“Neurotypical” describes an individual with normal neurological development. “Neurodivergent” describes people with brain-based conditions like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), nonverbal learning disorder (NVLD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), learning disabilities, and mental health problems that can make it hard for them to understand what neurotypicals are communicating.
Since most neurotypicals have little to no understanding, awareness, or experience interacting with those who are neurodivergent, they often ‘chalk up’ their communication styles and behaviors as rudeness or defects in character. Some of these behaviors include but are not limited to:
poor eye contact
speaking too loudly
literal interpretation of words
invasion of personal space
rigid thoughts or behaviors
Many times the blame is placed on the parents for failing to teach manners and spoiling their children in their younger years.
If you’re a neurotypical reading this, chances you’ve experienced the frustration of communicating with a neurodivergent person unknowingly, as there are no outward visible signs to indicate otherwise. Had you known, you most likely would have sought to understand the individual better and attempted to communicate in a manner that was more accommodating.
In an ideal world, both neurodivergent and neurotypical individuals would be able to coexist in a way that respects and accommodates their differences. In reality, our society expects neurodiverse individuals to alter their behaviors to conform to the norm. The stress of trying to fit into a socially acceptable mold and hiding neurodiverse traits can be so overwhelming that many resort to ‘masking.’
At its best, masking is a coping mechanism used to ‘pass’ as neurotypical to navigate social situations better and avoid negative social consequences like rejection and bullying. Masking can involve a range of behaviors, such as consciously imitating the behaviors and mannerisms of neurotypicals, suppressing stimming (repetitive movements or sounds that can be calming or self-soothing for some neurodivergent individuals), or hiding one’s sensory sensitivities or difficulties.
However, masking can backfire on neurodiverse individuals who don’t understand the meaning of the words, behaviors, and feelings they are mimicking to fit in. It‘s so mentally exhausting that it increases feelings of loneliness, depression, and anxiety.
While neurodivergent individuals typically struggle in environments that are traditionally designed for neurotypicals, it’s important to recognize that neurodiversity is not a problem that needs to be fixed. Rather, it’s accepting and respecting natural brain variations that are to be celebrated and accommodated.
To communicate effectively, there needs to be a middle ground. Both groups need to be willing to make changes to understand each other better. The following are some strategies that can be used to bridge the gap between neurotypical and neurodiverse individuals.
Use straightforward language: Avoid metaphors, idioms, and sarcasm. Be mindful that not everyone understands nonverbal communication (body language, tone of voice, facial expressions, and gestures).
Be patient: Give more time as some need than others to process information.
Communication styles vary per person: Listening, taking notes, moving while talking, or looking at visual aids (graphs, flowcharts) are different ways of understanding.
Avoid sensory overload: Stimuli, such as bright lights, loud noises, or strong smells, can overwhelm some who need to communicate in a calm and quiet environment.
Be respectful and open-minded: Avoid making assumptions or judgments about the person’s behavior or communication style.
Check-in: Frequently check with the person to ensure they understand what you are saying by asking them for clarification.
Feedback: Ask how you can improve communication.
More awareness is needed so that we can be understanding and empathetic toward those facing challenges. We can create a more harmonious and inclusive world that supports and values everyone, regardless of neurological differences. A good place to start is Neurodiversity Celebration Week, March 13-19, 2023. NCW was founded in 2018 by Siena Castellon, who was a teenager at the time. Sienna is autistic and has ADHD, dyslexia, and dyspraxia. Her experience has been that people often focus on the challenges of neurological diversity. NCW is about changing the narrative by creating a balanced view that focuses equally on the talents and strengths of those in the neurodiverse community.
Linda Karanzalis, Board-Certified Cognitive Specialist is the author of Misnamed, Misdiagnosed, Misunderstood, a new book on Nonverbal Learning Disorder and other brain-based challenges.
Dr. Ned Hallowell, a psychiatrist, world-renowned expert on ADHD, and the New York Times best-selling author of Driven to Distraction says, “Linda’s book is vivid, compelling, full of heart and fresh understanding. Karanzalis replaces suffering with clarity and triumph for the millions of people with NVLD.”
Linda, who has NVLD and ADHD, has worked for more than 25 years with individuals of all ages with NVLD, ADHD, learning disabilities, and those on the autistic spectrum. As an author, podcaster, presenter, learning specialist, and ambassador for the NVLD Project, she provides validation, awareness, solutions, strategies, and, most importantly, compassion to the millions who live with neurodiversity. Find out more about her story and book at www.lindakaranzalis.com.