Across the Spectrum, Conversations Archive

Neurodivergent People & Self Directed Learning: Rewiring Generational Curses

Dr. Kimberly Douglass and Contessa Cooper came together to host our first ever video conversation to discuss how self directed learning can help rewire generational curses that we all live and parent under, but particularly for neurodivergent parent and child dynamics. Please enjoy the conversation. Transcripts provided below. 

Kimberly Douglass:

Hello, I’m Dr. Kimberly Douglass and today I am with my colleague Contessa Cooper and we are bringing you “Neurodivergent People and Self-Directed Learning: Rewiring Generational Curses.” So, neurodivergent people and self-directed learning: rewiring generational curses—that is a mouthful. 

I am Dr. Kimberly Douglass, and I am a coach to neurodivergent adults and I work with people one-on-one in group settings and also work with individuals who work with neurodivergent people and helping them be better advocates for what we need as neurodivergent people. You can reach me if you want to talk with me and I encourage you to reach out to me Dr. Kimberly Douglass on TikTok and it’s Douglass with two s’s. You can click the link in my bio and that will take you to my linktree which has my website, my patreon, the calendar to set appointments with me. So, if you just—your entry point is TikTok and you can find me from there. I have with me today Contessa Cooper and we have some really good stuff for you today and Contessa please introduce yourself.

Contessa Cooper:  Absolutely. So, my name is Contessa Cooper and like Dr. Kimberly Douglass you can Contact with me on TikTok at @Contestlouise and there you can find all the many wonderful things that I am involved in because I love having my hands in all different pots because I am a neurodivergent and raise neurodivergent children. I’m really excited about the topic that we’re speaking about today, and it is my uh desire that you do more than just listen to this conversation. We’re gonna tell you how you can be an active participant in this conversation at the end. So make sure you watch this entire thing for that bit of information Dr. Kimberly 

Kimberly:  Okay thank you and again we’re going to talk about neurodivergent people self-directed learning rewiring generational curses. We’re going to go through five lessons that self-directed learning offers us, and of course we’ll define what self-directed learning means. This is really exciting! So we look at the description of what people are bringing um submitting to this event or uh to, let me start again—looking at what people are submitting and I saw that some people are submitting poetry submitting stories. I’m really excited to do this in the video form, because we’re bringing together things that people don’t normally talk about together: neurodivergence and self-directed learning. A lot of times when we talk about neurodivergence, we talk about what’s wrong but today we’re going to talk about some things that are that are very right. When we think about neurodivergent people, the neurodivergent experience it makes you wonder, ‘So what does this have to do with generational curses?’ right and so generational curses neurodivergence but actually neurodivergence focuses our attention towards those generational curses in ways that other things could not. Let me give you some examples and then I want to hear from Contessa. When your child is having a meltdown, so when they’re in an autistic meltdown and basically they’re not even crying it’s like water’s just leaking from their face, they are communicating needs. And you have to decide as a parent how you’re going to address that need or try to bend that child to your will. So you have to stop and think about ‘How am I going to enter this situation?’ ‘How am I going to try to connect with this child or how am I going to try to bend this child in the direction that I want them to go’.

Contessa:  Ohh, that is some real good information right there because my parents, specifically my father, did not know that I was neurodivergent. And because he had a military background he was give orders, give orders, get orders, give orders—not understanding how he was breaking me time and time and time again. So when I became a parent to a neurodivergent child I knew for a fact that I did not want my child to be broken in the same way that I was broken. Many times when we talk about generational curses we talk about it under the lens of financial literacy. We don’t talk about it as a form of education. We don’t talk about it in a form of self-directed learning. And so that’s why I think that this conversation is so important, because not only are we rewiring that that right there is going to get me every time rewiring how we think about self-directed learning rewiring how we think about parenting. We’re going to rewire how we think about ourselves.

Kimberly:  Yes, absolutely. And thank you for sharing that because it’s not necessarily painful when a child has a sensation that they need to get up and move (for some kids it is painful). But what introduces pain for sure in the situation is when they’re on this rigid class schedule, and then they don’t have the opportunity to get up and move their legs. So we’re taking a look at what it means to parent, what it means to mother a child who is neurodivergent. Despite meltdowns that happen or or signals that the kids give us that they need something different, you know schools insist that they sit for tests for long periods of time. They insist on a rigid school day. They insist on obedience, and compliance, and eye contact. The question that you and I came up with is how do you mother a child who is neurodivergent. I don’t know that I’ve seen or heard people ask that question. I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh I have this problem can you help me with xyz,’ but then we thought ‘How do you mother yourself’ because the answer to the first question is related to the answer to the second question. 

Contessa:  I said that right there is the, I’m not going to say million dollars because right now a million dollars doesn’t go very far. That’s the billion dollar question right there, and when you asked me that earlier I almost grabbed my imaginary pearls like ‘Oh how dare you ask me that’ because I never considered that. Especially being a neurodivergent Black woman— I don’t even think we give ourselves permission yes to mother ourselves. We don’t even know what that looks like. There’s so many conversations that can come out of this conversation because we’re always talking about ‘self-care, self-care self-care’— why don’t we know about self-care? Because we don’t know how to mother our selves. 

Kimberly:  Yes and you make a great point at the end of this the biggest honor that people could give us is to take this out into the community into their families and give it legs and keep talking about it and create workshops from it or just basic conversation from it. That  would really show the value of what we’re bringing to the table today. I’m glad you started talking about Black women because before we get to self-directed [learning] there’s some things we need to talk about first. The history of Black people in this country is very entangled with the history of enslavement in this country. For the whole time that we’ve been here in large numbers, we’ve been part of the means of production. We were the ways that cotton got picked and then peas got picked and all that and there’s lots of science to suggest that we still are. It’s just that we’re better educated, but we still are a group of people that’s that other people who consume quite a bit. When you think about, you know, the way things stack up at work you know, and people typically think about the white male on top and the white female, the Black male and other people of color at the bottom—we’re talking about. So we have to have a conversation about that or at least bring that to the forefront when we’re talking about generational curses, because this is about lessons that we’ve learned on mothering ourselves. Some of these lessons came from putting my child in self-directed learning. The things that self-directed learning demanded of him, liberated him. It became impossible for me to send my child to this school—and we’ll talk here in just a moment what we mean by something who was free as a bird, but I put myself in oppressive situations. I can’t mother a child that way or I can’t be as effective as I would like to be in that situation. I think you have some experiences with your son in self-directed learning.

Contessa:  Absolutely. I remember—so we went from being in a self-contained classroom with my son to being in an, what do they call it when it’s not a self a self-contained classroom?

Kimberly:  oh like a pod or open-?

Contessa:  Yeah like yeah he was in a pod and open classroom and my son was unable to participate in that classroom because he just went from one extreme to another. No one sat down and talked to him asked him or even had the nerve to ask me what was going to be the best environment for him. So I took him out of school and I homeschooled and during homeschooling we had a very open curriculum. We did things that I knew that he was really really great at, and incorporated some of those other things that he may need some other assistance in. So in that way he was kind of directing his own education because he was able to tell me, “Mom, I really would like to go for a walk right now” and so we’d go for a walk and as we were going for a walk I was talking and we were having conversations about the things that we were experiencing, and looking at and hearing on this beautiful walk. And that was part of his education.

Kimberly:  No that’s beautiful, that’s beautiful. That’s a nice lead into talking about what self-directed learning is. I helped a friend found a school this past year—what year is it, I forget 2000. In 2020, I helped found a school called The Pearl Democratic Remote High School which my son attends now. It’s based on self-directed learning in project-based learning and some other things. They’re different self-directed learning models and some of them still have a lot of structure. But then some of them are very loose and this one school that my son went to was very loose. I tell Contested this, I probably warned her out with this story where my son he’s a very modest person and my husband pulled up to pick him up one day and he’s rolling down the hill with his shoes off down the hill on his scooter he’s very risk-averse. down the hill you know he’s very cautious down the hill no shoes and no shirt and we knew that something had been unlocked because we decided in that moment to give him a break from the rigid school structures that were making him very anxious and very frustrated and constantly showing him that he did not measure up. So let me tell you go ahead did you want to say something interesting 

Contessa:  I’m laughing because in high school I created my own self-directing learning environment because I went to a Magnet School and we have lots of freedom. But we still—I had to be at this place at this time. We had a curriculum but there was still a bunch of freedom. I decided that I wasn’t going to do the homework at all because I thought it was ridiculous to sit there and have them repeat to me what I could read in this book. So I didn’t show up for class, but I showed up to take the exams and the quizzes and would get A’s on them. So they basically left me alone because I showed that I knew what they were talking about and had learned something in that time period.

Kimberly:  Yeah you created your own curriculum. You know, that reminded me—so one of the reasons we thought self-directed learning might work for him is because when they did the genius hour at school (where he could work on whatever he wanted to work on) he thrived. It was great; he was receptive, he was helpful, he was open. He didn’t show all the stress and anxiety that he showed in other situations. So we started to really look at that. We’re going to talk about the difference between a self-directed environment in a very controlled environment. Self-directed learning is driven by the child’s curiosity in a very loose self-directed environment they get to work on whatever they want to work on throughout the day and then there are other versions of it. 

In a self-directed environment they are taught to ask for what they need. So if resources are not available, they are taught to self-advocate. One of the issues that we had in the traditional school is that they would “talk the talk”; they would say things like, “Oh you know you have to learn how to self-advocate,” but when he did they didn’t let him. And he knew the difference. He knew that they were deceiving him and they really didn’t want him to use his voice. But when he went to the self-directed learning school, he really got to be a decision maker in his own life. Including what freaking time he ate his lunch! 

And my friend who’s the director of the school I just mentioned, she was telling me that he helped interview their new music teacher for next year are really good. He even asked, “I know you’re good at teaching and all that. Well how does music show up in your life outside of school?” And I was like, “dude!” But he’s used to asking questions. He’s used to advocating, so it teaches you self advocacy. It helps you identify your needs or go to the right resource to help you identify your needs. In a self-directed learning environment, people listen to what you have to say because you’re an authority figure. Also when you’re not at your best and you’re having a meltdown, people hold space for you in that environment. In just a moment I’m going to compare that to a very controlled environment in which a lot of neurodivergent children experience a lot of challenges. 

Contessa:  What I’m hearing you say is that they didn’t just create a safe space for the students there— they created what they call a brave space, and in a brave space it allows you to ask questions. It allows you to dig a little deeper. It allows for different ways of seeing things and interacting with each other and I think it’s really important to go away from safe spaces and to create more brave spaces where everyone can be heard and every voice matters.

Kimberly:  Yes, absolutely. So I want to compare that to a very controlling environment and thinking about mothering; how we mother, and how we need to be mother or how we think we need to be mothered in a controlling environment. So in a controlling environment we’re constantly concerned about police: fear police we both have black sons. Clamping down when there’s a meltdown right because you as a black person exist to be consumed; we don’t have time for your needs, we don’t have time for this foolishness. Mistakes. Mistakes kids in a very controlling environment are charged a very high cost for their mistakes and in fact their mistakes in first place but in a self-directed learning environment there are no mistakes because every experience matters. Go ahead.

Contessa:  We talked about this this word called mistakes and one of the most freeing things to me was to realize that there was really no such thing as a mistake at all. I I lost my face here hold on a second. [here we go a few times there we go there we go my face is here] That there’s really no such thing as a mistake because we need that space to ask questions and you get data this is the one thing that I always love that you say you always get data no matter what every mistake tells you something about what’s going on and so you’re just interacting with your world it’s not a mistake at all.

Kimberly:  No, no this is really good because in the self-directed learning environment it’s an exploratory process. And in an exploratory process, there are very few right and wrong answers. You really are trying to explore. But in a very controlling environment—so a lot of times we don’t even recognize how much this legacy of being owned is with us, and and we clamp down and we try to control because we don’t want to be embarrassed but we also want to keep our child safe. Because we know that the mistakes can cost our kids their lives. And so when we talk about a generational curse we’re not just talking about what happens in the genes and the genetics in in the pocketbook, but this is what it looks like also. it shows up when you don’t think your neurodivergent child is worthy of your patience or you’re trying to put them in a box that they certainly do not belong in. so on the one end you kind of have this self-directed point of view in terms of education. on this other end you have this Controlling point of view and these are very powerful lessons not just for your kids but for you as a for us as parents because it takes a certain kind of parent to allow this to unfold. In a controlled environment—so if we’re being groomed we’re being shaped to be consumed by society: we’re handed boring, uninteresting rigid work. I think about my mother uh growing up she worked in the kind of fields she went from the cotton fields to the textile mills and just some of the things I experienced as a child that were really harmful and later on, probably in my 30s, I started to see she raised the person she was supposed to raise because the family is the first system. She was supposed to raise other factory workers to be obedient to be compliant and that’s exactly what she did. Now we’re not talking about the amount of harm to our relationship, but that’s exactly what she did: she taught us to not trust ourselves, and that it’s not important to do work that you love, or that the system must also always choose for you. 

Contessa:  I had a very similar experience in my home too, because my father was in the military and he took orders every single day from people who was above him. and so when he came home he mimicked that same behavior. me and my sister’s job was just to take orders. to do what he says without question. But little tessa did not do that, and so I was labeled bad and unruly and was always punished because I would always ask questions. I was the one always talking back and that caused a lot of harm because eventually you stop talking .

Kimberly:  Right, right you learn, you learn. You see the pattern. You learn as a neurodivergent person, as anybody, you learn and it’s really interesting that we’re it’s interesting to me to talk about generational curses in this way. It’s important because we’re not going to get this from a lot of the mental health industry because the mental health models are largely based on being— it’s invested in problems, right. So when we talk about mothering, we talk a lot about the deficit point of view. We talk a lot about what’s wrong without even talking about the systems in which we are trying to fit and trying to survive. And a lot of therapists won’t even talk to you about racism, and there’s no way you can have this conversation. So when we talk about generational curses, we have to be able to talk about these things. We have to be able to talk about neuro divergence and how this need to control actually forces people to mask even more. To suppress their stems. To really try to show up as somebody that they’re not until they are in their 30s or 40s and they just can’t do it anymore and they hit a wall. And we see that happening quite a bit.

Contessa:  Yes we do especially with a pandemic. We saw a lot of individuals who had to sit at home and had to manage and had to do everything all at once hit this wall and start to have these conversations like, ‘why why can’t I manage what is going on with me?’ And areas and groups like on TikTok start to hear things that’s like ‘oh my gosh do I have ADHD? am I autistic? What is really going on with me?’ And then finding this brave space in these groups where they’re able to question things and actually see themselves and other people. Yeah and I’m so thankful for that. I’m so thankful that they ran into people like me and they ran into people like you that says, ‘Yeah, yeah you’re right that’s probably you and here’s where you can go to get additional information.’

Kimberly:  Right so if you see yourself as somebody who should always be consumed people should always extract from you then you never have time to think about what do I really need. and you don’t have time to think about that as a mother and you don’t have time to think about that as a person. and so you know when we look at you know just kind of recap what we’re talking about with this self-directed learning it really requires you to think about yourself in a very different way. and you and I do this every single day right so owning your own business is a is a type of self-directed learning, but even allowing your child to benefit from self-directed learning, you have to unlock some things that may be locked away.

Contessa:  Absolutely that need for control is really really huge. And I remember fighting with my own mother at the way that I parented my children because it goes against everything that you were supposed to do in a Black home and it made her uneasy—

Kimberly:  Absolutely 

Contessa:  Because she was very fearful at what could possibly happen because we did not do or follow the norms in society. It was tough. 

Kimberly:  And we’re coming back around to this point here. The most important thing here in terms of you and your child, but you with yourself, is connection and what this control does when you can’t trust yourself to direct your own work. You can’t trust yourself to follow your curiosity. When you can’t trust yourself to go take a pee break when you need to go take a pee break, then you become disconnected from yourself and you also become disconnected from your child that you can’t trust, and connection is is critical. I want to go through these five things just to make sure we bring it all together. These five things that self-directed learning has to offer us as parents of neurodivergent children and as neurodivergent people, and then we’ll discuss these. Number one: it teaches you to trust yourself and that you’re not a consumable that has to be managed. If you think you’re consumable, then you have to be managed like a resource. And this means you have room to make choices you have room to decide and you show your child that you have room to make choices in room to decide on things. Number two: life is an exploration, right, and so work and childhood so playing is your work. So work and childhood are supposed to be affirming and not draining. So if you’re a person your child who needs to get up and move your legs throughout the day, then there should be opportunities for you to do that. Number three: it shouldn’t cost you everything or um we’ll put it another way the cost of not living your life is higher than the cost of living your life. So right now if we operate with this control, we think the safest place is to be tucked away and to not try anything and not experiment with things, and not allow our children to explore, but there there’s actually a much higher cost to never trying. So number one, trust yourself. Number two, life is exploration. Number three, there’s a high cost for not doing anything or staying where you are. Number four: you have to believe or you have to know that you have access to resources. You have adults in your lives your life, you have other[s], you have colleagues you have people who are going to help you get where you need to go. That is an important lesson from self-directed learning that there are people there to fill in what you need. Then the fifth thing is that with this trust in self and life as an exploration and the high cost of doing nothing and the fact that you do have access to resources you do have community is to take this forth and talk to other people about it. Really have these conversations about what it means to be self-directed versus trying to control the entire world. 

Contessa:  Can you imagine what our workplaces would look like if we were self-directed in the workplace? If our managers and our supervisors would be more of an advisor rather than someone who is there to control our every move and our every action. That would allow neurodivergent adults, neurodivergent Black women to actually have the room to create. 

Kimberly:  Right, and it would give the opportunity for talents and skills to really come forth, because with everything being controlled and managed you basically control who is going to have the best outcomes. But if you step back and you allow things to unfold and for people to design some of their own processes, then what you see is you have these brilliant Black women in the workplace who are stuffing themselves to keep from talking. To not rock the boat. To not creating trouble. These are brilliant people who when they are confronted with situations where it’s clear they’re not getting what they need out of the situation, blame themselves right because that’s the neurodivergent go-to: we’ve been taught over many many years to not only blame ourselves for things to go wrong and by extension when something happens with our children, to blame them as well. Even if we’re sort of advocating for them it’s like ‘okay well you know, I’m sick of having to go up to this school. I’m sick of having.’ Well if the school weren’t set up the way it is then you wouldn’t have to go up there because your child comes into the world with needs, and no matter how they behave towards your child that is not going to change your child’s needs. But when your child has room to develop and to grow you have room to develop and to grow then it creates a whole different atmosphere in the household. 

Contessa:  So Dr. Kimberly, let me ask you this what does it take to rewire the way that we mother ourselves?

Kimberly:  Everything begins with a thought. And my wish is that this conversation, this piece that we put together is the seed for that thought. A seed for the thought that maybe my instincts are right to protect my child in a certain way. Maybe my instincts are right. Maybe I don’t have impostor syndrome. Maybe I just know that they treat me in a way that I don’t like being treated. Think about the possibility that you could direct your own work. You could have resources available to you, or think about it—you know, a lot of us do better when we think about our children—so imagine your child in a situation where they go in and maybe there’s some instruction or whatever, but they’re not being paralyzed by these high-stakes tests because let’s be clear: the tests don’t mean anything. The tests were put there to create a gap between Black children and white children. The meritocracy, the achievement is fraudulent. And so so when people start talking about learning laws that’s just code to me for the fact that they’re going to try to leave my children further behind. But imagine if your child was not even part of that and you made some different decisions about where to place them and you set them free to just work on some things. To just be interested. To just be curious about things. Imagine if you did that and you didn’t have people calling you because they wouldn’t stand in line going to the lunch room. And their resources where your child’s resources are being used to build things as opposed to be in survival mode all day. So to answer your question it begins with a thought. But the thought is about how you see control in your own life but also your control over your child. Do you think they should be constantly consumed? Do you think that they should be compliant and obedient because you think it’s going to keep them safe when we see time and time again that it does not keep them safe?

Contessa:  It does not thank you thank you so much for that answer. that was exactly what I think that we need to hear: it all starts with a thought. and so many times when we’re talking to people I feel like the reason why they don’t do something is because again it’s a control issue but they need someone to give them permission to do something. 

Kimberly:  That’s right. 

Contessa:  And so I am going to give you permission to start asking questions to start exploring in your life. to start to think about how you and your children can start to live differently where they’re not consumed. where they’re not being controlled all the time. where they can create and make right whatever their hearts desire. you have my permission 

Kimberly:  Yes absolutely and that’s a new definition from mothering and as we wrap up and the talk here has been about self-directed learning and the lessons it can offer us about rewiring generational curses. Because this is what the curse looks like: the curse looks like your child having to mask all day and then coming home and exploding and then you’re taking it personally. And so it’s just like one vicious cycle after another. Or having to be called in the middle [of the] day to come to school. So that’s what it looks like as opposed to stepping back and saying ‘what does my child need?’ So a lot of times what happens is we clamp down and we try to control. But look at what the control has done us. Trying to control everything so rigidly actually feeds into the slave narrative because what the control does is it assures emotional distance between you and your child and your child becomes more isolated. You become more isolated. You become isolated means of production and so the point is to take the values and the ideas of self-directed learning and think about how you can make those available to your child, and just trying different things where you give them something that they’re interested in working with and back away and see how it unfolds. Contessa.

Contessa:  That is such an amazing way to start the process of self-directed learning. I would not be who I am without self-directed learning, and the peace of mind that I have as an adult I wouldn’t trade it for anything else in this world. And i’m thankful that I’m able to have conversations with Dr. Kimberly and we’re able to create wonderful and beautiful things together. So as you are having these conversations, as you are giving legs to the things that we are talking about and you’re like, ‘I don’t know how to explain this to someone. I don’t know where to go to get more information.’  We are your resource. You can go contact Dr. Kimberly on TikTok and you can also get in contact with me on TikTok as well and we do not mind answering questions when it comes to topics like this.

Kimberly:  Absolutely. And so I just want to recap the five lessons that we brought to you today. Trust yourself and also in in as an extension of teaching your child to trust themselves, but giving them opportunity to trust themselves. Life is exploration. There should be higher costs for not trying. Let them know they have access to resources. And take these lessons for with you. I think about trusting myself and how I had to do that in order to be the kind of mother that my son needs. And I think about how that shows up in my relationship with Contessa, because we both trust ourselves and we believe we have good ideas and we honor that when we come together we can give the other person space to develop their ideas. so it isn’t like ‘oh, no no no that’s just crazy’. No. We trust that we’re thinkers and people who are very reasonable and who connect the dots and so we step back and we give each other room to connect the dots and that’s what you have to do: you have to give people room to connect the dots including yourself and it’s Contessa pointed out please reach out to us. We’re happy to talk with you. And what we’ve talked about today is neurodivergent people in self-directed learning and this as a way of rewiring generational curses. They don’t just go away because you make more money that just doesn’t happen. But this really does involve some internal work. And self-directed learning is not only a practice but it is a mentality for yourself and it can revolutionize the relationships you have within your family so that your child and you know that you don’t have to be over consumed by society. You can start to write a narrative about who you are, about who your child is. Thank you for joining us. This has been wonderful. Take care.

Contessa:  Thank you so much. Take care now. Bye.

Dr Kimberly Douglass She/Her
Futurist Dr. Kimberly Douglass is a thought leader on the neurodivergent lived experience. She is building a world in which Neurodivergent People feel they belong. IG: @drkimberlydouglass
TikTok: @drkimberlydouglass

Contessa Cooper She/Her
Contessa is everyone’s favorite no-nonsense neurodivergent creator who takes no sh*t. She uses her natural humor & training to help neurodivergent professionals empower themselves by embracing their diversities as assets – not limitations.
IG: @Contessalouise
TikTok: @Contessalouise

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