Neurodivergent communication: how to improve your interpersonal skills




It’s estimated that over 15% of people in the UK are neurodivergent. Working with such employees usually comes with a specific set of challenges, especially if your current workforce is dominated by neurotypical people. Neurodivergent communication is one area that employers need to dedicate special attention to.

Improving your interpersonal skills can make all the difference when it comes to building a successful working relationship with neurodiverse employees, allowing them to thrive within the workplace.

What is a neurodiverse employee?

A neurodiverse employee is simply a person whose brain functions differently from a neurotypical individual. This may be down to that person having a condition such as autism, dyslexia, dyscalculia or Tourette’s Syndrome.

Neurotypical v neurodivergent communication

Although some neurodivergent people are able to mask their condition and communicate on a similar level to the neurotypical, many will find challenges in complying with common behaviour patterns. 

Neurotypical people are generally able to function within a wide range of social situations. They’re not intimidated when speaking within groups, have an understanding of different language-styles used, and a notion of how-much needs to be said.

Social situations may prove difficult for neurodiverse people. They may be unable to filter out different voices within a group, find eye contact distressing and be unable to understand language-styles such as sarcasm, slang or idioms.

Neurodiverse communication styles

It’s important to realise that all neurodiverse people are individuals, even if they have the same condition. Cultural factors also play a part, and some neurodiverse people may appear neurotypical in some situations but not in others. 

Many on the autistic spectrum prefer to communicate in a simple and direct way to limit misunderstanding, whereas a person with Tourette’s will have a completely different set of challenges when it comes to communicating. Patience and understanding go a long way when communicating with any neurodiverse individual.

Communication & neurodiversity: face-to-face

Amongst neuro-typical people, face-to-face is the most effective method of communication out there. Humans are able to use body language and a range of hand/facial gestures to help get a point across that may be difficult to explain in words. 

Such methods may prove ineffective when managing neurodiverse employees. You’ll need to reassess your whole approach to face-to-face communication and work at finding new ways of understanding.

Ask!

Don’t simply swot up on a range of neurodiverse conditions and then make assumptions on how best to communicate with your employee. It helps to have a broad knowledge of the potential challenges ahead, but simply asking a neurodiverse person how they prefer to communicate will be invaluable when it comes to forging a successful relationship.

Be patient

Talking too quickly can be off-putting for neurodiverse people. Experiment with tone and pace until you find an acceptable medium. Some individuals may also take longer to process your instructions, so be patient. If you have a complex set of points to get across, break them down into manageable chunks. Consider the use of visual supports to help get your point across too.

Be straightforward

The English language is a fabulous tool for communication, yet most of us talk almost exclusively in our local dialect, using idioms and other fun figures of speech. When it comes to neurodivergent communication, it helps to be straightforward and concise. 

Some individuals may take all of your words and expressions literally, so it’s best to avoid flowery or comedic language, even though it can help to make a situation less formal.

Communication & neurodiversity: other

Establishing the best form of communication early on with your neurodiverse employee can really help your working relationship thrive. Some people may have major difficulties with any form of verbal conversation but can excel when given written instructions. Be flexible, as a neurodiverse person’s needs may change as they gain confidence within a role.

Written

As with verbal neurodivergent communication, be clear and concise. Avoid small talk, and if you’re discussing deadlines, give specific times as opposed to a timescale such as ‘today’. Break-up big blocks of text with bullet-points. Images or videos may help.

If you’re using email or a chat software program, be aware that some neurodiverse people may find screen pop-ups distracting and long conversational threads difficult to follow. You could discuss this with your employee and agree on a pattern. For example, you could set a whole day’s agenda in an email sent first thing in the morning rather than drip-feeding instructions throughout the day.

Telephone

Making effective telephone calls can be challenging for many neurodiverse people. They may find it difficult to know when to speak or when to stop. The usual small-talk that softens the mood in the average telephone call may be confusing. There may also be too much background noise present for the person to follow a call.

As with verbal communication, it will help to keep things simple. It may also provide reassurance if you ask, ‘can you hear me okay?’ at the start of a call. If using the telephone as a communication method, avoid unscheduled calls whenever possible. Many neurodiverse people have excellent concentration levels and may find it distressing to be disturbed.

Group situations

Neurodivergent communication within a group setting may simply be too difficult, although, with some individuals, it may be something you can work towards. Adjustments will need to be made by everyone in attendance to avoid cases where the loudest voice is the only one heard. Several voices talking at once may be too difficult for neurodiverse people to understand, and they may find it hard to be put on the spot and asked for immediate input. 

As always, be prepared to be guided by the needs of your employee, and if group situations are possible, be sure to work within a person’s social limitations. 

Cultural norms have long-dominated the everyday business environment, with all those involved expected to comply. Within both life and business, there are many ways to achieve set goals, and adopting an adaptable philosophy enables different-thinking individuals to achieve the same end result. 

Finding effective methods of communication with neurodiverse people may be challenging, but a commitment to improving interpersonal skills can bring great rewards for both parties – not to mention the performance of your business.

We build innovative talent solutions.

To discuss your Talent Acquisition needs, get in touch with us today

Contact Us

Elements are the pioneers and leaders of Embedded Talent Consultancy. Our consultants are embedded within some of the world’s best-known organisations, solving their toughest and most complex hiring challenges.

In addition to our work with leading brands, including Spotify, IKEA and TikTok, we have helped scale SME's and Start-ups, including Zendesk and Stitch & Story.