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3 most common communication challenges for neurodiverse adults

Updated: Jan 25

Communication is essential. It is fundamental to day-to-day interactions and plays a vital role in building connections and personal development. However, we don’t communicate in the same way. This is especially true for neurodiverse adults. 


In this article, I will explain the 3 most common communication challenges for neurodiverse adults: oversharing, misinterpreting, and weak executive functions. 


Whether you are neurodiverse or have a neurodiverse coworker or loved one, this guide provides targeted strategies to improve communication. 


How important are communication skills? 

A quick Google search of “the most important job skills” ranks communication as number one. A significant hurdle for many neurodivergent adults is the job interview process and the statistics are stark: 


about 75% of autistic adults are unemployed or underemployed, and this figure rises to 85% among college-educated autistic individuals.

In today's world, where communication skills are seen as this important, these percentages are worrying.


A study from 2020 highlighted the challenges faced by neurodivergent adults in "code-switching" – adapting their communication style to suit the interview context. Nonverbal cues, such as eye contact and body language, are often heavily weighted in interviews, yet these are areas where autistic adults may differ from neurotypical expectations.


How do neurodiverse people communicate? 


image of two faces with a text bubble in one and an ear in the others. Swirls of colors coming out of both faces.

Awareness around neurodiversity is expanding and more neurodiverse adults are entering the workforce. Both neurodiverse and neurotypicals must understand how to best communicate with each other whether it be at work or home.


Ineffective communication can damage relationships, cause frustrations in the office, or lead to massive misunderstandings. Learning each other’s preferred communication styles, recognizing the best ways to communicate, and being patient will pay off! 


The first step is to learn each other's preferred mode of communication. Find out if texting or a phone call is best, share previous frustrations, and take the time to learn about how the other's brain works.


3 most common communication challenges of neurodiverse adults


Oversharing 

Oversharing can occur both verbally and in written forms and in most cases, neurodiverse adults do not realize they are oversharing.


Do you know someone who writes excessively long emails? Or maybe they take over a conversation that is focused only on their special interest. 


At some point in our lives, we have all accidentally overshared. However, for neurodiverse adults, oversharing happens often and negatively impacts their lives. Some adults report damaging relationships, losing friends, or even being fired due to oversharing. 


The cause of oversharing varies from person to person. Most commonly, struggles with impulse control (an executive function skill) or a lack of social awareness are the causes. Here’s the good news! Adults who interrupt others, share inappropriate anecdotes, or do not realize they have taken control of a conversation, can learn how to communicate more effectively through executive function coaching. 


Misinterpretations

Neurotypical adults often say what they don’t mean. They are ironic and use sarcasm, or body language to show they are joking. This leads to neurodiverse people misinterpreting what is said. 


People are so confusing! They say the opposite of what they mean. They make jokes without saying they are joking. How am I supposed to understand them? 

At work, ambiguous directions, instructions repeated in multiple ways, or steps explained without a visual often lead to mistakes. Neurodiverse people benefit from clear, detailed explanations that are given both verbally and, when possible, include a visual example. 


Weak executive functions 

We already know that weak impulse control leads to oversharing. Additionally, challenges with time management, organizing thoughts, and maintaining attention can impact communication.


Consider Mark, who has a meeting in ten minutes but is talking to his best friend on the phone. They are making plans for the weekend and get sidetracked talking about last night’s Celtics game. When the call started, Mark was fully aware of his meeting, but as he dove into the details of the game, he completely lost track of time. 


For other neurodiverse adults, organizing thoughts in a logical order is a challenge, especially in high-pressure situations. Whether it be in an interview or while typing out an email, ideas may appear jumbled and out of order. The interviewee or reader may assume this person does not know what they are talking about. 


Weak attention makes clear communication difficult. Have you ever been reading a book only to realize your mind has wandered and you have no idea what happened on the last page? Everyone experiences this from time to time. For neurodiverse adults, this can happen amid an important conversation. Others may see this as rude when in reality, it was not intentional. 


Which most impacts your life?

  • Oversharing

  • Misinterpretations

  • Weak executive functions


How can executive function coaching help? 

As an executive function coach, the primary goal is not to change the inherent communication style of a neurodiverse person. Instead, it's about helping them understand how their style may differ from neurotypical adults. 


This understanding enables both parties to find effective ways to interact. Similarly, neurotypical individuals can learn to adapt their communication to better connect with their neurodivergent coworkers and family members. Patience and an appreciation for different communication styles are key.


7 ways executive function coaches can help


  1. Understanding Natural Communication Styles: Recognizing one's style and how it compares to typical neurotypical communication.

  2. Developing Tools and Techniques: This includes creating email templates and using acronyms like GAS (from a previous blog) for effective email writing.

  3. Navigating Various Social Contexts: Understanding when formal communication is necessary and learning to identify and avoid oversharing.

  4. Practical Exercises: Role-playing interviews, social interactions, and practicing how to have difficult or concluding conversations.

  5. Building Self-Awareness: Reviewing examples of different communication styles and their impacts.

  6. Cultivating Interest in Others: Learning to balance sharing personal interests with showing interest in others' lives.

  7. Workplace accommodations: We can help guide individuals in the process of requesting workplace accommodations and teach self-advocacy skills. 

white male with long, dark hair, standing in front of a green background, wearing a black jacket

Conclusion

Effective communication is essential for expression, understanding, and collaboration, especially in the context of neurodiversity. Neurodiverse individuals often face unique challenges, such as oversharing, misinterpreting cues, and managing executive functions, which can impact their interactions with others.


Executive function coaching offers a pathway to better understanding and managing these challenges. It empowers neurodiverse adults to express themselves more effectively and build stronger connections with neurotypical individuals. This coaching is not about changing one's inherent communication style but rather enhancing and adapting it for various contexts.


For neurotypical individuals, this journey involves adapting their communication to connect more meaningfully with neurodiverse individuals. Through patience, understanding, and mutual learning, we can foster more inclusive and empathetic environments.


Stay engaged


About the author

Eric Kaufmann, M.Ed is a Professional Educational Therapist and Certified Executive Function Coach. He is the Co-founder of UpSkill Specialists, an online adult executive function coaching company designed to guide adults in overcoming disorganization, procrastination, and productivity roadblocks so they can unlock their potential. Eric is also the founder of Elevate Learning Solutions, an Educational Therapy practice located in San Clemente, CA, that guides students with neurological differences toward becoming independent and confident students and self-leaders.

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Upskill Specialists was founded when two former special education teachers turned executive function coaches decided that adults need tools and coaching to improve their workplace skills and feel confident and empowered. Our mission is to ensure every adult with EF challenges has access to high-quality coaching services. 

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