Neurodiverse relationships, in which one or both partners are on the autism spectrum, can be among the strongest partnerships. However, neurological differences present unique challenges, particularly related to communication. Partners may report feeling as though they are “speaking different languages” or that their communication styles are incompatible (Myhill & Jekel, 2015). Due to difficulties in social communication for individuals on the autism spectrum, the lens through which they engage in conversation may vary from their neurotypical counterpart. These differences can be a source of strength by helping both partners shift their paradigm but can also cause significant stress and frustration when they are not congruent. This can result in both partners feeling unheard or misunderstood by their significant other. Strong communication is pivotal in any relationship. This article will explore four areas that impact communication between neurodiverse partners and will offer concrete strategies to target these concerns.
When considering ways to strengthen communication, the timing of a conversation is vital. Are conversations happening while one partner is rushing to leave the house for work in the morning? Perhaps it is occurring immediately after a partner has arrived home at the end of a long day and has not yet had time to decompress. The time and conditions when conversations occur for neurodiverse couples are extremely important. Partners should identify times in their schedule that work best for engaging in conversations, especially more important ones. This requires couples to be thoughtful and planful, when possible. Assuring that the partner on the spectrum has time to transition into the conversation, either upon arriving home at the end of their day or from another preferred activity, will further support more successful discussions. In addition, couples may choose to set aside a specific time each week to talk about larger or more complex topics in their lives and relationship. Considering when communication is occurring and how to better approach other relevant stressors will increase the likelihood of both partners being able to fully attend and participate in the conversation.
Along with challenges in social communication, individuals on the autism spectrum may display differences in their processing style (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). This can require more time to consider a conversational topic or to plan a response in the way they hope to communicate it. Neurotypical partners may experience frustrations with feeling that their partner does not care about or is not thinking about an issue or concern as much as they are. However, it is likely that their partner may simply need additional time to process and consider the topic to most effectively and fittingly react and respond. When processing challenges exist, it is useful to give the neurodiverse partner advanced notice of topics that might be heavier or more stressful, so they can consider it before engaging in a conversation. Another strategy to support processing is for the partner on the spectrum to write down topics coming up in conversation with their spouse. This strategy of note-taking allows partners to come back to the information later and can also help with outlining strategies for executing required follow-up. Lastly, reminders are a useful technique in supporting effective communication. This entails the partner on the spectrum entering reminders into their calendar or their neurotypical partner supporting communication with a reminder note at home or via electronic reminder.
Mind reading is a phenomenon that exists in most relationships. When someone is connected to their partner, they often expect the person to intuitively know what they are thinking or need, without being explicitly told. While mind reading is an ineffective strategy in any relationship, it can be especially upsetting in neurodiverse partnerships. These couples approach topics from different lenses and have varying frameworks to create solutions. This is often a result of challenges with Theory of Mind and can cause unintentional insensitivities between partners (Mendes, 2017). Thus, clear and concrete messaging of needs and desires is vital for effective communication. In addition, mind reading often results in the partner on the spectrum offering specific feedback or their personal viewpoint on a discussion, when their partner may only want supportive listening. Being clear about needs in a conversation can offer structure to the neurodiverse partner’s response and conversational engagement. This often requires psychoeducation for a neurotypical partner to support them in learning ways to more clearly and effectively communicate their needs to their spouse.
Neurodiverse couples often report difficulties around defensiveness in their relationships. This can be caused by the misreading of cues, past bullying, the need to defend ones’ decisions/perspectives, or feelings of being criticized. Regardless of the root cause, it can severely impact partners’ experiences of communication and connectedness. Setting intentions in neurodiverse couples therapy helps clarify the reason why a partner is sharing more critical feedback or engaging in a difficult discussion. When couples understand that they both have “good intentions” in their relationship, it can ground partners in the way information is being delivered and received. To further support information delivery, the timing of sharing feedback or offering a different lens is crucial. If feedback is being shared when a couple is in an active argument, it is likely to be harder to receive and incorporate. Couples are advised to share feedback after the conflict has dissipated and they are both calm. It is also crucial for the neurotypical partner to be mindful of their information delivery, offering further clarity and context for this feedback, as their partner may not have the same social understanding.
Recognizing patterns of maladaptive communication and incorporating strategies to support clearer, more effective conversations are helpful building blocks in strengthening a neurodiverse relationship. The above strategies related to timing, processing, mind reading, and defensiveness can support couples in overcoming the potential challenges of communication. Building skills in clearer, more direct communication further offers neurodiverse couples the tools needed to address any other stressors that might be present in their partnership.
For more information about Leslie A. Sickels, LCSW and the clinical services she provides, visit LeslieSickelsLCSW.com.
If you are a therapist and want to learn more about supporting neurodiverse couples, Neurology Matters offers a training and certification program available at: aane.thinkific.com
If you are a neurodiverse couple and want to find a certified neurodiverse couples therapist in your area, you can search your location here: https://www.aane.org/neurodiverse-couples-institute/
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Mendes, E. (2017). Marriage with Asperger’s Syndrome: 14 Practical Strategies. ECNeurology 7.5,227-237. Retrieved from https://www.ecronicon.com/ecne/pdf/ECNE-0700216.pdf.
Myhill, G., & Jekel, D. (2015, March). Neurology Matters: Recognizing, understanding, and treating neurodiverse couples in therapy. FOCUS, NASW Massachusetts Chapter.