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Neurodivergent Communication


Purple to pink gradient background with a brain (left side rainbow, right side blue) in the middle. Text on the left "Communicating in a world" Text on the right "that's NOT made for us"

This article explores the communication challenges, differences, and styles of Neurodivergent people who are part of what I call the "Neurospicy Trifecta" which refers to three Neurodivergences including Autism, ADHD, and C-PTSD (also BPD as people with BPD often meet the criteria for C-PTSD).


Neurospicy Socialization and Communication


In the Diagnostic and Statistics Manual of Mental Disorders-V (DSM), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) identify symptoms regarding different presentations of what Neurotypical people consider to be deficits or difficulties with socialization, communication, and effective relationships. Although not included in the DSM (and often mislabeled as BPD), Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) is included in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) where it includes social and interpersonal criteria as well.

Autism


Autism criteria, according to the DSM, categories and one of them is as follows: “persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction”. This category includes some examples including:

“Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity”

  • Abnormal social approach

  • Failure of normal back-and-forth conversation

  • Reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect

  • Failure to initiate or respond to social interactions

“Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors”

  • Poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication

  • Abnormalities in eye contact/body language

  • Deficits in understanding and use of gestures

  • Lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication

“Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships”

  • Difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts

  • Difficulties in sharing imaginative play/making friends

  • Absence of interest in peers

ADHD

ADHD includes 2 categories of criteria: attention deficits (required for diagnosis) and hyperactivity (included for the hyperactive and combined subtypes along with four conditions that must be met for diagnosis including that there must be “clear evidence that the symptoms interfere with, or reduce the quality of, social, school, or work functioning.” The specific symptom criteria that involve social deficits are as follows:

  • Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly.

  • Often talks excessively

  • Often blurts out answers

  • Often interrupts or intrudes on others

Complex PTSD

Complex PTSD is not recognized by the DSM-5, however, it is included in the ICD11 and includes the requirement that the person must first meet the full criteria for PTSD, and additionally meet three criteria of “disturbances in self-organization”. The social/communication-related criteria involved in C-PTSD are as follows:

  • Persistent and exaggerated negative beliefs or expectations about self/the world

  • Feelings of detachment or estrangement from others

  • Irritable behavior and angry outbursts

  • Interpersonal problems – struggles with building/maintaining relationships

*It should be noted that many symptoms of any disorder can cause struggles with social relationships and communication and not all of them will always cause such issues.

Differences NOT Deficits

There are ways in which Neurodivergent people genuinely struggle with communication because of their own specific barriers. However, much of the academic language used to described disorders are written from the perspective of those effected by the behaviors, emotions, and ways of being of the person who is diagnosed while focusing little (if at all) on the internal processes and personal experiences of that person. Let’s cut through the bullsh*t and identify what these poorly worded criteria are referring to.

Autism

​“Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity ranging from” “abnormal approach” to “failure to initiate or respond to social interactions”

Difference in social approach from “normal” or a lack of desire to initiate interactions

“Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors ranging from” “poorly integrated communication” to “lack of nonverbal communication”.

Difference in or lack of facial expressions and other nonverbal communication compared to the “norm”

“Deficits in developing, maintaining, and understanding relationships ranging from” “difficulties adjusting behavior [for] social contexts” to “absence of interest in peers”

Difference from or lack of interest in communicating with Neurotypical people in their preferred communication style


ADHD

"Often does not seem to listen when spoken to directly"

Has a rich inner thought process and/or overwhelming sensory processing

Often talks "excessively"

Enjoys communicating

Often "blurts out" answers

Is excitable and expressive

Often "interrupts or intrudes" on others

Likes to be involved and feel heard/understood

Complex PTSD


​"Persistent and exaggerated negative beliefs or expectations about self/the world"

​Has experienced an unsafe world and feels accordingly

​"Experiences feelings of detachment or estrangement from others"

Has had unsafe/unhealthy emotional attachments with caregivers or other important people and has had to adapt accordingly

"Irritable behavior and angry outbursts"

​Experiences overwhelming emotions and struggles to contain them (likely feels lonely keeping these emotions inside)

​"Interpersonal problems" -struggles with building and maintaining relationships

​Does not have experience with (or modeling of) healthy relationships and has to learn how to have one later than most


Personal Barriers and Communication Style Differences


The goal of interpersonal communication is to effectively transfer information while also maintaining the integrity of the relationship. Everyone has barriers to communicating effectively at one time or another. Some of these are internal (personal barriers) and some are external (communication differences).


Personal Barriers


There are internal barriers to communication for any person. We will be going over some common barriers that people with ADHD, Autism. and C-PTSD struggle with. These include emotional dysregulation, trauma, sensory issues, Alexithymia, Situational Muting, and Cognitive Distortions.


Emotional Dysregulation

Every person has experienced emotional dysregulation at one point or another. However, Neurospicy people often struggle more with dysregulation (than Neurotypicals) and regulate ourselves in ways that Neurotypical people don’t. This dysregulation has been shown to negatively impact communication and the quality of interpersonal relationships. A great resource for managing dysregulation and maintaining healthy relationships is the Dialectic Behavior Therapy (DBT) approach. If you google DBT skills, you can find a multitude of free resources online.


Trauma

People with C-PTSD (and other Neurodivergent people as there is a large comorbidity with of trauma with both Autism and ADHD) conceptualize experiences through a the lens of their own traumatic experiences and emotional and physiological responses. Trauma responses change a person’s perception (and memory) of reality. Someone with C-PTSD may recall an experience completely differently from another person who was involved in that experience. This leads to conflict and, often, accusations of dishonesty or gaslighting. Healthy and effective communication requires more thought and personal regulation for someone who has a history of trauma than someone who doesn’t.


Sensory Processing issues


As I’m sure you can imagine (or more likely know from experience), struggling to process the world around you can get in the way of communication and connections with others. This is especially true if the people you are trying to connect with don’t have any sensory issues and don’t understand them. Sensory processing struggles have been found to be comorbid with the Neurospicy Trifecta. Some examples of sensory-related communication barriers include:

  • not hearing or processing what’s said

  • hearing/assuming tone that may not be present

  • being overwhelmed/distracted – sounds, sights, textures

  • difficulty regulating your own volume/tone


Alexithymia


Alexithymia refers to difficulty identifying, expressing, and describing your own emotions. Studies have shown Alexithymia to be common in ADHD, Autism, and C-PTSD Even so, it isn't listed in the diagnostic criteria for any of them. Alexithymia makes it difficult to express your emotions and successfully have your needs met. I’ve had many clients that will be feeling uncomfortable and when asked what emotion they are experiencing, all they can think of is “upset” or maybe “mad” or “sad”. With a lot of exploration, those of us who struggle with alexithymia may find that the emotion underneath those go-to feelings is actually disappointment, abandonment, or worry. We have to work harder than those without Alexithymia to communicate our feelings, needs, and boundaries because of this barrier.


Situational Muting


Last, but certainly not least (and not really last as this list is not all-inclusive), is situational muting – often referred to as selective mutism. Situation Muting is when a person temporarily experiences an inability to speak even though they are verbal otherwise. “Selective Mutism” however is listed in the DSM as an anxiety disorder “of childhood and adolescence” meaning that it only affects children/adolescents.

The DSM criteria describes the presentation as a “consistent failure to speak in specific social situations” despite the ability to speak in other situations. Like Autism and ADHD, the focus (especially when referring to children) is on how “behaviors” affect the adults that interact with the children rather than how suddenly being unable to speak feels internally to the person affected by it. There are many other reasons that this “disorder” is controversial. For example, the temporary inability to speak, or situational muting, affects many people with Autism, but the studies have been done pretty much exclusively on children. It has also been found in ADHD, but it is largely attributed to the comorbidity of anxiety with ADHD rather than a separate symptom. In PTSD (and C-PTSD), situational muting has been seen and one studied found that it was a result of a nervous system response to a perceived “unsafe world”. These are just some of the conclusions researchers have come to over time. From personal and professional experience, I’ve found that Neurodivergent people can experience muting for a variety of reasons such as:

  • Anxiety

  • Cognitive overwhelm (internal thought process is too cluttered/moving too quickly)

  • Autistic meltdown

  • Emotional Dysregulation

  • Lack of internal understanding and/or vocabulary (Alexithymia, being unsure of one’s own needs/desires, etc.)

  • Trauma response (panic, dissociation, depersonalization)

Studies over time have been unable to pinpoint one single cause of “Selective Mutism” – likely because of the narrow categorization of "selective mutism" as an anxiety disorder that only effects children; but also because of the verbiage our academic literature uses for Neurodivergent symptoms describing them as behavioral deficits or unexplained variance from social norms.


Cognitive Distortions


Cognitive distortions are core beliefs about the world that don’t align with objective reality. Most people have some sort of cognitive distortion at some point in their life. When left unchecked, these distortions have a negative impact on interpersonal relationships and communication. There are 15 of them. You can get your FREE Cognitive Distortions handout below!

Cognitive Distortions Sheet
.pdf
Download PDF • 895KB




  • Mental Filter

  • Black and White

  • Overgeneralizing

  • Jumping to Conclusions

  • Catastrophizing

  • Personalizing

  • Fallacy of Control

  • Blaming

  • Fallacy of Fairness

  • 'Should'ing

  • Emotional Reasoning

  • Fallacy of Change

  • Labeling

  • Mx. Always Right

  • Mind Reading



Communication Differences


Double Empathy Problem


Damian Milton, an Autistic researcher, theorized that the reason Autistic individuals seem to struggle socially is often because of a lack of mutual understanding between Autistic and non-Autistic (or Allistic) people rather than because of a lack of empathy or because of “mind-blindness”.

Mind-blindness is the idea that Autistic people have a lack of or delay in development of the theory of mind (ToM) which is the ability to identify the mental state of others.

This misunderstanding, Milton theorized, is due to differences in social-cognitive characteristics, communication style, and lived experiences between Autistic and Allistic people. Since the theory was proposed, many studies have shown that when socializing with Autistic peers, Autistic people are able to empathize, communicate effectively, and have positive social connections. One study showed that when Autistic groups were required to communicate information to each other, they were successful. When a group of Allistic people had the same requirement, they were also effective. However, when they separated the groups with “mixed” company, the communication of information was much more impaired.


My experience working with Neurodivergent clients as well as my own personal experience and the experiences of close friends and family has led me to support this theory over a broader range of Neurodiversity. Many Autistic people are married to other Neurodivergent people and vice-versa for these same reasons – we communicate differently from Neurotypicals and therefore understand and feel understood by each other much more reliably.



Neurospicy vs Neurotypical Communication Style


There is an unending list of things that can impact a person’s communication style and like snowflakes, each Neurospicy person will have a different experience than their diagnosis peers. There are, however, many shared experiences of the Neurospicy population so we will focus on some of those include directness/efficiency, honesty and truth, nonverbal communication, info dumping (or special interests/oversharing), and echolalia.


Directness and Efficiency


Autistic people often communicate in direct and efficient. ways to ensure that they get the most/most accurate information across with the least amount of time/effort spent. Similarly, ADHDers will often say the first thing that comes to mind and say it quickly. People with C-PTSD can also be too direct or sometimes, they can be very indirect for fear of being misunderstood or upsetting someone.

Neurotypical people, however, have an unwritten list of rules about society and the way we should all act/speak/be. Whereas Neurodivergent people are more likely to speak/behave based on our intention or what we need to communicate without the filter of societal “norms”. The table below lists some examples of how communication may differ in directness between Neurotypical and Neurospicy people. These examples are not all inclusive and may not reflect the communication style of everyone.


Neurotypical vs Neurospicy Directness and Efficiency

Info to Communicate

Neurotypical

Neurospicy

​I want a plain coffee.

Hi, how are you doing?! I'm good, I'm good. I'll have a plain coffee.

​Hi, large plain coffee thanks.

I want you to come with me and another friend on a road trip.

*Name* and I are going on a trip this weekend.

Would you want to go on a trip with me and *name* this weekend?

​I'm worried that you don't love me anymore.

Is everything ok? You seem distant.

​I feel disconnected from you.


Honesty and Truth


Autistic people have been shown to be more truthful, with and without the factor of accountability, than their Allistic counterparts. We value the truth and like to communicate it. It is difficult or upsetting for many of us to lie or deceive (although we are capable of doing so). There aren’t many studies on ADHD or C-PTSD and honestly/truth. However, ADHD can often come with both cognitive rigidity (rigid thinking – closed mindedness) and cognitive flexibility (open-mindedness, outside-the-box thinking). And emotional dysregulation (which affects all three of these disorders) can impact the “truth” in our perspectives and therefore how we communicate it.

The table below lists some examples of how communication may differ in honesty between Neurotypical and Neurospicy people. These examples are not all inclusive and may not reflect the communication style of everyone.


Neurotypical vs Neurospicy Honesty and Truth

​Societal Rules

​Neurotypical approach

Neurospicy approach

​Truth will hurt someone's feelings.

I'll tell some truth but leave out what will hurt their feelings.

If they asked for the truth, I should tell them the truth.

The truth is dangerous to this person, I have to protect them.

Truth is complicated and not completely objective.

I'll tell my truth while trying to explain the nuance.

I have to be as objective and truthful as possible.

I will tell my truth if I feel strongly about it.

Truth will get me in trouble but help someone else.

I may tell some truth or none depending on the trouble I may end up in.

I should tell the truth.

I might need to lie if the truth feels unsafe.


Nonverbal Communication


Neurodivergent people often are under- or over-expressive nonverbally according to Neurotypical norms (see the diagnostic criteria for Autism and ADHD). Similarly, we may mask to fit in with society. This can lead to use of nonverbal communication that isn’t naturally occurring, but rather based on what we think those around us expect or require in order to accept us. This applies to C-PTSD as well. Masking can be very damaging to the mental wellbeing of the mask-er.

The table below lists some examples of how nonverbal communication can differ between Neurotypical and Neurospicy people. These examples are not all inclusive and may not reflect the communication style of everyone.


Neurotypical vs Neurospicy Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal Communication

Neurotypical

Neurospicy

​*interested*

eye contact, leaning in

no eye contact, fidgeting

*excited*

hand to heart, clapping

hand flapping, jumping



Info Dumping and Special Interests


Autism diagnostic criteria includes issues with sharing interests as well as having very specific/uncommon interests. ADHD criteria includes being “too” talkative, interrupting, and blurting out answers. C-PTSD, although not in the DSM often comes with an impulse to overshare, followed by regret/anxiety about what was shared. All three of these disorders can have symptoms of info dumping in their own ways. These instances of going on tangents usually give the sharer “hit” of dopamine – the feel-good emotion – that we likely don’t have enough of. It feels nice and we feel a connection from sharing. Neurotypical people don’t often share in that same way.

The table below lists some examples of info and interest sharing and how it can differ between Neurotypical and Neurospicy people. These examples are not all inclusive and may not reflect the communication style of everyone.


Neurotypical vs Neurospicy Information and Interest Sharing

Info Sharing

Neurotypical

Neurospicy

​Current interest

​May mention in passing, continue if the other person is interested

May bring up often or only show interest in the one thing

​Similar experience

​May show interest or empathy because of their understanding

May reply to experience by recounting their own experience that is similar

​Learning about each other

May ask questions about other people to find common ground

May only ask questions and listen or may only talk about self and not ask questions


Echolalia


Echolalia is the repetition of sounds, words, or phrases usually because they feel nice to repeat or to hear. This can range from repeated sounds like “pop, pop, pop” as a stem or repeated lines from your favorite show in any situation in which it might fit. Like Alexithymia, this isn’t a symptom of ADHD, Autism, or C-PTSD but is common (many studies have been on the commonality of echolalia and Autism, although not many have been done for ADHD or C-PTSD). If you’re Neurodivergent, I would bet you or one of your friends/family do it.

Neurotypical people may repeat phrases or sounds sometimes, but they are likely to get irritated with the frequency of which someone with echolalia does it. They may think the person is not taking things seriously, making fun of them, or is “weird” – as we have all been labeled at one time or another. They don’t see repetition as a “normal” form of communication, and they don’t usually use it to help regulate themselves. Simply put, they’re not as cool as us.

The table below lists some examples of how echolalia is experienced or received differently between Neurotypical and Neurospicy people. These examples are not all inclusive and may not reflect the communication style of everyone.


Neurotypical vs Neurospicy Echolalia

Echolalia

Neurotypical

Neurospicy

How they use it

​"That's what she said!"

*sings the same 2 lines of a tiktok sound over and over through the day for no real reason*

How they react to it

​*irritation *confusion *laughter

​*no reaction *joins in

These are just some examples of the differences between Neurotypical and Neurodivergent communication styles specifically concerning ADHD, Autism, and C-PTSD. There are many things that can affect someone's communication style that are not listed in this article.


Thoughts? Comments? Suggestions? Leave your comments below!


Stay weird,

Neurospicy Therapist




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