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5 Reasons Why Neurodiversity Matters When Counseling Relationships Between Neurodivergent and Neurotypical Individuals

About 1 in 5 people in the US identify as neurodivergent. This means that you are possibly in a relationship with someone who is neurodivergent, or you are neurodivergent yourself. Clients who seek out couples or family counseling often come in wanting to address ongoing tensions and conflicts in their relationships. Oftentimes, these clients are neurotypical and can’t seem to understand why their partner, parent, or child act and behave in such “annoying” or “difficult” ways and want therapists to help “fix it.” All relationships can experience stressors and tensions from time to time, but sometimes relational challenges are born from the unique stressors of being in a neurodivergent-neurotypical (or neuro-blended) relationship. 

What is Neurodivergence?

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Neurodivergent individuals are those whose neurological development and functioning are different from the mainstream norm. When you do a search online, the term typically refers to people who identify as having Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), or learning disabilities. Neurodiversity recognizes and respects the uniqueness of the range of our neurological makeup, and advocates for inclusivity and acceptance.

Neuro-blended relationships can refer to couples or families with neurological differences, or differing types of neurodivergent and/or neurotypical conditions. These relationships can experience unique challenges compared to neurotypical relationships, as the people involved can operate under very different implicit agreements and expectations. 

1) Communication Styles

One of the most common relational complaints in couples or family counseling is wanting better communication. While neurotypical individuals are able to navigate the multiple layers of verbal and non-verbal communication with relative ease, neurodivergent individuals can struggle with the implicit aspects of communication. This can lead to frustration during conflicts or other situations that may involve more nuanced observations of what is said versus unsaid. Nonverbal cues can sometimes be missed, leading to miscommunication or misunderstanding in the relationship.

For example, couples can find themselves having heated arguments over the semantics of what was said instead of addressing the underlying emotions, wants, or unmet needs. This can look like one person in an argument saying something like, “Didn’t you literally tell me to do x, y, z?” In response, the other person may feel annoyed or exasperated that their intent was missed, leading to even more frustration and resentment. Therapists can help clients discover the idiosyncratic expressions of each person in the relationship, ultimately improving communication in the dynamic. 

2) Personal Preferences & Needs

Neurodivergent people may not prefer or need certain aspects of a relationship that may otherwise be common for a neurotypical person. For example, some autistic individuals may not require as much social interaction and may prefer spending more time alone. If an extroverted parent prefers frequent social interaction while their autistic child prefers spending a lot of time alone, they may feel dissatisfied in the parent-child relationship and/or misinterpret their child’s social nature. As a result, they may push the child to engage in social activities, which the child may dislike or even resent.

Another example might be a neuro-blended couple, in which one partner has anxiety and the other has ADHD. A vacation that involves a significant amount of time lounging on a beach may not appeal equally to these two partners. The anxious partner may prefer such a vacation to feel relaxed, whereas the ADHDer may find that ‘doing nothing’ on the beach sounds incredibly boring. This can lead to feelings of isolation and resentment for both partners, or misunderstandings about the relationship if not reframed. 

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3) Soft Skills

Soft skills refer to the psychosocial skills that affect interaction between individuals. Many neurodivergent people can struggle with these soft skills, though it is important to understand that these skills can exist on a spectrum. In other words, neurodivergent people can have different soft skill profiles. In neuro-blended relationships, dissimilarities in flexibility, time management, teamwork, and empathy can offer unique challenges.

For example, an autistic person may not openly express feelings, or may prefer to maintain very consistent routines. A neurotypical child of someone on the spectrum may feel frustrated that their autistic parent struggles to understand their emotions or maintains strict household systems. As another example, in a neuro-blended couple, a neurotypical partner might feel irritated by their ADHD partner’s disorganization, forgetfulness, or messiness. These sorts of frustrations in relationships can be due to ignorance, misunderstandings of capabilities, or unclear communication about expectations.

4) Sensory Overload

Neurodivergent individuals can be more easily overstimulated compared to their neurotypical counterparts. Many neurodivergent individuals may also identify as being highly sensitive, (or a Highly Sensitive Person). This may present challenges in relationships, particularly in areas of intimacy. For example, one partner in a couple may prefer more physical touch and affection, whereas the other partner may prefer significantly less. For a highly sensitive or neurodivergent person, too much touch or touch in specific areas can mean the difference between pleasant arousal or fight and flight mode. Intimacy in neuroblended relationships can be tricky to navigate and may require more creative problem solving to maintain. 

Another example of sensory overload might involve a family member with heightened senses, who can experience significant discomfort around certain sounds, smells, textures, or temperatures. It can be immensely frustrating to live in a household that seemingly doesn’t care about your experiences, even when you are feeling intensely triggered or overwhelmed. A household containing people with different sensory sensitivities can also be difficult to navigate. If one family member is sensitive to heat while the other is sensitive to cold, this can create discomfort for all parties. Sensory differences must be acknowledged, accepted, and respected in neuro-blended relationships, or else common living can feel unbearable.

5) Executive Functioning

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Executive functioning skills include emotional regulation, impulse control, working memory, mental flexibility, and planning and prioritizing. These skills impact everyday actions, such as managing stress, completing tasks in a timely manner, and making plans in advance. Like soft skills, these skills can exist on a spectrum of neurodivergent people. Couples in which one or both partners are neurodivergent may experience more frequent and intense fights because one or both partners tend to escalate emotions quickly. Such couples may also have a more difficult time returning to a calm state during difficult conversations. Furthermore, challenges with impulsivity and self control can lead one partner to making destructive decisions that affect the relationship.

When it comes to memory capacity, relationships can sometimes feel unbalanced for the neurotypical individual or the neurodivergent individual without any memory deficits. For example, a child with ADHD might find it difficult to remember to do her chores on time, so her neurotypical parent may fall into the role of becoming her personal reminder. Or a partner may forget to pay the bills on time, so the other partner has to pick up the slack. This can feel like one party is doing more of the mental labor.

In regards to mental flexibility, it is common for neurodivergent individuals to be rigid with schedules and other details in everyday life. A neurotypical person may find such solid rigidity difficult to understand. For example, one party may have intense preferences, such as the need to wear a particular shirt to sleep or to wash their hands in a specific way. When there is little wiggle room for change, especially in time-sensitive situations, a neurotypical person can feel intensely frustrated or even angry.

A skilled therapist can help neuro-blended couples and families gain awareness of executive functioning differences, and how these differences impact relationships. By learning to develop much needed coping skills and communication tools, neuro-blended partners can improve the effectiveness of their conflict resolution. 

Counseling for Neuro-Blended Relationships

If you think that you are in a neuro-blended relationship, or you are experiencing any of the challenges described above, a great starting point towards building a thriving relationship is to gain insight on what makes you and your loved one unique, neurologically. Therapy can be a great place to start exploring and discussing your differences in an open and welcoming space. 

Begin Couples or Family Therapy with a Neurodiversity-Affirming Therapist in Los Angeles, CA or New York today!

At our Los Angeles, CA, and New York City, NY-based therapy practice, we have many neurodiversity-affirming couples and family therapists who can help you navigate the complicated dynamics in neuro-blended relationships between neurodivergent and neurotypical individuals. For your added convenience and simplicity, we offer online therapy for anyone in the state of California or New York. We know that your relationship is important, and we want to help you work through whatever’s holding you back from a thriving relationship. Follow the steps below to begin.

Other Services at Yellow Chair Collective

There are many options for treatment using online therapy in California and New York, it just depends on what you’re needing. And while we certainly service Asian American folks, we also work with individuals from other cultures, too. So, whether you need support in overcoming anxiety, burnout, trauma, or PTSD, we can help. Likewise, we serve teens and couples in need of support, too. So when you start online therapy with us, you can bring your whole self, including past struggles, cultural impacts, and more.