three types of sensory processing concerns. Hyposensitive, hypersensitive and highly sensitive. What do those terms imply and how common an experience are they for people who are neurodivergent?

DR – Yeah, I think sensory processing challenges are pretty ubiquitous among neurodivergent people. And it may actually be the only thing going on. So that might just be the kid who seems really sensitive, that highly sensitive child. But often, especially for autistic kids, kids with ADHD, gifted kids, it is really common to have these kind of sensory integration differences. And it might be the kid who is a sensory seeker, like an ADHD kid or some kids with autism, they need constant movement and constant feedback, and so they seek that in sometimes inappropriate ways. And then there are kids who are very defensive with their sensory. And so those are the kids who don’t like the way the air feels on their arm or their legs. And so they wear long sleeves all year round. Or they’re the kids with headphones on in the movies because it’s too much input so they need to limit that. And usually it’s not one or the other. Usually, it’s a combo platter of all of these things. So I would say a lot of neurodivergent people have some sort of sensory issues going on for sure.

RC – In the beginning of your book when you’re telling the story of your discovery of Asher being differently wired, you didn’t realize what was going on inside but you were seeing Asher’s behaviors, as was Asher’s school, and you said you started getting phone calls. What was being said on those phone calls?

DR – Well, Asher had this problem at recess. Asher got into a fight with this person. Asher got really angry and threw something. Asher refused to participate in this. Asher, you know, it was just it was always Asher not doing what was expected and sometimes escalating it in a way that felt unsafe or scary or was harming Asher’s reputation or relationships with other kids in the classroom.

RC – As a parent myself in situations like this, and in talking to other parents of differently wired kids, it can feel so disorienting because your head just starts to spin on trying to figure out where you’re going to land as a parent. How do you respond to the school? What do you do when your child is making other kids feel unsafe or scared? How can you show up for your own child differently? And as recent as the 1980s, there were psychologists that were saying that a mother’s personality and their parenting style could, I almost don’t want to use the word ‘cause’, because that makes it sound like it’s a problem, but it can affect how a child is shaping neurologically. Do you see traces of that kind of thinking still today?

DR – Yeah. And I think certainly a child comes into their life with the wiring that they have. A child is wired a certain way. And I don’t know if this is what you’re referring to, but there was definitely this idea that ‘refrigerator moms’ are like cold moms who are emotionally unavailable was a cause of autism. That was a theory for a long time.

I think what is interesting right now in the conversation is that there are certain parenting styles that can exacerbate the way a neural-divergence might manifest or show up. And oppositional defiance disorder is one example of that, O.D.D There is discussion, a lot of discussion. Is that a real diagnosis? Is that something that is just a result of a child not responding well to a specific parenting approach? And that was something that we heard. That was a provisional diagnosis Asher had at one point. I think it was demand avoidant disorder? I don’t remember what it was. It was something we did not want. And the thinking was that, “Wow, did we cause this? Is this because of the way that we parented and our approach?”

And I think it’s a complicated question. We know that when we respond to the individual child in a way that is looking at their specific needs and we’re working on helping them gain their skills and calm their nervous system and really have their experience be validated, and we approach it from a strengths-based lens, that can have a much different outcome than a kid with the same diagnosis whose parents kind of go down the path of behavior modification and punishment.

So you can have the same underlying diagnosis but the way that that child is going to develop and the way that that neuro divergence impacts them throughout the rest of their life could look different.

RC – It is a really complex world for parenting of any child. And so often, we stumble into places that we never intended to be. We say things, we do things that are more harmful than helpful. And you point out two memes in your book that I found so fascinating because in both of them I could see myself thinking that they were fabulous parenting slogans. And then you dig into the underbelly of the memes to look at how they’re actually ways of thinking that can set us farther back as human beings and how we care for one another. And it just is that reminder of the layers of thinking that need to go on as we emerge as a society embracing people with a vast amount of difference, and wanting to do that well.

Could we look at those memes together? Can I read them to you? The first one was a meme that was on a lot of sports playgrounds, and people were sharing it as profoundly wise words. And this is what the sign had said. And it became a meme. It said, “Your child’s success or lack of success in sports does not indicate what kind of parent you are, but having an athlete that is coachable, respectful, a great teammate, mentally tough, resilient and tries their best is a direct reflection of your parenting.”

How is that problematic?

DR – My gosh, it makes me so upset when I hear that.

RC – Which is important to know, though, because I think for many parents, you listen to that and go, “Yeah, that’s a that’s the kind of kid I want and that’s the kind of parent I want to be. I don’t want to be that parent who’s all about my child being on the starting lineup and being the star player and getting the most playtime. I want to be the type of parent, and I’m going to show my parenting by having a child who is all those other things. The respectful. The great team player. The mentally tough. The resilient. That’s going to be the hallmark of my parenting.

DR – Yeah, well, you just said it right there, “the hallmark of my parenting.”

Our kids, the way that they show up, is a direct reflection on who we are as parents. So right there, we’re judging parents. So any parent who has a child who struggles with disregulation, who really gets escalated by a competition where there’s so much unpredictability and when things don’t go their way they don’t have the coping skills to deal with that. A child who isn’t naturally resilient because their ADHD means that they have so much inner negative self-talk that it’s hard for them to feel positive about things.

Like there’s so many things happening with our kids that would make playing soccer or being part of a sports team incredibly challenging for them. Even if they want to do it so badly, they may struggle to show up in those environments and they could become that kid, right? That the other parents are like, “Oh, my God, this kid, I’m so glad this is not my child.”

And so it becomes this values judgment. And then we shame the parents. And we know that this has nothing to do with the parenting. This is the way this child is wired. And putting them in an environment where their needs are not supported and where they’re vastly misunderstood.

And so to me, that meme makes so many parents feel like complete failures. And even if we know this is not on me, we know that other people think it is. And that is so harmful, because we already feel isolated and judged and questioning, “Could I have done better here? Did I screw up? Is this my fault?”

Like, you know, there’s so many ways to internalize this idea that we have failed as parents, and those memes just perpetuate that and isolate us even more.

RC – What would be a helpful response from the other parents on that team on the sidelines? Is there anything that can make you feel like “I’m sure glad my kids on this team.”

DR – I mean, I think just having other parents empathize like, “I’m sorry, your child’s having a hard time. Is there anything we can do to help?” or “How can we support you?”

Proactively making sure that the other parent doesn’t feel judged or that those parents wish this child was not on the team. I think that that’s really important.

I think any time a parent of a neurotypical kid can actively not judge and instead support and help another parent feel seen. That makes all the difference.

RC – Well, and maybe that’s the better sign on sport fields. “Your child’s success or lack of success in sports does not indicate what kind of parent you are, it’s how you support the other players and parents on your team.” Let’s change those signs!

DR – Yeah. Let’s go for it.

RC – Okay. Is there anything else you would want to say about that Debbie?

DR – No, I think I said everything I need to say.

RC – That was really good.

Musical interlude #2

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RC – Okay, here’s the second meme. And again, this one for me, too. I thought, “Oh, my goodness, I have not only said things like this, I have given talks on things like this.”

And so I’m so grateful for you for pointing this out. It said this,“We need to care less about whether our children are academically gifted and more about whether they sit with the lonely kid in the cafeteria.”

What’s the problem with that?

DR – So I don’t have as strong of a reaction to that, that I did with the sports meme. But the problem with this one is that, first of all, giftedness is not a fast ticket to success and ease. The label of giftedness is really problematic. And oftentimes we know that the more gifted a child is, and I’m thinking of cognitively gifted on that bell curve where their IQ lands, the more neurodivergent they are in other ways. The more they are already feeling like outliers and don’t relate to their peers and may really, really struggle socially and so often those are the kids. And I think this is what I wrote in the book. Like they are the kids who are sitting alone because they don’t feel like they fit in anywhere.

And so I think it’s just a big disconnect and it doesn’t recognize the unique needs and challenges of kids who are gifted. It kind of makes it seem like that’s just the label that some precious parents put on their kids that they want to go to Harvard. There’s just a lot behind that I think can, just again, make parents feel bad or isolated when they’re having that experience.

RC – There’s a term ‘2e’ to describe kids that are gifted, but also, actually, can you just explain what that term means? Because it’s a newer one. At least it was to me.

DR – 2e, is short for twice exceptional, and that is someone who is gifted, who would have that high IQ but also has some kind of a learning disability or other neurological difference or usually multiple ones. And it is a newer term, and I’m grateful that more and more people are recognizing twice exceptionality. But it’s very complicated because a child who is highly gifted can often mask an underlying learning disability.

Dyslexia is something that a lot of 2e kids have, and they’re so smart that they have figured out hacks to keep up. But at a certain point the rubber meets the road and they’ll discover that they have this learning disability. And there’s just a lot of frustration and feeling of failure. Feeling like a fraud. There’s so many things that can go on when you have that late diagnosis or maybe never get it diagnosed because your giftedness has kind of masked or overcompensated.

And then on the flip side, there are kids who have severe ADHD, autistic kids, severe learning disabilities, Not even severe, but we may not even consider the fact that they’re intellectually gifted and so their giftedness goes completely ignored.

RC – You’re using all these terms like 2e and neurodiverse and differently wired and autism and ADHD. When we were younger, I think we’re probably similar ages, those terms really didn’t exist. I don’t even think when I was a child I ever heard the term autism. When I started the educational community that I now run 35 years ago, I had heard the word autism but I had never taught an autistic child. And now I would say probably 20% of the kids that come into our community of care would be on a spectrum. Do you think there are more children and people that are being born into the world that are differently wired than there were before? Or do you think we’re just more aware of what’s going on for people?

DR – Well, it’s interesting you said you hadn’t taught any autistic children, but I’m sure that you did. These things were not recognized or understood. You know, yes, assuming we’re the same age, Rainman was my first exposure to asperger’s or autism and that was a very particular presentation. And I was like, “Oh, I don’t know anybody like that.”

Of course, now, as an adult, looking back, I recognize so many people even in my family who are neurodivergent; never had diagnoses. I think about, “Oh, this kid. Oh, I remember,” you know, like I can see now so many things that were going on for kids that I went to highschool with or middle school and how they were treated and how they were siloed out into these different spaces. How they were ostracized or bullied. I mean, there was no understanding for so many things.

So I think mostly it’s that we’re just more aware of what’s going on. And, a lot of neural divergence, like ADHD is highly genetic – autism. So yeah, perhaps there are more kids being born who are differently wired in these ways but it’s hard to know. Like, I can’t say. I know that we’ve just gotten so much better at recognizing and and understanding the different ways that these things can show up.

RC – Yeah, I do know there’s lots of adults now that are realizing that they themselves are neurodiverse, are differently wired, just because these resources are here now. As I was reading your book, I had my heart very much in the compassionate mother realm or a compassionate teacher realm, and then I started to realize, “Well, of course, it’s not just children that have these challenges, it’s adults as well.”

And then I realized, “Well, if I’m going to do this rally cry for children of course we need to be doing the same rally cry for our peers, for the people we’re working with, for the people that we’re married to, for our neighbors down the street. And thinking like this is so important because it changes how we judge people. And I know I think back on people that were bullied in my high school or my elementary school and you’re right, we didn’t realize they were wired differently. And you feel horrible about that now, but how much is that still going on right now with the people that I’m not bullying because I wouldn’t let myself fall to that level now. But I kind of am because I find them irritating and I let myself sit at that spot.

Do you think about those things for adults as well?

DR – Yeah, for sure. I mean, I’m so deep in this at this point, and I can recognize someone’s internal divergence like that. I just see it everywhere. And I love it. And so it’s definitely changed how I’ve shown up to other people and how I perceive and experience relationship with other people.

I kind of see this as a multi-pronged revolution. Like my piece of it is to try to help parents raising neurotypical kids in a way that is neurodiversity affirming. But there’s so many other people doing work in different spaces too. That’s all contributing to this paradigm shift. So I think that’s really exciting.

RC – Oh, so exciting. I’m just going to keep quoting your book here. I’m going to find it. It was a quote from Steve Silverberg. Is that his right last name?

DR – Oh, Silberman.

RC – Silberman,

DR – Neuron Tribes.

RC – Yes. Which is an amazing book. I’d love you to talk about this a bit. He says, “In forests and tide pools, the value of biological diversity is resilience, the ability to withstand shifting conditions and resist attacks from predators. In a world changing faster than ever honoring and nurturing neurodiversity is civilization’s best chance to thrive in an uncertain future.”

How do you see the role of neurodivergent people emerging in society?

DR – Well, I love that quote, too. And I really believe the innovators, the disruptors that we need are neurodivergent kids because these are people who don’t conform, who don’t take no for an answer, who look at a problem in a completely different way and have really creative solutions, who have a lot of energy to push, who push back. And those are qualities of neurodivergent kids. They’re the kids who are questioning everything, like, “Why do I have to do that homework assignment? And what does this mean?”

And who look at anything and they find flaw with it and then have the energy to try to fix it. These are humans who don’t conform. And that is what we need. We need people who push back and I do think we have a lot of problems that we need to address, and I think it is going to be neurodivergent people who who are going to come up with the creative solutions, because they just see the world differently.

I’m not going around saying, “This is all great. This is a gift.” Like this is all going to be easy. Certainly many neurodivergent people may have challenges that, especially in an environment that wasn’t designed to accommodate them, can be really, really tough.

What I talk about and what my work is about is how can we support this individual in helping their strengths be developed to create environments where they don’t feel disabled. To create environments where they can be accommodated, where they can be supported, where they can show up and have what they need to thrive in whatever that looks like for them, what their capacity is. How can we actually create better environments so that whatever your neurodivergent is, you can experience your life in a way that is the most fulfilling for who you are?

Musical interlude #3

Thanks for listening to family360 and our conversation with Debbie Reber.

Our next episode is all about sex and pleasure and how we cultivate those kinds of desires after having kids. We’re with professor, director of the Women’s Health Institute, and author, Dr. Lori Brotto. Universally, sexual desire diminishes after having kids, but even at other times, female sexual dysfunction is extremely common, affecting up to half of women at some point in their lives. Dr. Brotto’s work brings the issue of low sexual desire in women into the open so that women feel less shame and are empowered to cultivate their feelings of sexual desire if that is what they wish. And she’s talking all about that in this episode. Join us!

And now, back to our conversation with Debbie and her thoughts and perspectives on parenting a child who is differently wired.

RC – When I read a compelling book like yours, it makes me want to rise up and rally, like you say at the beginning of your book. And I can start thinking about, “Well, how can I address this? What will I say? How will I change people?”

And then Debbie, the second part of your book is called How Everything Can Change, and you describe how we can change internally, ourselves, so that the world can change. And you go into 18 paradigm shifting ideas that you call TILTS on how to stay open, pay attention, and become an exceptional parent to your exceptional child. They’re all so good. I’m wondering if I can highlight TILT number 11 “let go of your expectations of who you should be as a parent.”

Debbie, can you describe that for yourself? What kinds of thoughts and feelings and phrases have you needed to let go of to show up as the exceptional parent that you want to be?

DR – Well, I mean, I have always been someone who’s been able to set a goal and achieve that goal. That’s just who I’ve always been and so

RC – You’ve been able to exhibit a lot of control?

DR – Yeah. Control would be a key theme for sure. And so having a child who, I’m doing all the right things, I’m reading the right books, I’m following the right plans, and I’m not getting the results I want, was really hard for me. And I fought against that for a long time, you know, and beat myself up about it. Internally I was still like, “Yeah, but if I was doing a better job at this, this would be easier. My child wouldn’t be struggling as much. This is ultimately on me.”

And so my lifelong lesson and I’m sure it will continue, my child is now 18, I don’t think I’m done working on this particular lesson; is just to continually let go and recognize that my child is creative and resourceful, and has a journey to go on. And my job is not to try to achieve a certain outcome for my kid. It’s not my life. And how can I just show up for what is without feeling like if we go down this or that path that I have somehow failed in some way?

So that’s just something I continually have to focus on because when you have a child who’s going through the world in a different way, it’s just not going to unfold in a way that we can predict. And even if we plan for every possible exception, they’ll find another way to throw a complete wrench in your plan, and you have to pivot again. And so it requires this constant being willing to show up for what is. Do the work to address what’s it triggering in me? How is that impacting the energy in which I’m responding? How can I find peace with what’s happening so I can keep my relationship with my child and also support my kid in moving through this in as best a way possible? So it’s like this constant dance.

RC – I love that answer and this question might be a little bit similar to my previous one, but I think it comes at it a little bit differently. I’m wondering, is there a key quality you cherish in yourself that you attribute to being a parent of a differently wired child?

DR – Wow, that is a really good question because I feel like every aspect of who I am has been shaped by Asher, and I’m so grateful for that. I feel like Asher has demanded a lot from me and I’ve risen to the challenge. Doesn’t mean that I don’t screw up all the time, but I’m willing to go there and I am so grateful for that. So I don’t know. I think I’m very authentic in the way that I show up as a parent. I’m vulnerable and that to me has helped our relationship be so deep. And it’s helped me grow as a person and feel really seen no matter what’s happening. And I think that vulnerability has impacted every aspect of who I am.

I mean, life is tricky. This has been a particularly complicated season of life these past few years. So there’s just a lot of transitions coming up and uncertainty. And I’m just in it right now very much. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. So I feel grateful for all of it.

RC – I don’t want to drag out the question too much for you, but I wonder was there a turning point or an aha moment that made you feel like ‘you’ve got it, you feel like you are that exceptional parent?’ Was there a moment of arriving in that at that, or was that a decision that you made in yourself? What made that happen for you?

DR – It has been gradual for sure with every passing year. There have been unexpected pivots that have continued. You know, I’m like, “Oh, I thought I already worked on this and I got to go deeper.”

So it’s been a continual journey. The thing that comes to mind is there were six years in there where I homeschooled Asher from second through eighth grade, and I was the homeschool teacher. I did not want to homeschool, and I was still very much kind of fighting everything, our circumstances and trying to control everything and there were a couple of books that I read that made me really stop and question everything in the way that I was responding and what I was valuing and prioritizing. And I said, “You know what? I’m going to try to let go of my agenda and just start showing up every day for who this kid is and not have a to do list or not have a goal for that day and just be and see what happens and just lean in to the day and to the mood and to all of those things.”

And when I made that decision it wasn’t like flipping a switch, but it definitely changed something in the way that Asher and I related to each other and our connection deepened. Asher’s defenses dropped down. More emotional growth started happening for Asher, and it set us off on a different path.

RC – In the midst of the wise practice of ‘letting go of our agenda and just showing up for our child,’ which I appreciate so much and thank you for describing that, would there be any definite ‘do not parent like this,’ examples when you’re raising a differently wired child? If somebody is listening and feeling like, “Okay. I don’t really know what I’m doing. I’m just going to keep myself moving forward. Step into the day.”

Like, are there any like, ‘Okay, as you learn, just don’t do this?’

DR – I think one of the biggest things that parents are often guided to do or initially try when they’re raising a child, especially who has challenging behavior, is trying to lean into behavior modification plans, like focusing on the outlying behavior, the tantrum or the hitting or whatever that looks like from a physical point of view. And this is what most schools do as well, but it’s often what parents are guided to do. Like, we want to have a reward chart and every time you do this well you’re going to get a sticker. And when you have so many stickers… And I use these because I was encouraged to, but what we know is that if we are just focusing on rewarding or trying to modify the behavior, we’re not addressing the underlying cause so we’re not helping that child build skills to learn how to cope in a way that feels good, that calms their nervous systems.

Again, it’s really hard because when your child is being disruptive, or being violent or scary and we just want that behavior to stop. So parents will get desperate and do really anything. And if rewarding a kid with ice cream if they play nicely with their sister, not that that can’t work like once or twice, but to use that as a plan, it’s not going to ever address why is your kid picking fights with his sister? And what need isn’t being met? And how can we address that need so that the child learns better coping strategies?

RC – That is really helpful and you have so much great information on ‘how to discover what needs are not being met, and how to address those needs’ at TiLT parenting and I really encourage listeners who want to know more to find you there.

DR – Absolutely.

RC – Well, recognizing that it does take a great deal of thinking and reorienting and planning to support any child, but particularly a child who is differently wired,
Debbie, there’s a phrase. “There’s no heavier burden than the unlived life of a mother.” How do you stop yourself from becoming that burden? Somebody who is living so focused on what their child needs that they neglect their own life for the sake of their child. Because I think it’s pretty easy to do that.

DR – Well, so I know that there’s no way I could recharge and fill up my own emotional reserves if I didn’t take time for myself. Sometimes I do go away by myself on a retreat. I’ll just tell my husband, just so you know, I’ll be leaving for five days. I’ll give you plenty of heads up so you can adjust your schedule accordingly. But it could just be even like, a walk with the podcast. You know, like, but I’ve always been someone who’s, really prioritized my work and my personal things because I just know myself well enough that if I’m not tending to that piece of me, I will be a really miserable person to live with. And I would never have made it through with such a demanding, intense kid. I just couldn’t have shown up the way I needed to.

RC – Hmm. Well, and in all that, you are showing up for over 4 million downloads of people that have listened to your podcast and a book that has done so well. And you also have a differently wired club. And I’m wondering if you can tell us, how do people join your club? Is it open to anybody or how do people get into the differently wired club? Because you provide incredible resources for parents.

DR – Yeah. Thank you. I love the club. I’m just coming up on the three-year anniversary of it. And it is for parents who want to do this work together with the support of a community and their virtual office hours. I have other parent coaches who work with me and we go through a theme each month. It’s just my favorite thing.

And if people are interested, they can join when it’s convenient for them. And it’s just a really supportive community of parents doing their work together.

RC – Well we are so pleased to supply links on your episode page so people can get to you. You’re an incredible resource Debbie. I want to thank you so much for this conversation, for the work that you do. And thank you to Asher for being your child, because the two of you together are putting out incredible information to our world.

DR – Thank you. Thank you for such a thoughtful conversation. I really appreciate you inviting me.

RC – Oh, it’s just been an absolute pleasure. Thank you.


Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever god there may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Episode 57