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Communication Styles, Counseling, and Neurodiversity

Communication is key to understanding and helping those who are neurodivergent.

Key points

  • People who are neurodivergent often communicate differently.
  • Being aware of our communication styles can help us engage better with clients.
  • For many people who are neurodivergent small talk and gossip are unnatural and uncomfortable.
  • How we communicate impacts our ability to connect with other people.

Communication is key to understanding others and being understood is something that makes many people feel safe, valued and cared for. Carl Rogers, the founder of humanistic counselling, wrote about how, when people feel deeply heard, understood, and believed, it can be transformative for them, particularly when moving on from trauma or difficult life events.

“When a person realizes he has been deeply heard, his eyes moisten. I think in some real sense he is weeping for joy. It is as though he were saying, "Thank God, somebody heard me. Someone knows what it's like to be me” -C. R. Rogers

As a neurodivergent woman and therapist, I feel huge relief and peace when I am understood or when someone ‘gets’ me. This is rare and I understand why that is more as I age and become educated in neurodiversity and relationships. My neurology means that I communicate and experience the world differently from most people and society does not generally deal well with differences. One of the most frustrating things for many people on the spectrum is that our experiences are not always believed or understood, as they are often divergent from the norm.

The way many with Autism Spectrum Disorder communicate is different, too, and while some people find it funny, odd and quirky others can find it rude, abrupt or aggressive. I have come to learn that my communication style is direct and honest, but still, that is quite offensive to some and that is difficult for me to understand and modify. Social niceties and small talk often involve people not saying what they mean and not talking about things they really care about, this is uncomfortable for me. This also seems to be uncomfortable for many people I have met on the spectrum and for many of my clients—to some of us on the spectrum such behaviours can seem a bit pointless and trite.

I have recently been thinking about past acquaintances and past experiences and how I would sometimes be told my conversations were dull and boring. The irony was I would often think that they were pretty dull but I was too polite to say it. Who was being rude in this interaction? Looking back, I now completely understand why some might find me boring. In the pub, I could be speaking about specific interests and I might hyperfixate on minor details relating to certain topics while others liked discussing clothes and football, in quite general ways.

Every time I hear a client tell me how they are described as intense (as if it is a problem) I feel a sadness, because what I see is brilliance, passion, intellect and enthusiasm. I think every one of my clients is amazing. It depresses me that the vibrant are expected to be dull to make those who are less vibrant comfortable. I think vibrancy and enthusiasm are to be commended and celebrated. Since intense social interactions and conversations are often considered socially awkward, many bright lights and enthusiastic truth seekers will remain silenced and more often wounded, othered and alienated.

When I first received my diagnosis, I thought I should quit counselling. I spoke with one of the counselling forum’s staff members and I was very honest about how I felt and why I thought I should quit. I said I thought I should quit as my communication style is direct and honest and I only wanted to work with those who were autistic or neurodivergent.

I said I was worried about discriminating against people who are ‘normal’ but I preferred working with those who were like me. In my Aspie brain that was wrong and unfair, to reject those who were ‘normal.’ The woman was amazing, and she guided me and encouraged me to be selective and to focus on only accepting clients with whom I felt comfortable working. It was a revelation and the best decision of my career. I have huge gratitude for that warm-hearted woman and her gentle words of wisdom on that day.

One of the main things I have noticed in how many autistic people interact and communicate is that we want there to be a point to it. Many of us seem to want to gain something from it, generally knowledge or insight. For many people who are neurologically typical, being social is the goal itself—socializing for the sake of socializing. While there is nothing wrong with this, I suspect that many people on the spectrum struggle to establish this as worthwhile pursuit or whether it is preferential to being alone and doing their own thing.

I have heard it said about those who are neurodivergent that we have a low tolerance for nonsense, that we can be abrupt, sharp and hurtful in our bluntness, which is often seen as rude. I find gossip rude. I see judging other people for their lifestyles, looks and personal choices as absurd and the more I work with neurodivergent people, the more I see how they have little time and energy for many cultural and societal norms. I also see them as people who are misunderstood because of their communication style and I believe they are some of the most kind-hearted, empathic, and lovely people I have ever met.

For me, meaningful communication is what I thrive on. I love my work, I adore my clients and the way they communicate is perfect for me. My job is to help them live good lives and accept their wonderful selves in a world that often tells us to be less. Maybe many of us should stop being less and others who are not like us should, every once in a while, try to be more.

“One of the most important things you can do on this earth is to let people know they are not alone.” -Shannon L. Alder