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Ask Izzy: Setting up healthy communication in a neurodiverse relationship

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Ask Izzy is a biweekly advice column about relationships, mental health, and sexuality. Written by a Seattle-based lifestyle writer, podcast host, and mental health advocate, it offers tangible expert advice so all readers can have stronger relationships, better sex, and healthier mindsets. Looking for some more guidance? Submit your question to [email protected] with the subject line: Ask Izzy Submission.

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Dear Izzy,

My girlfriend and I are both Queer and on the autism spectrum, and sometimes it's very hard to communicate what we want from each other. How can I set up better communication with her so neither of us feels overwhelmed?

— Spectrum Gal in SoDo

Spectrum Gal:
For any couple, communication is key to having a healthy relationship. For neurodiverse couples, this is no exception. But for people with autism spectrum disorder, discrepancies in social communication can make this extremely difficult, as you clearly already know. It affects how we understand others and how we understand ourselves.

When you are neurodivergent, setting up better communication with your partner starts with understanding your own needs, values, and emotions. And to do this, you must look within. As a multiple neurodivergent myself — meaning I am an anxious ADHDer living with borderline personality disorder and OCD — my therapist recently recommended The Neurodivergent Friendly Workbook of DBT Skills by Sonny Jane Wise (available on Amazon), and I think it may be helpful for you in this scenario.

Developed by Dr. Marsha Lineham, dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is focused on four components: mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, distress tolerance, and emotional regulation. But because standard DBT skills don't always meet the needs of autistic people, in this workbook, interpersonal effectiveness is replaced with a section on sensory needs and managing meltdowns. If you are looking for a long-term solution, this workbook can help you develop the skills to identify and regulate your emotions while giving you the tools to fulfill and advocate for your own needs.

Since meaningful change doesn't happen overnight, here are a few strategies that can help you and your partner communicate more effectively in the meantime:

1. Make space for processing: A lot of communication challenges stem from misunderstandings that come from a difference in perception. To work through this, consider journaling out your thoughts before starting a conversation with your partner, or letting them know the topic ahead of time. Giving yourselves more time to process and break things down will help to assess the matter and respond appropriately and sensitively.

2. Ditch the eye contact: I know, I know, this goes against everything Western culture has taught us about communicating effectively but remember, "normal" communication was not made for people who are neurodivergent. Hopefully, I am not the first one to tell you this, but it's okay to do things differently. Our brains are different! Breaking eye contact or looking directly above the eyes to the middle of the eyebrows is a simple way to ease stress, tension, and sometimes even pain, so you can better communicate your needs. Remember, your comfort comes first.

3. Work with your alexithymia, not against it: Alexithymia is a common personality trait in autistic and ADHD people, wherein we have trouble identifying, describing, and expressing emotions. A few common ways around this are to use alternative descriptions when talking about your feelings. For example, if you are angry or anxious, you might describe the physical sensation in your body like "tightness in the chest" or "stomach soreness." Another option is to use an emotion wheel (you can find a bunch of them if you Google it) or song lyrics to describe how you are feeling.

4. Say — or text — how you really feel: Sometimes, a conversation is just simply too intimidating to have IRL. While verbal communication is always the goal, that doesn't mean that other forms of communication are invalid. Whatever way you choose to communicate, whether it's through a letter, a text, or even a picture, make sure you say exactly what you mean and what you are looking for from the conversation. Do you want feedback and a solution to your problem? Or do you simply just want to be heard and supported? Problem-solving in neurodiverse relationships succeeds best when there is a very clear, open expression of needs and wants between both people. Doing so will avoid assumptions being made and feelings getting hurt.

The big picture
Finding a communication pattern that works for you and your relationship takes time and patience. If you are having trouble communicating, the best course of action is to take a step back, take inventory of what you are trying to say, and find a way to say it clearly, while maybe even using some of the tools above. Just remember, neurodivergence is a superpower and you are worthy of love and good things.