Communication between the Neurodiverse and the Neurotypical

Teachers, parents and partners come to me asking my help to understand the behavior of someone with Aspergers. Usually they’re frustrated by behavior of some kind that’s perceived as resistance to what seems to be needs and expectations that are “normal,” or neurotypical. The neurotypical teacher, parent or partner wants to have things go more smoothly.

In turn, the individuals with Aspergers (neurodiverse) are often frustrated by the expectations they face which seems to suggest a basic lack of understanding of their needs. The assumption is that if those who are neurotypical “got it,” expectations would be more realistic and problems such as difficulty transitioning, social anxiety and sensory issues would be taken into account. They may feel that their meltdowns are a direct result of their environment.

I find myself in the role of translator of the perspective of the neurodiverse individual to the neurotypical parent, teacher or partner, and the translator of the perspective of the neurotypical to those who are neurodiverse. In my role as translator, I can be free of judgments.  I’m simply trying to help people understand each other. 

Many neurotypicals are grateful to understand a neurodiverse perspective. However, I’ve also been told that clarifying the situation from the neurodiverse point of view is simply making an excuse for the neurodiverse person’s behavior. I’m excusing rather than explaining.  I’m not doing what’s wanted, which is to get the neurodiverse individual to stop acting neurodiverse and start acting neurotypical.

The idea that the neurodiverse perspective is only an excuse rejects the reality of the needs of the neurodiverse person. It’s saying that these needs aren’t real but represent oppositionalism, avoidance, an attitude problem, or even selfishness. 

For example, the situation might be that a neurodiverse teenager wasn’t doing a chore at home, like taking out the garbage on the night when it’s picked up. I might explain that the neurodiverse teen missed the implied expectation of what’s wanted. The mother had asked the neurodiverse teen to take out the garbage once but did not specify that the teen was expected to take out the garbage every week. He needed a direct, clear instruction.

The mother might tell me that her neurodiverse teen should understand that if the garbage was there, the chore of taking it out needed doing. When I explain that the directions need to be explicit, “I want you to take out the garbage every Thursday night,” the parent insists the teen was simply avoiding his chores. She told the teen that he was being selfish and that she expected more thoughtfulness.

“Thoughtfulness” sounds meaningful to the parent, but not to the teen. A neurodiverse teen who’s very literal might think that “thoughtfulness” means he was supposed to be full of thoughts. 

Because neurotypicals say things like “be thoughtful” or “the garbage is just sitting there,” neurodiverse individuals can get frustrated that neurotypicals often don’t say what they mean. A spouse might say, “It’s hard for me to carry this,” without saying, “I want you to carry this for me,” and then express frustration that the neurodiverse person isn’t responsible.

“Being responsible” might mean “offer to help” to the neurotypical– although this still doesn’t make it clear when to offer to help, or with what, and the neurodiverse person doesn’t feel confident in interpreting with what exactly to offer to help.  They worry that boundaries will be crossed if they misinterpret.

This conflict over understanding can happen if the neurodiverse person has sensory issues that make a task much more problematic than it might seem. The teen might refuse to wash the dishes, not out of laziness, but because the feeling of soapy water might be painful and overwhelming, or the noise level in the kitchen might be so overstimulating that it triggers fight-or-flight response. The teen might be too upset to explain his problem, not have the words to explain, or feel the parent “should” understand the sensory issues.  The mom might feel angry that she cleaned up, made dinner, etc., and perceive the teen doesn’t appreciate her or want to help. 

Mindblindness (not understanding the other’s thinking) can go in both directions, even though there’s mutual caring and love.

The teen might actually want very much to please his mom but feel defeated because even though he loves her, he can’t seem to do things right. The mom loves her son and is trying her best. The problem is that they’re not communicating in the other’s language. 

There are also problems when there’s competing needs that are urgent. Parents know that transitions are often problematic for those who are neurodiverse, but sometimes there’s a need for a rapid unexpected transition, like going out to do an unexpected errand or picking someone up who’s not feeling well. The need is a reasonable one, but it’s unlikely that a neurodiverse person will suddenly stop having trouble with flexibility and transitions.

It can help to present the need as a request rather than a demand but transitioning flexibly and quickly might still be too difficult. Sometimes there’s just not a great answer, but it’s not because someone is holding out or purposefully defiant.

Life and relationships with someone from a different neurotype can be more successful and rewarding if neurodivergent perspectives and needs aren’t perceived as obstinate or manipulative. So, there’s a conversation as opposed to an argument or meltdown.

No one in the relationship intends to be unreasonable. Getting past the communication barrier might first fall on the neurotypical to be clear and listen to the response of the neurodiverse person; experiencing respect and acceptance rather than blame can make it less tense and easier for the neurodiverse person to communicate as well.

By Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D.

This article first appeared on PsychCentral.

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Dr. Marcia Eckerd has been in practice as a licensed psychologist since 1985. I am on the CT ASD Advisory Council and the Clinical Advisory Committee of the Aspergers/Autism Association of New England, as well the professional advisory board of Smart Kids with LD. Aspergers101 is honored to offered the knowledge and experience of Dr. Eckerd through her informative blogs!

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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