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Adjust Your Communication Style for a Neurodiverse Individual

Tips for Good Verbal Communication with a Neurodiverse Child

This “Call to Action” is for anyone who has a neurodiverse person in their life that is a verbal communicator and could benefit from tips on how to have a conversation with that person. 

We all know when someone is violating social rules. But nobody taught us these rules. We are expected to learn these rules through observation and interpretation. But both of these skills are inherently difficult for a child who is neurodiverse. 

To complicate matters, every situation has a different set of rules. At grandma’s house, we are expected to use our manners and be polite even if we lose the game. On the school bus, while playing a game, smack talk is the norm and expected. We learn these rules and adjust our behavior based on past experiences, observations, and rewards or punishments. However, the social rewards themselves are fast, subtle and oftentimes go unnoticed by a neurodiverse individual. You may get rewarded for your smack talk by a slight grin from your conversational partner or get punished for getting out of line at grandma’s with a quick furrow of a brow by mom. In order to catch these cues, you must be attuned to the face and watch for non-verbal feedback. Studies show that neurodiverse individuals are often not attending to the socially relevant stimuli and miss those feedback cues. 

We are quick to pick up these subtle cues thanks to our mirror neurons. At the subconscious level, these are the parts of our brain that help us adjust our body language, facial expressions, and emotions to match our communication partner. A neurodiverse individual’s unique brain structure causes differences in the mirror neurons and requires a substantial amount of effort to learn these skills making learning these skills more effortful. Meaning that a person with autism often has to memorize all of these social rules. Therefore, the processing time may make the social interactions move at a slightly slower pace. When interacting with a neurodivergent individual, slow down the pace of the interaction and give their brain a chance to process the social cues and reference the rules. For example, if you are crossing your arms and looking off, it may take longer to read the social cue that you are bored. 

When interacting with a neurodiverse individual, it is ok to explain your intentions or your body language. Don’t just tilt your head to the side and scrunch your brow and expect your partner to understand, say out loud “I don’t understand. Tell me more.” Avoid using sarcasm, figurative language, rhetorical questions, idioms, or exaggeration, as an individual with autism might interpret these forms of language literally. If you do use these, explain what you have said and be clear about what you really mean.  

Take your environment into consideration when chatting with your neurodiverse partner. Are there too many sensory distractions for them to pay attention to? If so, move to a new environment. If that is not possible, make sure you have their attention before asking a question. In general, you may find communication more successful over text messaging. You can always ask someone their preferences on mode of communication. 

When choosing a topic of conversation, you may find more success by choosing a topic of the person’s special interests. Often people with autism struggle with new topics but will likely have a few specific topics of interest that they really love to talk about. Try not to ask too many open-ended questions and take the lead if you see your conversational partner struggling. Mix in small amounts of conversation not related to a preferred topic and keep your expectations realistic. 

In a social interaction, none of us always get our behavior right. We all make social blunders. At times we all say or do something that makes other people feel uncomfortable. What matters is that we make an effort to fix it. When interacting with someone who is neurodiverse, give them the same grace (or maybe a smidge extra) that you give yourself, and let the blunders roll off your back. Adjust your expectations for eye contact and personal space. Do not let the particulars get in the way because what matters is the personal connection and the special bond you form when spending time with another person.

Frazier Behavioral Health is dedicated to delivering evidence-based, individualized therapy for children and adults with behavioral, physical, social, communication, and sensory issues. Our mission is to assist these individuals in becoming their best selves and create enhanced outcomes at home, at school, and in the community. Contact us today to learn more.

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