Making yourself understood

Making yourself understood
Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi / Unsplash

One of the biggest challenges neurodivergent people face, both in our work and personal lives, is being properly understood by others. This is particularly true when we have autism and/or ADHD. In this livestream I talk about:

- The different ways this difficulty shows up and how it affects us
- The barriers that we have to being understood
- Ways we can work with it

I also answer some community questions on the topic.


  • Scheerer, Nichole E, Anahid Pourtousi, Connie Yang, Zining Ding, Bobby Stojanoski, Evdokia Anagnostou, Robert Nicolson, et al. “Transdiagnostic Patterns of Sensory Processing in Autism and ADHD.” Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 54, no. 1 (January 2024): 280–92.
  • Pryke-Hobbes, Amber, Jade Davies, Brett Heasman, Adam Livesey, Amy Walker, Elizabeth Pellicano, and Anna Remington. “The Workplace Masking Experiences of Autistic, Non-Autistic Neurodivergent and Neurotypical Adults in the UK.” PLOS ONE 18, no. 9 (September 6, 2023): e0290001.
  • Doyle, Nancy. “Neurodiversity at Work: A Biopsychosocial Model and the Impact on Working Adults.” British Medical Bulletin 135, no. 1 (October 14, 2020): 108–25.
  • Grove, Rachel, Hayley Clapham, Tess Moodie, Sarah Gurrin, and Gabrielle Hall. “‘Living in a World That’s Not about Us’: The Impact of Everyday Life on the Health and Wellbeing of Autistic Women and Gender Diverse People.” Women’s Health (London, England) 19 (2023): 17455057231189542.
  • Howes, Satoris S. “Emotional Intelligence in Autistic Adults: A Review with Considerations for Employers.” Sustainability 15, no. 9 (January 2023): 7252.


Please also do ask questions as we go with the whole thing because that would be really helpful to me and I can address them as we go.
Now this topic is definitely personal to me. I've always felt that I had to spend a lot of effort making myself understood and I think perhaps the reason I've been so interested in language and words
and perhaps even all of the communication stuff is partly because it was a struggle, partly because I had something to overcome there that maybe other people didn't.
And I wanted to get really good with language so that I wouldn't be so misunderstood.
That didn't always actually work to some degree that I think it backfired because my language got so complicated that then it didn't make sense to anyone else.
But that's perhaps another story. So what I'd like to do is start by kind of looking into the situation and how it shows up for us.
So one of the really big ways I think this shows up primarily is not being listened to or perhaps not being heard when we do speak.
That can mean people failing to engage with anything that you say and when you talk about something and people just carry on as if you hadn't said it or respond in completely unexpected to you ways that just don't make sense.
Another way it shows up I think particularly in work is when you'll say something and kind of be met with blank expressions and this is particularly true in meetings.
You say something and you just get this kind of blank looks and then maybe half an hour later someone will say kind of something similar but perhaps a little bit more watered down and not quite the same and everyone will nod and be like, yes, that's a great idea.
And it's incredibly frustrating and can feel really invalidating and feel very personal that we're not being listened to and not being understood.
And this can also relate to difficulty explaining and selling what you actually do and kind of what your value is to people and this is this is particularly a challenge around work.
It can cause us all sorts of real difficulties when we're, you know, applying for things and explaining what we try and do.
That can and that's something we all have to do if we run our own businesses that can be kind of grants or loans or competitions, all of those kinds of things.
But even if we work for someone else it can be really, really hard if we're applying for a job or a promotion or, you know, explaining our value to people.
It's a real huge challenge and it can really lead to this difficulty getting people to engage with what we do, whether that means giving us a job or whether that means finding clients or really just getting our message out there.
And all this can lead to like tons of frustration, anxiety, worry.
It's really frustrating to see things and understand things that are a really positive thing.
It could be a really positive thing for everyone, but that people just don't get people just ignore or feels like they ignore.
It can be really anxiety producing when we're worried about something we perceive something we understand something is happening that we don't want to happen.
And we tell other people about it and we want to avoid that and they just don't hear us.
That is just, it feels, you know, personally I've had so much of that organizationally it feels so difficult to live with that anxiety when you know something is going to happen but no one else will listen to you.
And these experiences repeated and repeated over and over again can really lead us to doubting our own perceptions, our own understanding of the world and the value that we hold and the value of our perspectives.
And I want to say those perspectives are incredibly valid and incredibly useful.
But this barrier to understanding is a lot of the reason that the rest of the world can't always benefit from what we have to offer in quite as much as it could.
Another really big adaption that I see in loads of neurodivergent people and this again particularly autism and ADHD I think but but but in general, lots of neurodivergent people is something I call preemptive self justification.
What I mean by that is when you have something to say you want to make a point, you don't start by making the point.
What you do is you start by giving a huge big backstory, you give a ton of background and you give loads of information because so often we've been told we've experienced that the people just look at us and go like expect us to justify expect us to put it into context
before we can actually be listened to.
But the downside of that is we dump a whole load of information on people perhaps when they don't have the capacity to understand it or they don't understand why we're telling them that.
So it can be it can be useful but it can also be counterproductive in the wrong situation and it just leads to us giving a ton more information than than perhaps is helpful always or perhaps even there's time to do.
And these struggles can also be the root of an awful lot of hyperadaptions and camouflaging behaviors.
So hyperadaptions I mentioned before are these things that we've we've learned to cope with and become kind of so adapted that it almost becomes more of a strength than you would expect to see in the general population.
You can see hyperlexia being part of this being really really good with words because you wanted to make yourself understood you wanted to be clear and you wanted to share all of this stuff and then you become incredibly good with words in general and hopefully you can you can bridge that gap a bit.
I think hyper empathy is also quite a possibility here.
You know I know a lot of people develop hyper empathy out of this need to monitor what we're saying to other people and how we're behaving towards other people and how they feel about us.
So we can always be like checking in essentially always be understanding what they're feeling and row back or go off in a different direction if we start to get negative feedback.
Perhaps even before that other person notices what we're talking about at all.
So that itself is a really useful hyperadaption and there are lots of different ones.
So it might be useful to reflect on how you've adapted to being misunderstood in your life and the ways that you choose to work with it because they can often be really useful ways of then developing them and intentionally using them too.
And this is absolutely a way of camouflaging on being misunderstood is a is a consequence of being neurodivergent and just seeing the world from a different perspective understanding things differently.
And so if we need to cover that up we don't feel safe to show that we're going to actually try and avoid in the misunderstandings and really kind of avoid all of the sense of that and try and make it invisible to people that we do understand things differently that we struggle to make ourselves understood to them and we sometimes struggle to understand what they mean quickly as well.
So I'd like to go on and have a think about why this actually happens.
It's a communication is such a fundamental thing that it's it's really important to be able to make ourselves understood and we all have a really high drive to do that as well.
Fundamentally, it comes from just the different way that we experience the word and our brains work and that we think and communication needs a shared understanding and it can be difficult for us to create that.
One of the ways this particularly shows up is sometimes if we're neurodivergent we think in different modes we think in different ways.
We might be very visual or we might be very verbal or we might think in 3D or kinesthetically and when we have those models in our head, it can be hard to translate them into another model.
So if you're primarily a visual thinker and you want to, you know, you basically what what's inside your head is diagrams.
It's really, really hard to put that into a long narrative of prose and vice versa.
So if the situation needs us to think across modes in a way that isn't are the ways that we find comfortable and the ways that we're specialized in, it can be really, really difficult to to convey that in a in a way that the other people are going to get.
Another way that we have a really, really big challenge in being understood is that we categorize differently.
As a result of our different perceptions, our different understanding of the world, we tend to join things together differently.
What we join together, we might use different attributes to do so.
We might say, oh, that goes together and that goes together because of this detail, but other people might be making that judgment on a completely different thing.
So our categories don't always line up with the rest of the world.
And this can also be true of ourselves.
So very often, and this is often the reason I think we end up working for ourselves, is that we don't fit into conventional categories.
And when people are using those categories in order to give themselves context to understand what we're saying, that can be a real barrier too.
So we're just not fitting into the categories that they would like to be able to understand us more fully.
And we also can have different needs and different values.
And this crosses over with the category thing.
There are certain needs you might have that we put someone in a certain category and assume they have certain needs and certain things that they're going to want to feel okay.
And also certain things that they're not going to need or not going to want.
And those might not align for us.
Those might not be completely lined up in the way that they would be for other people assigning us to a category.
So this might be that if someone is, if you're in a space and you need certain accommodations, perhaps you need a quiet space.
And we expect some people might need a quiet space, but you don't look like you fit that model.
And this is where stereotypes come in as well.
Then you might not be accommodated and it can be really hard to explain that need to others and to have that need actually heard and responded to.
And this is also true for our value.
And this is particularly true.
Again, a big issue with autism and ADHD is justice sensitivity and really wanting to do things right and having a really strong feeling to do things correctly and properly.
And if we don't get to do that, it can feel really, really horrible to us.
So we tend to work.
We have quite, you know, we have a different set of values.
Whereas for, I think for a lot of neurotypical people, they can be much more comfortable with means to an end and things that are expedient, even if they don't align quite so much with their values in that way.
And so they kind of see a different trade off.
And so if our values don't align, it can also be really, really difficult to make ourselves understood.
Because ultimately everyone's assuming that basically we experience the world like the person that we're interacting with.
And the less that's true, the harder it is to kind of be heard and be understood across that gap in both directions.
And this gap between perspectives, between ways of seeing the world is really actually the root of the barrier to this.
As far as I see it, you know, it's not that we are impaired in making ourselves understood with other people who share our perspective and our experience.
And you might have encountered this.
If you hang around with other people who match your neurotype, you'll find that a lot of these barriers to communication just kind of drop away because you've got that shared experience.
You've got that grounding of what you're experiencing.
But when you're interacting with other people who are maybe neurotypical or maybe have a different neurotype to you otherwise, then we don't have that shared experience.
And it can be really, really hard to establish.
And this is something that's so pervasive that it actually shows up in research.
So you might have come across this idea of the double empathy problem.
And the double empathy problem is related to this idea that the research used to say, okay, particularly autistic people have reduced empathy.
And what they were doing when they were coming up with those judgments was they were comparing the empathy that autistic people have for non-autistic people with the empathy that non-autistic people have for non-autistic people.
So they were comparing one group with a big gap of lived experience and one group with a much smaller gap.
If you compare the empathy that autistic people have for autistic people and if you compare the empathy that non-autistic people have for autistic people, all of those differences disappear, almost all of them.
So it's much more the case that it's just really hard to empathize with someone who doesn't share your lived experience and autistic people don't have the same lived experience as non-autistic people.
And there can be another difficulty, another barrier in this.
When we're coming from a different angle with seeing things differently, it can be responded to in different ways.
We might be innocently and entirely necessarily asking for context, asking questions, helping trying to be understood, trying to understand what other people are telling us.
But that might be misinterpreted.
It might also be that we get quite a lot of practice at doing this.
You know, we exist in a world where most of our interactions, we kind of assume, well, we're going to have to take someone else's perspective here.
We're going to have to do that and we learn to do it.
We actually usually get very, very good at it as neurodivergent people, even if the literature tells us that we're not very good at it.
We're doing a lot.
But for people who haven't had that experience of not fitting, whose perspective is kind of the expected one, the default, people who are from the expected cultural backgrounds
and who have the expected lived experience and expected embodiment, all of that stuff, they don't actually have to take perspective very often outside of their own.
So not all of them all have had a lot of practice at it.
And it can be a really, really difficult and challenging and scary thing to encounter suddenly this idea that there is a worldview outside of your own.
That's not to excuse the behavior and the responses, but it's just so we know what we're working with.
And it also partly explains why we can sometimes get such a negative reaction.
It's not about us as individuals and what we're saying.
It's about the other person really struggling to engage with our perspective and stay in a regulated, healthy state for them.
We might well get it projected onto us and be blamed for it because we're the different ones and we're the ones that stand out.
But ultimately it's about that difficulty for them in just understanding our perspective from the other direction.
And we also have to be aware of when people are kind of deliberately ignoring things.
When there's a reason for people to see things a very specific way and that they don't want other perspectives introduced that challenge that.
Now, this historically has been a problem for me without realizing it as an autistic person.
I've always just said basically, OK, I see this, this and this.
Not realizing that that was the thing that people were trying to avoid.
Not realizing that that was the thing that someone was kind of willfully ignoring or intentionally ignoring for their own reasons.
And again, because there's this expectation of perception that I think the expectation is that I was doing that deliberately.
I was being difficult that I was challenging them, challenging their authority when instead I was actually just trying to understand them and make myself understood.
But it had, you know, had difficult consequences at school and at work, particularly when I was asking questions that it was felt that I probably shouldn't be.
So in terms of working with this, there's that I want to talk mainly from a neurodivergent perspective here because that's most of the people listening to you and watching what I do.
And because it's what we can control.
But I want to frame this in saying it's not necessarily all our responsibility.
It's always both parties responsibility to to make themselves understood.
So I'm sharing this in the spirit of it's useful as a tool.
But just because you might have this as an option doesn't mean you have to do it because it can be really effortful and difficult as well.
And you might not always be resourced to do it.
So talking as a neurodivergent person who wants to make themselves better understood and who wants to understand others better, perhaps as well, because it is absolutely mutual.
I want to start with what we're trying to do here.
And what we're really trying to do is establish a common ground.
We're trying to establish something that we can work from that fits both of the people who are communicating.
So we have that basics of understanding that we can then work from.
And when we're dealing with people who have a lot of lived experience in common, you kind of get that by default.
So this isn't always something that you would have to do.
Again, if you're talking to people who share your neurotype, you'll probably find that you don't actually have to consciously do this.
You just share enough lived experience that this happens automatically.
If you're dealing with someone who doesn't share your neurotype, you might have to do it consciously and intentionally.
And work towards doing it.
And I want to say it might be really difficult for both groups.
It might be something that is really challenging on both sides and understanding and being kind to ourselves that it's challenging and difficult.
I think we might make mistakes and interacting with someone else and understanding that it may be hard for them and they might make mistakes is a really, really big thing.
And I think if we can assume good intention when we're interacting in most circumstances, I don't mean turn off the awareness,
but the first assumption is that mistakes are well intentioned.
Those mistakes are just mistakes and they were coming from a good place, but they were just everyone makes mistakes is a healthy way to interact.
If things become repeated, you might need to revisit that.
But just that first assumption is that mistakes are well intentioned is a useful place to start.
And also making sure that people are open to doing this and that people are happy to do this with us.
Because if someone isn't willing to take perspective, willing to explore, then we're always going to be fighting how we're engaging with people.
And that's just a really miserable and difficult situation to be in.
And that might mean that we have to say, well, this isn't a conversation that we can have right now.
But that's something that may be the case.
And I think if we're a business owner and we're looking to sell what we're doing,
that means accepting that there are some businesses that we won't work with.
There are some clients that just aren't our clients.
They aren't our people.
And if we're working in an organization, it's accepting that some people are always gone,
aren't going to be collaborators on projects, aren't going to be the people that we work closely with.
So really just being able to make sure that people are comfortable doing this
and want to do this with us is part of that shared exploration.
And also accepting that we might not be resourced right now, they might not be resourced right now.
But that if you need to do this work, you can find a time when you're likely to both have the energy
and the time and the space to actually do something that's really harder than some of the communication would be.
And one of the really kind of, I think, frustrating things, honestly, for me, is that I see the perspective
that neurodivergent people have as one of the most valuable things we offer the world.
That seeing problems from a different angle, understanding things differently,
that means we can work with things in different ways, is absolutely a lot of what makes us able to contribute so much to the world.
But the big challenge there is getting it into the mainstream, getting it understood from that conventional perspective.
And that itself can be just intensely frustrating.
To be able to do that, the big thing here is doing some work on meeting people where they are,
understanding where they're coming from and how they're understanding the world,
and then working outwards from there.
And it can be a really, really difficult thing to do, particularly because when we know something,
this idea of burden of knowledge, it's really, really hard to kind of put ourselves in a position of not knowing that anymore.
And what it was when we didn't know that, or all the situation, how it would be if we didn't know that.
So making sure that we're kind of actually working with people to understand how do they understand the situation,
how do they understand the problem, and then working on that joint exploration.
One way you can do this is by using analogies and metaphors that are going to resonate for people in their experience.
So if you have a particular thing that you're trying to explain, looking for those models, those things that are like,
oh yeah, that's happened to them, they'll understand that, then they can start to get a hold of it.
That's a really helpful way of just crossing that bridge quite quickly.
And the other thing I would say, which is absolutely true, is start with the easy people.
Start with the people who are closer to your experience.
If you're just getting going with this, start with the people who share your neurotype,
and once you can explain things to them nice and clearly, and it's really quick and you can get it,
then you can start explaining that thing to the next people out and the next people out.
Don't start by trying to explain things to the very hardest people first.
It's really frustrating, you don't get feedback and it's miserable, and it can be difficult for both parties.
So yeah, I'd really suggest kind of edging into this and exploring this as you go.
And if we're in organisations, and this is a really important point, and we want to improve communication between different neurotypes,
it's really important that all neurotypes get support in communication.
Very often we see interventions aimed at communication skills for neurodivergent people.
As we've seen, as I've spoken about, it's not just the neurodivergent people who have issues communicating.
So what we need to make sure is that our neurotypical people are also getting training and support
in the skills to communicate with neurodivergent people, just as much as our neurodivergent people
are getting training and skills to communicate with our neurotypical people.
And as I've mentioned before, there's actually a chance, quite a significant chance,
that you'll be starting from a lower level there, just out of lack of experience more than anything.
So it's really important to make sure that you're balancing that.
Hopefully that's a useful grounding in how you can get going with some of this stuff.
What I'd like to do is just move on to some of the community questions here.
Now, this is part of a thing I've started posting and letting people know what topic I'm going to be doing next.
So if you've got a question you'd like to show up in a future topic, then please do let me know and keep an eye out for those posts.
So the first question from Stan is, how do you deal with topics that people don't feel comfortable addressing or find difficult to address?
And for me, this really goes back to that understanding of remembering that not everyone sees the world the way that you do.
And some of the stuff that you've had plenty of time to get used to and perhaps get very familiar with
and even sometimes might have initially found a bit shocking, but you actually quite like now.
That might not be everyone else's journey. You might be pointing something out to people for the very first time.
So being quite gentle with how you introduce that stuff, being aware that your perspective might be quite shocking
is a quite useful way of doing that.
Being aware that people can be very uncomfortable encountering the unfamiliar and we might be bringing that in for them.
And if we're not careful, we get associated with all of the stuff around that.
So for me, it's really being able to give that understanding and context and also give our personal position on this.
Like, why do you feel this way? Why does this work this way for you?
Can help people understand so they don't feel so separate and alienated from the topics that might be difficult for them.
And also, particularly if you find it comfortable and you find it enjoyable, you can share why and why it doesn't worry you a little, you know, from your perspective.
Not to say that they shouldn't worry, but that why you feel more comfortable with it because they might be able to share that with you as well.
The next question is getting people to understand what you mean more quickly.
And this is a particular challenge, I think. This is a challenge in general, but really for us in business when we're trying to get an idea over there.
The only thing that I found really is practice and that understanding of the perspective that other people are coming from.
So if you're sure about where they're starting, who you're understanding, who you're explaining something to, then you can be much quicker in using a language,
using appropriate metaphors and different modalities that they're going to understand more quickly.
One of the most effective ways you can do this is try it out across different groups. Again, start with the easy ones.
But being able to really experiment and find out what works in different situations.
And eventually you'll probably find that you have quite an intuitive feel for it.
You don't have to consciously be like, OK, it's this person and therefore I say this.
You'll just find that the words, the explanations come because you'll be getting that feedback.
You'll just be kind of doing it and understanding it.
So I think that for me is the most effective way I've found to be understood more quickly.
Another way that I found and shows up in this is to use cross-modality communication.
So as well as speaking stuff, there's some text.
Can you use diagrams? Can you use different ways of communicating and communicate the same things in different ways?
Because it helps people just understand where there are gaps.
And the next question from Patricia is dealing with feelings of rejection and resistance when you're not understood.
And I completely get this one.
I mean, I think the fact that we're not understood and the idea of rejection-sensitive dysphoria is kind of a...
I don't know whether they're related or whether it's a cruel cosmic joke.
But it feels like really tough that we share something of ourselves in our perspective and that's rejected
or even gets resistance, gets fought back against when we had no idea that we were going to trigger that.
I think going back to what I was saying before about understanding why what we say might be difficult for the other party
and really understanding their perspective a bit more is a somewhat of a useful way to work with this.
But also trying to separate the people as people from the ideas that they're sharing.
And this is a big one.
I think particularly those of us who've worked in engineering,
you've probably found that this is something that you've picked up to some degree
because computers don't care about how you feel about anything.
And so if you share an idea and it's just wrong, there's that real energy of like...
And people will tell you that.
So that can really be difficult to encounter the first time.
And it's really difficult when you try and do something and tell a computer to do something.
And it's like, no, it just doesn't work.
So one of the practices that can be really helpful in those situations is working to separate the ideas from the person.
So we might have different ideas and we might understand things differently,
but we can still have a valid experience and we can also choose to improve our ideas and holding our ideas more lightly.
I think is a really big way that I found is useful to engage with that.
And the last question from Robin is,
how do you make sure people are paying as much attention as you need to you?
And this is a tricky one on both sides, definitely,
because I've certainly been paying attention to people, but my modes of paying attention look quite different.
I don't always make eye contact.
I don't always sit still.
I don't always point to like orient my body towards the person that I'm listening to.
In fact, if I'm listening intently and engaging with someone's ideas,
I'm probably not looking directly at them and I'm probably fiddling with something in my hand as my brain processes what I'm hearing.
And that can be interpreted as being very rude, being distracted, not paying attention.
However, for a different person, that might mean that they weren't paying attention and that maybe for them,
that stillness and eye contact would be an indicator of their attention.
So what we need to do is really work out what attention we're asking people for,
what attention we need, how we need to be heard,
and how we're also meeting their needs and creating this shared space of paying attention.
Because what we want to do is be in that common experiencing to communicate
and understanding what both parties need in order to both make themselves understood and express themselves
and to listen and hear and really engage with that.
And there's also things like environmental things.
So if we're in a really noisy space, for example, that might be really difficult.
Removing the stuff that gets in the way, any barriers that there might be to paying attention as well.
And simply asking people can be a useful thing.
What do you need to be able to be comfortable engaging with this and engaging with me in this?
Is it really helpful thing?
Because we all have different needs and it can be really, really helpful just to be given what we need
so we can freely share that understanding with other people.
So I hope that was really useful for you.
If it was, please comment and share this with anyone you think who would be interested and benefit from hearing from it.
Our next topic, which I'm hoping to do next week, will be on burnout and low energy
and the challenges around working with different energy levels when we're neurodivergent.
You can find the notes available from this talk, the transcript,
or most of the transcript as I managed to record right at the beginning,
but you'll find most of the transcript online on the website
and you can find the link to that post in the show notes to my own website.
And you can also find all of the notes from the resources, the references
that I shared that you might have seen as I was going past.
So there's some papers there if you want to look those up as well.
And just at the end, I wanted to mention that I've actually just recently launched some new ways that people can work with me,
particularly if you're a neurodivergent business owner yourself.
So I've got some new packages there to really support you doing things your own way
and help build a business that actually is an expression of you
and supports you more fully than the off the shelf standard ways of doing business.
And if you happen to be a joyfully different community member
or you are running a community benefit organization,
then there are some pretty big discounts available for that work as well.
So it'd be lovely to reach out to me and you can find out more about that in the show notes.
And if that's interesting, we can have a chat.
So brilliant. I hope that was good and I will hopefully see you next week.