How to Support Someone Who Is Neurodivergent
If you know someone who’s neurodivergent, there are many ways that you can support them and show them you care. Read on to learn how.
By: Ashley Laderer
Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC
April 28, 2023
Table of Contents
If you know someone who’s neurodivergent, you may be wondering what exactly neurodivergence means, and furthermore, how you can best support them.
It’s important to note that “neurodivergence” is not a diagnosis in and of itself –– rather, it is an umbrella term that refers to a bunch of different brain differences. Essentially, someone who is neurodivergent (ND) has a brain that has developed differently or works differently than someone who is neurotypical (NT), or otherwise “average.” The term neurodivergent is also used interchangeably with “neurodiverse.”
Neurodiversity may be more common than you think, with an estimated 15%-20% of the world’s population experiencing some type of neurodivergence. Ultimately, though, no two neurodiverse individuals are the same, although some of the difficulties they face may overlap. Because of this, you must look at every neurodiverse person as an individual. Aim to understand their personal strengths and obstacles. From there, you can learn how to best be there for them.
Whether you’re looking to help an ND person at home, school, or work, here’s how to support someone who is neurodivergent.
How to support someone who is neurodivergent: Friends, family, and loved ones
When a loved one is neurodivergent, it can be difficult to know how to best support them. Whether they are autistic, have ADHD, a learning disability, or another condition related to neurodivergence, it’s important to approach their needs with patience, understanding, and a willingness to learn.
Whether you are a family member, friend, or partner of a neurodiverse individual, here are seven ways to support them and help them thrive.
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Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions and stigmas surrounding neurodivergent individuals. By learning about the specific condition that someone has, you will gain a better understanding of their needs, behaviors, and communication style.
As a neurotypical person, research won’t necessarily fill you in on every aspect of the ND experience, but it can be a great starting point for you. However: remember that neurodivergence does not define someone’s whole personality or life.
On top of your research, ask your ND loved one thoughtful questions to better understand their specific situation and how their condition affects them personally. You don’t want to overwhelm them, but you can let them know that you want to further your understanding and know how you can best help them. You can show support when you know they’re struggling or about to get into uncomfortable territory. You might ask questions like “How can I support you in this?” or “How can I make you more comfortable?”
ND people might communicate in ways that are different from how you do. Direct and clear communication can be very helpful for talking to neurodiverse individuals. For example, autistic people might have difficulty picking up on social cues, nonverbal communication, and sarcasm, so being direct will allow them to stay aligned with what’s happening. Direct communication may be very helpful for people with ADHD, too.
Simply be there for them
Make it clear that you are an ally. Humans in general –– neurodivergent or not –– want to feel understood and supported. Let them know that you are here for them. Sometimes, just knowing that someone is in their corner can help brighten their spirits if they feel alone. Tell them they can text or call you if they want to vent or need to talk something out. Be a patient, active listener.
Steer clear of judgment
Just because someone’s brain works a bit differently, this does not mean they should be judged. Try to be understanding and compassionate of neurodivergent people so you can avoid passing judgment. Remember: every neurodivergent person is different, and you don’t know what it’s like to be in their shoes.
On the same beat, you should avoid using labels, stigmatizing language, and making unkind assumptions or generalizations. This can be very hurtful to a neurodiverse person.
Respect their boundaries
Since ND folks may have different social preferences, communicate differently, or take in their environment differently than you, it’s important to understand their boundaries and respect them. Check what they’re comfortable with, and do your best to meet their needs according to their boundaries. For example, some autistic people might be hypersensitive to physical contact. In this case, it’s important to respect that and avoid making them uncomfortable by being touchy.
Help them find a neurodiversity-affirming therapist
If your loved one struggles with a mental health condition or could simply use extra assistance as they navigate life, it’s crucial to ensure they have a therapist who’s right for them. The best options for neurodivergent people are neurodiversity-affirming therapy or neurodivergence-informed therapy.
Mental health professionals are trained to help with a wide variety of struggles –– but they may not all specialize in or have extensive experience working with neurodiverse folks. This can make it hard for a neurodiverse person to find a therapist who really understands them.
Therapists with this specialty work to truly understand the unique challenges that ND people face, validate their experiences, and celebrate their differences. Celebrating the differences of neurodivergent people involves creating an inclusive environment that values and accommodates their unique strengths, challenges, and ways of experiencing the world.
ND-affirming therapists won’t try to “treat” or “cure” neurodivergence –– rather, they help neurodivergent individuals to find acceptance and have pride in their differences. From there, the professional can help the neurodiverse person cope with their unique challenges related to neurodiversity and any other general mental health concerns they may have, such as anxiety or depression.
It is best to be direct if you’re helping your loved one find a therapist. Ask the therapist if they have extensive experience working with teens or young adults who are neurodivergent and if they practice neurodiversity-affirming/neurodivergence-informed therapy. If they don’t, they likely aren’t the right fit. Be patient in finding someone who will be the most qualified to help your ND loved one.
How to support someone who is neurodivergent at school
For neurodivergent kids, teens, and young adults, the typical classroom setting and the structure of the assignments and exams might be extra challenging. Depending on someone’s disorder, condition, or disability, a neurodivergent student may experience various difficulties at school ranging from being able to concentrate in class to finishing tests in a timely manner.
If you’re an educator looking to support neurodivergent students, it’s crucial to learn about the wide variety of challenges that ND students face, and how these struggles can potentially impact their mental health and their academic performance. For instance, autistic students may feel very overstimulated by loud noises and bright fluorescent school lights, and they may occasionally need a break from class. A student with ADHD may struggle with task prioritization and concentration, so they may require additional explanations or extra time for assignments.
It’s best to support ND students by providing them with accommodations that are most appropriate for their needs. Some examples of accommodations at school for neurodivergent individuals include:
- Allowing extra time for exams when needed
- Providing very clear instructions for assignments and tests (for example, giving detailed written instructions or visual aids and checking with the student if they have any questions)
- Using direct language
- Allowing breaks when needed
- Keeping sensory distractions to a minimum in class
- Supplying organizational tools
- Providing positive feedback and praise
- Developing personalized plans based on a student’s individual needs
- Consulting and collaborating with the student’s school counselors and/or parents
Ultimately, every neurodivergent student has different needs. Understanding individual concerns will help you best support neurodivergent people. If you are a parent of a ND student, be sure to collaborate with the school and advocate for your loved one. The teacher/school might not be aware of the students’ neurodivergence, so letting them know and educating them is one of the first steps to getting them the accommodations they need to thrive.
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How to support someone who is neurodivergent at work
In the same way that neurodiverse students might face unique difficulties at school, ND employees may find themselves in the same predicament at work. Some neurodivergent employees (or prospective employees) may be scared to let their hiring manager or HR department know about their neurodivergence, worrying that it could negatively affect how the company views them. At the same time, some employers might need more clarification on what it means to be neurodivergent or how to support a neurodivergent employee. Put both of these factors together, and ND employees may not be getting the accommodations they need at work.
If you are an employer, you can start by learning about neurodivergence to better understand ND employees. For example, you may want to read up on what it means to be neurodivergent and the characteristics of disorders such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and more.
To go even further, you can dive deeper into the neurodiversity movement by beginning to view neurodiversity in the workplace as “a competitive advantage,” per professors Robert D. Austin and Gary P. Pisano suggested in the Harvard Business Review. Neurodivergent individuals often have unique talents and strengths that may differ from those of neurotypical individuals. Companies can leverage these unique strengths and skills when they tap into neurodiverse talent. Still, as an employer or manager, you must remember that ND employees have different needs than your neurotypical employees.
Neurodivergent employees may need some additional accommodations and flexibility in certain areas so that they can feel more comfortable at work and maximize their strengths to perform their job to the best of their ability. Every neurodiverse employee is different and will have unique needs. However, some general ideas for supporting ND individuals in the workplace include the following:
- Asking them if they have anything specific in mind that would help them feel more comfortable at work
- Using direct language
- Giving regular feedback
- Providing clear written or visual instructions on top of verbal instructions
- Breaking down big projects or tasks into smaller steps
- Providing flexible deadlines or allowing for extra time on projects when necessary
- Allowing for additional breaks when necessary
- Asking for their preferred method of communication (for example, using a messaging service like Slack versus Zoom calls)
- Providing quiet spaces that provide relief from sensory overload
- Making changes to the environment in the case of sensory issues
- Giving plenty of advance notice for changes in routines or meetings
- Being patient with them
So, if you are wondering how to support someone who is neurodivergent in the workplace, the best way is to understand their specific needs. Of course, remember to remain non-judgmental, approaching the situation with curiosity and a genuine desire to help. This will make ND employees feel seen, heard, and appreciated.
How Charlie Health can help neurodivergent teens and young adults
If your neurodivergent loved one struggles with their mental health, Charlie Health may be able to help.
Our personalized virtual Intensive Outpatient Program provides mental health services for teens, young adults, and families, including neurodiversity-affirming therapy and neurodivergent-exclusive peer groups.
Charlie Health providers practice neurodivergence-informed therapy and have extensive experience helping neurodiverse individuals. They embrace the unique differences that make your ND loved one who they are –– and help them embrace that, too.
Your loved one is not alone with their challenges, and remember, neurodiversity is something to celebrate! Reach out today.