How to Get the Autistic Person in Your Life to Understand What You Need

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I received a private message last night from someone who is having trouble communicating their wants and needs to their neurodivergent spouse. They explained to me, in deep, emotional detail, what they are feeling and how they would like their needs met.

My advice was simple: Send this letter to your spouse.

For whatever reason, the NT community is not much for directness. They use a mixture of words, tones of voice, facial expressions, sarcasm, social politeness, and white lies to communicate with one another, and they all know what they mean, which is great…for them.

– Jaime A. Heidel

Then, an ND person wanders into their midst, and it’s like a team of beautiful, thoroughbred horses suddenly find a unicorn grazing among them.

“Hmmm…” They think. “It’s pretty, and it sort of looks like us, but what’s up with the horn?”

(I don’t know. I just like the analogy. 🤷‍♀️)

Anyway, NTs and NDs look alike on the outside, for the most part, but our brains are wired differently on the inside, so it can be confusing for both parties to understand one another.

So, NTs are indirect and truly believe that if someone loves them, they shouldn’t have to directly ask for what they want and need, the other person should be able to read all of the above-mentioned non-verbal cues and respond accordingly and as expected.

Nope. ND people can’t do that anymore than a blind person can tell you how great you look in a new dress. That’s just a concrete fact.

However, there is a very simple way to get what you want from the ND person in your life: Tell us.

(Article continues below.)

The best way to improve communication with your autistic loved one is to understand how your autistic loved one’s mind works! Intentions, motivations, and personal expressions (facial expressions or lack thereof, body language, etc.), are often quite different in autistic people than they are in neurotypical people.

Experience a better understanding of your autistic loved one by reading books about life from an autistic perspective as well as stories that feature autistic characters. You’ll have so many “Ah ha!” moments and start seeing your autistic loved one in a different light (and you’ll have a better understanding of their behaviors, which you may have been misinterpreting up until now).

Books I recommend for a better understanding of your autistic loved one:

I know it might seem weird to you to be that direct, but it will be worth it to stop the hours-long arguments about the same topic over and over and over again.

It could fix a friendship, save a marriage, keep an NT parent from pulling their hair out in frustration at their ND child, and keep an ND person employed.

Now, here’s how you can do it with the most chance of success:

1) Think about what you need and want.

Sit with it, write it down, and mull it over, because, you know what? You might not even have the words for it right away. If you’ve never had to break your feelings and needs down like this before, it can be daunting!

2) Think about the words, gestures, and actions you would like from the ND in your life.

Be specific and detailed.

3) Wait until you’re both in a calm and relaxed place.

Minimal stress, no deadlines or emergencies. Make sure you have our complete focus, and tell us you have something important you want to discuss, but that nothing is wrong. So imperative. Don’t leave that part out, or we may start panicking and won’t hear the rest of what you’re saying.

4) Speak your mind.

I’ll give you some examples:

Example 1

Husband and wife, ND husband, NT wife

Wife: “Jack, when I tell you about my problems at work, I know you’re showing your love by telling me that I should switch departments so my boss doesn’t breathe down my neck all day. That’s logical. But when you say that, it hurts my heart because I need you to respond in a different way. Will you give me a hug and tell me you love me and think I’m a good person? These types of reassurances make me feel as loved and safe as you do when I leave you alone for 2 hours each day, so you can decompress after work.”

Then, check for understanding. Ask if Jack understands what you mean, and if he could tell you, in his own words, what he thinks you’re asking him to do, so you ensure that you’re both on the same page. Don’t skip this step!

Example 2

Father and daughter, NT father, ND daughter

“Heather, I need your help with something. When I ask you to clean your room, I notice you take everything and put in the closet so I can’t see it, which makes logical sense, but I’m actually asking you to do something different. Will you pick up your toys and put them in the toy bin, put your dirty clothes in the hamper, and empty your little trash can into the big one downstairs? That would really help me out. If you want, I can write this out in a list for you, set a reminder on your phone, and I’ll go through it with you step by step the first couple of times, OK?”

Again, Dad, check for understanding. Ask Heather to tell you, in her own words, what you asked her to do. Never assume understanding just because you get a nod. A lot of us will feign understanding because we are afraid of angering you!

Example 3

Supervisor and employee, NT supervisor, ND employee

“Hey, Chris. I notice that the few times I’ve asked you to do the washing up after dinner rush that you wash the dishes and stack them perfectly. That’s great, but could you also wipe down the counters, sweep, and empty the trash, too? That’s what I meant when I said “do the washing up”, but I didn’t specify what I meant. Sorry about that.”

Again, check for understanding. Have Chris repeat back, in their own words, what they think is expected of them. (They’re nonbinary, thus the “they/them” pronouns.)

That’s it! It may feel like a bit of work upfront, but it can potentially save so much heartache and confusion down the line. It’s worth it.

(For those with PDA, I’m not sure how to advise you. I apologize.)

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