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Neurodivergently speaking – ideas for supporting difficulties with communication

Person's head with swirling circles around it
Edwin D. Babbitt’s Principles of Light and Color (1878)

I've noticed a pattern in my work with neurodivergent clients around the theme of finding it difficult to share thoughts/feelings about oneself with others e.g. family members, loved ones. I can certainly relate to it. It got me thinking generally about the issue of communication that comes up so often in the counselling room, and so I’ve put together some thoughts below.  

As well as social communication being a tricky territory for autistic people, additionally I would add that many neurodivergent people can experience what we could maybe call communication trauma that can conflate an already challenging demand. Being easily misunderstood or even mislabelled e.g. too sensitive/narcissistic/not concentrating/away with the fairies/bossy/blunt/too direct/slow can lead to a double whammy when it comes to navigating communication.


 In this article, the three main pinch points in barriers to communication I’d like to  highlight are:


  • the quality of the intersubjective field

  • Nervous system shut down that comes in the context of a demand being made

  • not knowing yet how you feel/what you think


Communication difficulty: The quality of the intersubjective field


Graph depicting sentence
Principles of Psychology (1890)

Neurodivergent people are highly sensitive to the quality of the intersubjective field – that’s the space in-between people who are talking to each other. See if any of these ring true for you.

You might notice being hypervigilant to the quality of attention being given to what you are saying, and therefore easily shutting down because you know that the quality is not quite right. Or maybe there’s something here for you about the lack of balance in the listening and talking space, and so there’s a sense of giving up on speaking. Or when the stage is all yours, it’s almost too much to step into that limelight.


Communication difficulty: Not knowing yet how you feel

For some neurodivergent profiles, it may be that your experience of your own feelings comes quietly and slowly and needs a lot of time and space to blossom into words.

You might find that the processing often just goes slower than the pace of conversation. Perhaps you can come to a conversation prepared with one observation or insight, but if there are follow up questions, you may not be able to answer.

Your body-mind might sit within the alexythimia profile, and so may find that there is a delay in knowing what you feel about a situation.


diver holding a sign
Underwater photograph by Louis Boutan, 1899

Communication difficulty: Nervous system shut down that comes in the context of a demand being made


Maybe when you feel the pressure to get your words together (especially if it involves feelings), you might notice that the pressure becomes too much and then you may struggle to get your words out. The nervous system can quickly go into freeze and the language part of the brain then goes offline – words escape you!


 This may lead you to avoiding or hating any sort of confrontation for this reason.


Maybe you’re far better at writing your thoughts and feelings down so you have time to process them properly and write it how you mean it rather than feeling the pressure and often saying things you wish you hadn't or not in the way you wish you had.


Additionally, maybe you identify with the PDA profile (pervasive Drive for Autonomy), where demand can indeed "hide in plain sight" during conversations, making it challenging to recognise and address.

Ideas for addressing pinch points


So we’ve identified just some of the pinch points. The question next is, what to do about it?


illustration of a heart

Well, to be honest I really think that one of the major pieces of the jigsaw here (that also comes into the therapy work) is about acknowledging that communication can be tricky, and that this is ok. Acknowledgement can lead to an invitation to compassion and care for the parts of you that find this part of adulting difficult. I know it’s a cliché, but it really is ok to be you!


Another part that can be helpful with is in advocating for your brain and body to have time and space to regroup, regulate, process and form the words that feel right – or even to decide not to speak at that moment and come back with a response later (or even weeks later!).


Cushion sentences

Albrecht Dürer’s Pillow Studies (1493)

Here are some sentences you are welcome to use to buy time and space. I call them cushion sentences as they create a buffer between you and the demand:


"I'm working on ways to explain what's going on when I'm struggling to communicate. If I seem stressed out while I'm explaining, it's because it's new for me and I would appreciate your patience and the ability to come back to it."


Sometimes I don't have access to these words while it's happening so I'll either have to say, "I can't explain my response right now but I will later"


"My nervous system is having a stress response to (x) because it feels like a demand. This is an autism thing and doesn't mean you were demanding."


"I don't know how I feel about it yet but I'll let you know when I do."


"I need a bit of time to process that but I'll explain later."



Some clients find writing down their thoughts ahead of time and then reading them to their partner is helpful

  Suggestions for loved ones

If your partner/loved one/family member happens to ask how they can communicate with you better, then these suggestions may be useful (especially for the PDA profile):

  • Offer choices: Instead of making direct demands, present options to give a sense of control.

  • Use indirect language: Frame requests as suggestions or possibilities rather than demands.

  • Be flexible: Allow for changes in plans or approaches to tasks.

  • Recognise and respect anxiety signals: If you notice signs of discomfort, back off and give space.

  • Collaborate: Involve the person in decision-making processes that affect them.

  • Avoid pressuring: Don't push for immediate answers or commitments.

  • Use "I" statements: Express your needs without making demands (e.g., "I would appreciate it if..." instead of "You need to...").

  • Create a low-demand environment: Reduce unnecessary rules or expectations in your interactions.

Addressing the intersubjective field

A number of things have helped me with hypervigilance to the quality of the intersubjective field.

  • Realising that friendship deepens when I share more about myself. I now make more of an effort to encourage myself into conversation even when I'm with a person who talks a lot (e.g. ADHD friends). This has transformed my relationships with them and I feel much closer to them as a result.

  • Having meta conversations about conversation with a loved one. It can be helpful to identify the patterns and dynamics of how you talk to each other in relationship so that together you can make an effort to change that dynamic. This has really helped with my ADHD husband.

  • Consider the quality of the intersubjective field in your friendship group - if it is toxic, unbalanced, unsafe - it might be time to find new friends or limit time with certain people. You have a right to be safe in communication.


Resources: Declarative Language (book for communicating with children but also useful for adults)

Non Violent Communication (a great way of learning communication skills regarding conflict) #autistic #autisticcommunication #neurodivergent #autism





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