How to Build Strong Relationships with Neurodivergent People

Over recent years we have seen a growing recognition of how neurodiversity impacts people in the workplace. Neurodiversity is no longer seen as an illness but as a different way of functioning, one that needs understanding and consideration but also offers opportunity.

In a previous blog on Psychology Today, I discussed how neurodiverse people may engage in conversations in a different way and interrupt more frequently. Strong relationships with neurodiverse people may be critical to success in your role and there’s no reason why they can’t be developed. If you are neurotypical, you may just need to bring a little more empathy and understanding into the way you build the relationship.

Samantha Hiew, PhD is a Scientist and multi-award-winning social entrepreneur who founded ADHD Girls and is herself an ADHDer and identifies with being an autistic, dyspraxic, and Touretter. Hiew accepts that there are challenges in building relationships with neurodivergent individuals but that they shouldn’t get in the way of developing a strong connection.

Hiew explained, “Many of us may struggle with social anxiety or have difficulty trusting others due to past experiences. Our experience of neurodivergence can often feel like existing on the extreme ends of the spectrum, where we may be hyper-aware, especially if we are used to being disappointed.

“First impressions become particularly important, as they can impact how we feel about a person and whether we feel safe with them. For those of us with undiagnosed neurodivergence with resulting mental health challenges, it can be even more difficult to trust others and form meaningful connections. This is why it is crucial to approach relationships with patience, understanding, and empathy.”


The Importance of Trust

Trust is central to most professional relationships, but particularly so for neurodivergents. Building relationships over time, where trust is earned and strengthened, often leads to more meaningful and long-lasting collaborations.

Hiew stressed, “Trust forms the foundation of safety and security, allowing us to feel comfortable being ourselves and expressing our thoughts and feelings. When there is trust, it creates a space where we can be honest and transparent about our neurodiverse experiences, including any traumas we may have faced. This level of trust is essential because it helps establish long-term stability in our relationships.

“It’s important for neurotypical individuals to understand that building trust takes time and effort, but the rewards are immeasurable in terms of fostering a supportive and understanding connection.”

Hiew explains that building trust with neurodivergents, particularly those who have gone through trauma, requires honesty and transparency. Being open and authentic in your communication helps create a safe and trusting environment.

It is also important to consider the specific needs and communication preferences of the neurodivergent individual and make accommodations accordingly.


Being Inclusive

In a professional setting, neurodivergents may face additional challenges when it comes to interacting with colleagues and leaders need to create the space to allow them to weigh into discussions fully and feel safe doing so. Hiew told us, “Many of us have different ways of contributing, especially those with ADHD or autism. However, these contributions may come with the struggle of finding the right time to speak up and be heard.

“To accommodate our needs, setting a predetermined order of speaking during group discussions can help alleviate anxiety and create a structured environment. Moreover, providing alternative communication methods, such as typing instead of speaking, can be a valuable accommodation for neurodivergents who are either nonverbal or find themselves being nonverbal due to situational mutism, often caused by anxiety. Closed captions can also be beneficial, especially in virtual settings, for better accessibility.

Overall, it’s important to recognize and value the perspectives and contributions of neurodivergents. By creating an inclusive work culture that considers and supports our unique needs, we can foster better relationships and collaboration.”


Thoughtful Feedback

As well as considering how to include and involve neurodivergent team members, leaders also need to be thoughtful about how they give feedback and criticism. Hiew explained how feedback can trigger an emotional response from neurodiverse team members, creating conflict and defensiveness as well as damaging relationships.

“It is important to remind them about the great things they do, many neurodivergents suffer from years of debilitating self-esteem due to receiving so much negative messaging about themselves. By the age of ten, a child with ADHD would have heard 20,000 negative messages.

“The compliment needs to be genuine too, as we’re very good at sniffing out dishonesty. But, when it’s true, it can create a positive zing of energy and boost to self-esteem via a phenomenon known as recognition responsive euphoria.”

Hiew suggests four key steps to delivering feedback in a positive, constructive way:

  1. Validate: Start by acknowledging the person’s emotions and experiences. Let them know that their feelings are valid and understood.
  2. Understand: Take the time to understand the situation from the other person’s perspective. Put yourself in their shoes and try to see things from their point of view.
  3. Support: Offer support and show empathy towards the person. Let them know that you are there for them and that they have your support.
  4. Instil a sense of belonging: Ask for their feedback on how they could do better. Co-create a solution.


Connecting with Humour

Finally, despite some of the representations of neurodivergents in popular culture (we’re thinking of Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory here), humour can still be a means of connecting. But you still need to consider your approach.

Hiew explained, “If it has a context, whether it’s popular culture or something that has jargon, sarcasm and euphemism, it’s going to be really hard for autistics to understand. So, we might be lost in it; we might not be able to understand what it means unless it’s a universal human experience. That tends to be the type of humour I tell because it doesn’t require you to have a background story.

“It might take somebody a long time to understand, it might be lost on them. But, it’s generally good to be yourself. People like that. If you are genuine and authentic, we can feel it.”