Neurodivergent Communication

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As a neurodivergent therapist who works with neurodivergent (ND) individuals, I see one topic come up again and again – communication. In this article I explore the diversity of communication and how autistic or ADHD (or otherwise neurodivergent) folks can help others understand their needs.

Communication is a topic that touches all of us, but our differences can be really magnified when we’re communicating. Firstly there’s the obvious differences in our language, whether we hail from a different part of the world, or how different generations use different slang to express themselves. But communication is so much more nuanced than this; non verbal communication and sign language being a couple that spring to mind. And diving a bit deeper, the way we communicate as a neurodivergent person can be quite different from someone who is neurotypical.

You see, in our society, there’s this idea of “normal” communication. It’s like a set of rules that everyone follows without even thinking. We say things we don’t really mean, like giving compliments just to be nice, or not being completely honest to fit in. And these rules aren’t actually written down anywhere, it’s just something we’re supposed to pick up as we grow and filter our thoughts before we say them out loud. But for many ND folks, this way of communicating feels unnatural. Many of us prefer to communicate in a more direct and honest way or get so excited about a subject that we have trouble waiting for someone else to finish. Perhaps we love sharing our passions by speaking at length about them without picking up signs that someone is not interested or have a flat expression when someone expects us to be smiley. Many ND people have spent years trying to fit in by masking and a huge part of this is trying to get communication “right”. So it’s common to have a catalogue of misunderstandings or times we realised we said something not quite right but didn’t know why.

This then can lead to a lifetime of masking, social anxiety, and even identity issues as we try to figure out what these elusive rules actually are and how we can stick to them.

Neurodiversity & Needs

Image of a phone with the text I need a holiday written in bold black type

The clue is in the name, “diversity”, and this refers to the range of different ways of being and perceiving the world. So, if we strip away the dominant way of communicating and look at things in terms of diversity, we can say that we just have different ways of communicating, and no way is the “wrong” way. As a neurodivergent person your needs matter, your feelings matter, and your way of communicating matters.

So, how do we bridge this gap and make communication work for everyone? You can start by learning to identify your own needs. This may sound simple to many but, if you’ve been supressing your needs in order to be someone different and fit it, you might not even know what your needs are anymore.

Take some time to reflect on what you feel and what you want in different situations. Maybe you sometimes need space, and other times need connection or a hug. Maybe you need someone to listen, or maybe you just need a quiet moment. It’s ok if these things seem to be conflicting or inconsistent, what’s important is that you have a way to communicate them to those who need to know.

With many autistic people and/or ADHDers, overwhelm can be commonplace. When we are overwhelmed (whether by sensory or emotional overload) it’s not always easy to articulate how we are feeling. Sometimes, it’s like the words just won’t come out. One helpful strategy can be to prepare in advance some ideas of what you might need from the people around you.

See if you can have a conversation in advance with the people you trust. This way, when things get tough, they’ll understand what you need, even if you can’t say it at that moment.

Communicating Your Needs

Image of a phone with black hold type stating I need a holiday, the word holiday is crossed out and holiyear is written instead.

Here are a few suggestions on how to communicate your needs:

  1. Communication Cards: *Not just for kids!* Communication cards are often thought of as just for kids that might struggle with explaining how they feel e.g. for autistic children. But there’s no reason why adults we can’t use something similar. If you feel any sense of shame over using a tool such as this, it’s probably some internalised ableism that you’ve picked up over the years. Perfectly understandable but not so helpful when this idea could be a useful one. You can use cards with short sentences such as “I need space,” “I need a break,” or “I need to talk“, or have longer cards to explain more such as “I love you, I appreciate you but right now I am overwhelmed and need to be in a quiet room“. You can make them yourself in any way that feels ok to you (colourful and laminated, or scribbled on the back of a shopping list) and think in advance about what words be most helpful to you when you need them. Then you can add more cards as you discover more of your needs.
  2. Code Words: An alternative to communication cards. Pick a word with someone close to you that signals how you’re feeling. It could mean, “I’m overwhelmed, please give me space.” Particularly if both partners are neurodivergent the other person may have RSD (Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria) and could feel rejected or threatened by you needing space. So talking about this in advance is key so they can be reassured that this doesn’t affect the way you feel about them.
  3. Write it Down: Sometimes, writing down your thoughts and feelings can be easier than saying them out loud. This can be done as a tool for helping you regulate like journaling for example, or it could just be a way that you get your feelings out in the moment. Of course nowadays we have a range of communication at our fingertips in the forms of our devices so perhaps you prefer to use a notes app or a voice recorder to get the words out.
  4. Reflective Conversations: Have a chat with someone you trust, like a friend or therapist, about your needs. Talking it out can help you understand yourself and your needs better.

Remember, there’s no right or wrong way to communicate. Your voice is unique, and it deserves to be heard. By embracing your needs and finding ways to express them, you’re creating a bridge between your world and others’. It’s also good to remember that it’s a two way street – it shouldn’t all be down to you as the ND person to change the way you are or to do all the work. It can be tiring advocating for yourself but it’s often even more exhausting if you’re having to mask and pretend to be someone else.

So, whether it’s using communication cards, having code words, or just having an open conversation, finding ways to express your needs is a powerful step toward better communication. It’s about making your voice heard, your feelings understood, and your needs respected.

In the end, the goal is simple: to create a world where every voice matters, regardless of how it’s communicated.

Amy is a counsellor specialising in neurodivergence and the founder of Newglade Counselling. She has created a team of neurodivergent counsellors who work online and face to face around Canterbury, Kent. Amy also provides parent support sessions, clinical supervision and delivers training in therapy and neurodivergence. For more information about our services and to keep updated, sign up to our mailing list here.

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