Professional Communication Tips for NDs

A lil’ wisdom gained the hard way.

Jun 18, 2022

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Professional communication isn’t a breeze for most people, but when it’s between a group of people who are neurotypical and you’re neurodivergent, the potential for misunderstandings and struggle get even trickier.

It can be really defeating to get through the doors that often hamper NDs and other spoonies from success — resume gaps, too many jobs, functionality limitations, etc. — just to have it all dissolve for reasons that leave you bewildered and crushed.

Entering a group of NT people who already know each other and have established professional dynamics is so overwhelmingly complicated to me, my goodness, but this post shares a few tips learned from trying to re-enter the world of professional teams after years of flying basically solo. I’m autistic and have ADHD (AuDHD), so that’s the ND perspective I’m offering — I welcome comments to add to the wisdom, from similarly wired folks as well as other neurotypes. We can’t have too much wisdom. (I also happened upon a great Twitter thread with similar aims, there’s highlights from it at the end.)

Our time and energy are precious, and wasting it on a bad professional fit, or losing a potentially good one due to miscommunication is fiercely disheartening. In hopes of someone else not learning the hard way, here are some tips on ways to avoid ill-suited situations and/or navigate the challenges of professional communication while neurodivergent.

6 Professional Communication Tips for NDs
  1. Know Your Needs and Limits. It’s important to be honest with ourselves about what our limits and needs are, I’m of the rosy-eyed persuasion, very prone to overestimating what I can take on sustainably health/functionality-wise. Positivity’s got a great rep, but taking on more than our systems can handle means burnout — which scarily increases disabling traits and steals access to ND perks, like autistic hyperfocus. 
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    It’s often hard for people to admit their needs and limits, but when you’re atypical there are increased odds of pushback bc folks just don’t get it. And avoiding that potential social issue can make just pushing through the internal struggle incredibly alluring, especially if you’re desperately in need of an income, and/or insurance. However, learning the hard way can mean severe neurological punishment, so it’s important to really consider if your neurology is up to the challenge.
  2. Ask Interview Questions Accordingly. In addition to screening jobs before you apply, ask very specific questions during interviews to distinguish if it’s right for you. Questions pertaining to financial and health sustainability can be hard to ask, but it’s just as important for the potential employer to be honest about the actual demands and expectations of the job as it is for us to be about our limitations. Try to fight any people-pleasing urges, don’t just assume it will be fine, and make sure you have the information you need (as well as making sure you’ve presented your strengths and all that usual interview jazz).
  3. Masking: Ooooh, masking. I was adamantly against masking my ND traits when I first learned masking had a huge role in crushing my functionality, and while I’m still infuriated that it’s demanded of us — it really can help when navigating NT communication.
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    People can be judgy, and they can come to damning conclusions without even asking any questions. So, now I have a rule to never take a meeting without preparing to socially mask first, as I’ve found just taking twenty minutes on presentation (appearance) and getting in a “NT Communication Time” headspace has a positive effect on reactions and helps me people more effectively.
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    Howevvvver, I haven’t been masking right. Growing up, I learned how to seem likable to NTs, asking them lots of questions, being positive, agreeable, etc., but that really only works for first impressions. I wish I’d learned the important thing is to demonstrate competence and communicate effectively. (I blame the patriarchy.) Tips welcome.
  4. Just to Recap and Make Sure We’re On The Same Page: Take careful notes in meetings and always follow up afterward with takeaways/action confirmation emails. It’s good to have expectations in writing as NTs don’t always say what quite they mean, and autists tend to take things literally. Also, people often lie and/or omit relevant truths to their bosses to reroute blame. There’s a whole phrase for it in Office World, “throwing people under the bus.” So, yeah, document that ish.
  5. To Cc: or Not to Cc: If wondering if it’s okay to add an upper person/boss on email, use extreme caution. (Or maybe just don’t.) Hierarchical communication norms are a mysterious maze, full of traps that seem like common sense or courtesy. According to the Harvard Business Review, Cc’ing the boss makes co-workers trust you less, which can lead to all kinds of trouble.
  6. Don’t Avoid Group Channels: Office communication channels like Slack are daunting for me because group dynamics are overwhelming in any form (and there are already so many!), but also it can be hard to get the info I actually need among all the messages that aren’t related to what I’m doing — they can be very busy, messy, and excessively interruptive/distracting, or the opposite, so inactive that I don’t get the notification and miss something important. But there are often professional consequences for not having your voice present, so if there’s a next time I’ll be sure to figure out a process to make it work for me.

The day I wrote the original list for myself, the internet kindly confirmed that I’m not alone in my frustration and struggle — I happened to check Twitter right in time to catch the fabulous autist YouTuber Purple Ella start a thread asking for similar advice, here’s her post and some of my favorite answers:

@liam1408: Developed a reputation of being a technical expert, always offering an honest opinion and able to speak truth no matter to whom. But took years of learning how to cope with the politics that flew over my head, ended up ignoring it, which was the best approach.

@polymathical: I just focus on being true to myself and improving myself in the ways that are fulfilling for me. I hope to find more people that vibe with my authentic self this way. I won’t be successful in the way others are, but I will be fulfilled.

@BrandNewAutie: I think years of masking made me somewhat ok at all of that, with many gaffes of course! It’s the aftermath and long-term impacts of masking that became destructive for me. Now to an extent I can turn it on because I’m learning how and when to unmask. I hope that makes sense?

@level80: Well as a neurodivergent person, my answer is by choosing self-employed careers (been doing paid work now for around 28 years) where there is a very small percentage of work time is face to face social interaction and the rest (90%-99%) is just getting on with the job on my own.

@MarcelPotter9: Just be yourself and let your natural talents and skills shine. A good boss will want a balanced team with a good mix of people & this will enable your strengths to develop and shine. I get on so well with my boss now, I’m the only one who can tell her off! 🙂

@ADHD_Coach_UK: I cope by doing things I am passionate about, and being open about my neurotype. Set expectations from me and what can do to help me. In my young days I progresses thru sheer sweat and tears, but that only led to unrealised potential. Wish I knew back then!