Uncrossing the Wires: A conversation about communication styles

Communication Styles 
Have you ever had that moment when a familiar person greets you and you just don’t have it in you to provide a spoken response? Instead, you might smile, or give a small wave or a nod and this is deemed perfectly acceptable. You don’t feel the need to return the greeting with the same one, or stop to chat. Your response was polite and in keeping with social norms. Now imagine that you greet someone you don’t know. They respond by looking at you and perhaps making a vocalization. Would you accept this as a response? What if you followed up by saying “How are you?” and they reply by telling you about the trouble they had getting to work on the bus that day. How would you react? Is that acceptable? If no, why not?

Communication Differences 
We all have preferred methods of communication. You might be someone who likes to engage in small talk or you may prefer to skip the pleasantries and get right to the heart of the matter. You may prefer to communicate via text instead of phone call or you may prefer to receive information via email versus in person. This is especially true for  Neurodivergent (ND) individuals, which includes our I/DD peers. For both neurotypical and neurodivergent individuals, proficiency in communication skills and preferred modes of communication may vary from day to day.  

Examples of alternate types of communication includes, spoken, gestural, body language, written, communication devices (iPad, etc.), and vocalizations. Other types of communication differences include non-preference for small talk, info dumping, stimming and lack of eye contact.


Small Talk: Small talk can take a significant amount of effort for some people. For many neurodivergent individuals, small talk seems pointless and often a waste of time. It can also be mentally exhausting. Many individuals prefer to get right to the topic at hand. Literal thinkers may interpret “how are you” as a genuine question of interest, requiring an honest answer to that question, instead of a quick pleasantry, which the person on the receiving end may not be prepared for when engaging in small talk.  

Info dumping: Info dumping is when an individual shares an excessive amount of  information that they have about a preferred topic in great detail. This sometimes happens in response to a small talk query, such as “How was your weekend?” While some may view info dumping as disinterest in others, It is actually an attempt at bonding over a subject of great interest. What to do if you are on the receiving end of an info dump? If you have the time, listen and ask questions if you are interested. If you don’t have time, and would like to hear more, schedule a time to follow up. If you aren’t interested, you could listen for a bit, thank them for the info, and then be honest about your limited interest in the subject matter, in a gentle manner. 

Eye contact: Eye contact can be uncomfortable, distracting, or even painful for some neurodivergent individuals. This may cause an individual to look beyond you or off to the side when speaking. Difficulty when interacting with neurotypical individuals may occur as this can be interpreted as inattention, when actually, the person is able to focus more intently when not staring directly at your eyeballs. If you are speaking with someone and they are looking just past you instead of in your eyes, consider that they are likely able to focus better than if they were looking right at you. When we dismiss someone as inattentive because of lack of eye contact, we may be missing the fact that they were absorbing the information, just not in the “typical” manner. Reframing the interaction in this manner can help us notice the cues that someone is listening, even  when not making direct eye contact. 

Accept all forms of Communication
Accepting all forms of communication shows respect for and acceptance of different ways of communicating.  For example, if you verbally thank a store employee and they do not provide the expected reply “You’re welcome,” look for a non- spoken response. Did they nod their head? Did they smile? Did they make a vocalization? Did they simply look at you? These are all valid responses when we are accepting all forms of communication. Accepting all forms of communication validates each individual’s unique communication style, which in turn helps foster relationships across neurotypes. 

Just Ask
Keeping these differences in mind can be helpful in getting to know others, especially those with neurotypes different than your own. If you are unsure about someone’s preferred mode of communication, just ask! Often, we are nervous to ask, as anything other than the neurotypical manner of communication has historically been viewed as “disordered.”  Asking, acknowledging, and accepting these differences can help to stop the stigma and further the acceptance of individuals of various neurotypes.