9 Things You Should Never Say to Someone Neurodivergent

Things You Should Never Say to Someone Neurodivergent
Things You Should Never Say to Someone Neurodivergent

Last Updated on

April 30th, 2024 10:44 am

When I was growing up, people often said to me “bite your tongue.” They meant hold back from saying something you might regret. But they weren’t talking about biting their tongue in their mouth in anger. Even when I understood, I was still confused.

These people around me knew that the person I was speaking to would feel better hearing compliments than hearing criticism. In some cases, of course, constructive criticism is required. But in my mind, the best thing to say is exactly what someone needs to hear, not wants to hear.

For those of us who are neurodivergent, it goes beyond idioms, however (why would it be raining cats and dogs?!). We see the world differently to each other in many cases, never mind the neurotypical mind. What’s more, combined with a lack of understanding and the stigma around neurodiversity amongst neurotypical people, many phrases can be taken out of context.

So to overcome the hurdles that the language of neurodiversity throws at us all, here are our list of 9 things you should never say to someone who is neurodivergent.

1. You’re Too Sensitive or Picky!

There’s no such thing as being too sensitive. It’s a sign of strength to know what you love and what you’re passionate about. And it shows courage to stand up for what you believe in, even if it hurts.

But while one of their biggest strengths in times of need, it also triggers neurodivergent brains to take things too personally. Especially when being told by non-autistic people they’re “picky”, when in reality they like routine and familiarity.

So it’s important to be careful what you say, especially if that person has sensory issues. If you tell them they’re too sensitive, you’re actually telling them that their feelings matter more than their ability to cope with certain situations.

Though that sounds great, it can be a huge hindrance when the situation requires a more sympathetic resolution.

Upset for being too sensitive

Hypersensitivity is common in those with ADHD

2. You Shouldn’t Complain

People with neurodivergent diagnoses are often highly empathic people. That means they care deeply about other people and how they feel, even if they don’t always understand social communication and social behaviors.

So when you say “you shouldn’t complain” it could come across as rude, especially since many who are neurodivergent struggle expressing themselves verbally. The stereotype that all Autistic people struggle to understand others in social interactions is damaging – In most cases it’s the opposite.

Upset couple sitting on bed

Telling someone they shouldn’t complain can be an insult to their individual circumstances

Instead, try saying something like this: “I wish you didn’t have to deal with this problem.” Or “It must be really frustrating to have to do X every single day.” These statements show empathy without pressuring them into changing how they live their lives.

3. You’ve Got a Problem with Me, Haven’t You?

This one isn’t true. You can’t control what another person says or does. That’s why these kinds of accusatory phrases can come across as attacking behaviour to Autistic people. What’s more, if you’re putting words in their mouth about an issue with yourself, chances are you are the issue, not them.

If that’s the case, take a long, hard think about why they may have a problem with you, if you’re inclined to assume such in the first place. The irony being, using phrases like this, may in fact be the very answer you’re looking for!

Offended family members sat on sofa

Taking things personally is often a sign of a deeper underlying issue

4. You Don’t Understand!

Many with intellectual disabilities and developmental disorders suffer from different mental health conditions that cause them to feel misunderstood at times. Many who are neurodivergent struggle to express themselves physically or verbally, even when trying their hardest to engage in alternative communication styles. As a result, they often misinterpret other people’s intentions, despite being pioneers in out-of-the-box thinking practices.

But the most frustrating thing for those in the Autistic communities is that misunderstanding is a mutual practice – Neurotypical people are just as prone to misunderstanding the social cues of an Autistic individual. In a community of neurodivergent people with established boundaries, many would argue the neurotypical person is the one lacking social skills.

While you may not mean to offend, it doesn’t make it any less offensive. Misunderstanding is one of the most common stigma around neurodiversity advocates are trying to break. This is otherwise known in the academic world as the Double Empathy Problem.

So try to be supportive instead of judgmental. Use this as an opportunity, whether you’re neurodivergent yourself or a neurotypical person, to help your loved one or co-worker understand you, not as an excuse to continue a perpetuating run of negativity that only leads to further mental health illness if left unresolved.

Company project manager explaining misunderstanding at work on a conference call

Clear communication is vital when talking to someone neurodivergent

5. Don’t Worry About It!

No one wants to be told not to worry about something. But the truth is, most people with disabilities, no matter what they are, experience mental illness in some way. So even if they don’t need to worry about something, an irrational anxiety may still take over and if someone doesn’t understand, this can lead to frustration and disruptive behaviors as a result.

In fact, worrying about things you can’t control can lead to depression, which is particularly common among Autistic people as well as those with ADHD and anxiety disorders. Plus, worrying doesn’t usually help anyone. The best way to handle these types of thoughts is to talk about them.

Tell them you can see they’re worried and ask them what you can do to support them. Then try to offer ways to reduce their stress levels. Open the floor to a healthy conversation instead of shutting it down.

Don't worry it'll be okay

Telling someone not to worry about something can increase anxiety and make it worse

6. It’s All In Your Head!

Maybe it is all in your head. Maybe it’s not. There’s no way to know for sure until you find out otherwise. Many people in the neurodivergent community, especially Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder(ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), report experiencing symptoms that doctors and therapists call “brain fog,” confusion, fatigue, difficulty focusing, and memory retention issues.

If someone tells us they believe something happens to them because of their condition, even if we don’t agree, it’s important to take them seriously. Otherwise, Autistic people in particular risk becoming isolated and discouraged because we start to doubt our own perceptions of what we’re able to trust.

Also, giving someone the thoughts that they’re imagining things is a form of gaslighting, which can be construed as an abusive behavior in many circumstances.

Young woman biting nails experiencing paranoia and anxiety

Gaslighting is very real and can cause paranoia in victims

7. Change Won’t Happen

There are plenty of people who never change. And then there are others who try one thing, realize it wasn’t working, and move onto something new. We mustn’t assume everyone has to change everything at once.

Instead, remember that every neurodivergent individual has unique strengths and needs. The neurodiversity movement strives to recognize and capitalize on these strengths while also finding healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with difficult situations.

Remember that when it comes to people with neurodivergent minds and creative thinking, change is possible. But only after lots of patience and effort. And, if you can’t change the past, look at rebuilding the future.

8. I’m Sorry and I Forgive You

This is a tricky one because apologies and forgiveness are two separate concepts. Apologies are meant to show that you regret doing something bad (or that you’ve learned from something bad).

For instance, if you accidentally bump into someone and knock over a vase, you might say “sorry” as a means of apologizing. However, it would be inappropriate to apologize for having a neurodivergent condition.

Similarly, saying “forgive me” when you really shouldn’t be forgiven is confusing. It implies that the person has already changed. That’s why it’s important not to use these phrases unless you’re actually offering to do something nice for another person without expecting anything in return.

Sorry text on adhesive note

To many neurodivergent people, sorry makes no sense in most contexts

9. Everything Is Fine!

Sometimes it feels like nothing is wrong. When people tell you this, it’s easy to forget that they still feel anxiety and pain. Even though you can’t physically see it, they’re suffering. They may have lost friends due to how different they seem, they may have had trouble getting jobs, dates, friendships, housing, or services, and they may struggle to keep up with schoolwork.

These problems aren’t going away anytime soon. Unless you want to make their lives harder, it’s best to avoid telling them everything is fine. This is especially true since they may react badly when you suggest they might be depressed or anxious.

Try to be more supportive instead. Tell them that you care about them and that you’re there if they need you. That means more than anything.

Neurodivergent People Need Clear Communication and Thinking

By following these simple tips, you’ve hopefully gained a better understanding of the idea of neurodiversity and how to better support those around you.

Even if those around you don’t know about the neurodiversity movement themselves, these are core life skills that will build on your empathy and work towards better relationships. In no time yourself and those around you will be able to embrace our normal variations and neurological differences rather than fear them.

Keep reading for more top tips on supporting your loved ones!

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Rob Butler
30-Something Millennial with ADHD and suspected Autistic and Dyspraxic. Thought leader behind this website. Big visions of a better future for everyone, but forgets where he is half the time.Loves Rugby, his kids, and anything silly. Hates U2 and Marmite.

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