How to Thrive in a Neurodiverse Relationship

5 min read

By guest contributor Benjamin Meyer, LCSW-R

Ed and Sally presented for couples therapy exhausted from arguing. After work, he shut himself in his room and gave one-word answers. Ed also spent a couple of hours nightly on the internet chatting with friends, a medium he found absorbing and easier to communicate in. Sally felt ignored while Ed was annoyed by answering questions after a stressful day. Whereas a previous couple’s therapist had misread Ed as unempathetic, working with someone familiar with autism helped them to develop a new lens for viewing their relationship and building communication.

The ASD diagnosis offered Ed and Sally the relief of understanding their needs. By some estimates, approximately 50 percent of adults on the spectrum are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed (Mendes, 2013), and Ed was one of them. When he did, the couple’s therapist helped them to communicate with a strategy called QAAA (Question Answer Answer Answer). Sally asked Ed a question and he answered in three sentences. They would change roles and do the same thing. By working with a couple’s therapist trained in neurodivergence, they developed robust back-and-forth conversations.

Neurodiversity is the concept that there is variation in neurological functioning that indicates difference rather than deficit. While some prefer the term disability, others label themselves as neurodivergent to define a set of strengths and weaknesses.

Neurodivergence and neurodiversity are commonly associated with the autism spectrum but can include people with ADHD, learning disabilities, or other kinds of neurological aberration. I will describe some of the dynamics of neurodivergent relationships and some communication strategies that both you and your partner can use.

As a neurodivergent person, I know from personal and professional experience the importance of recognizing the challenging aspects of a neurodiverse relationship. Sensory sensitivity, adapting to change, planning the day, ignoring distractions, and empathizing can be difficult. One example is when a neurodivergent partner withdraws and needs a break after a stimulating workday; while they seem uninterested, they may need to disengage from sensory and social demands. It can be exhausting for your neurodiverse partner to fit in by imitating eye contact, initiating appropriate conversational topics, and minding personal space.

Moreover, autism may present differently in women than in men. Some studies indicate that women are better able to “mask” the symptoms. Some have argued that there may be a “female autism phenotype” that includes different social interests from males, a greater likelihood for anxiety or depression versus aggression, and more effort devoted to fitting in. Camouflaging is not only linked to greater comorbidity with mental health, but also can result in women being underdiagnosed due to a male-centric understanding of autism (Saporito, 2022).

You likely know that your partner has strengths. They may be intelligent, kind, attractive, honest, thoughtful, and have specialized interests and talents. You would both like to connect but don’t know how to foster connection. Couple’s therapy techniques that do not take into consideration the impact of neurodiversity can be, at best, ineffective and, at worst, harmful. Some neurodivergent individuals have reported feeling misunderstood and blamed in couple’s therapy (Myhill, 2019). Therefore, finding a therapist who has experience and training in working with neurodiverse couples is important.

Helpful Techniques

It is also a good idea to use gestures and words to express feeling overwhelmed, needing a break, or simply to check in.

It may also be useful to use code words. For example, when one of you needs a break, you can ask the other, “Do you need a battery recharge?” If you and your partner practiced open questions and communication when gardening, one of you can say “garden” when requesting to have a positive conversation about a new subject.

You may have also noticed that your neurodivergent partner has difficulties planning and prioritizing. If they have ADHD, they may forget important dates, struggle with time management and organization, or become overwhelmed by mundane activities. You may be frustrated, but it is important not to criticize or take over their responsibilities. Validating your partner’s intentions, delegating tasks, creating a reminder system, and offering gentle reminders about what was said are often more effective and collaborative approaches.

Lastly, it is important to recognize that your partner may have different needs regarding sexuality and intimacy. They can prefer certain kinds of touch to others or be hesitant to engage in contact they find overwhelming.

Communication is key. It is also important not to take offense when they express that they do not want to engage in a specific physical activity. Reaching a compromise in which both of you identify and communicate cues for physical contact may be the best way to have a mutual connection.

Neurodiversity Essential Reads

Although it can be hard to know how to navigate some of the communication challenges that arise from neurological differences, there are techniques that are effective for building mutual understanding. It is important to remember that your partner does have good intentions; Working with a couple’s therapist who is knowledgeable about neurodiversity can help both of you build a better relationship.

Benjamin Meyer is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW-R) holding an MSW degree who is licensed in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

To find a therapist, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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