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  • Writer's pictureYvette E. McDonald, LCSW-QS

Understanding Positive Intent in Neurodiverse Relationships: Navigating Tough Times with Compassion

In the realm of relationships, navigating through challenges is inevitable. However, when neurodiversity is part of the equation, it adds layers of complexity that require a unique approach.

Neurodiverse relationships, where one or both partners have neurological differences such as autism, ADHD, or dyslexia, demand a deeper understanding of communication, empathy, and above all, the recognition of positive intent.

Recognizing positive intent is crucial in any relationship, but it holds particular significance in neurodiverse partnerships.

Here’s why:

  1. Diverse Communication Styles: Neurodiverse individuals often communicate in ways that may seem unconventional to neurotypical individuals. They may struggle with social cues, tone of voice, or non-verbal signals. In such cases, misinterpretations are common. Recognizing positive intent allows partners to look beyond the surface and understand the underlying message or intention.

  2. Embracing Differences: Neurodiverse relationships thrive on acceptance and appreciation of differences. Each partner brings unique strengths and perspectives to the table. Recognizing positive intent fosters an environment where these differences are celebrated rather than criticized. It encourages a mindset of collaboration and mutual growth.

  3. Building Trust and Connection: Trust forms the foundation of any healthy relationship. In neurodiverse partnerships, where misunderstandings may be frequent, trust can easily erode if positive intent is not acknowledged. By assuming positive intent, partners demonstrate faith in each other’s intentions, strengthening the bond and fostering deeper connection.

  4. Mitigating Conflict: Conflict is inevitable in any relationship, but it can be particularly challenging in neurodiverse partnerships. Miscommunications, sensory sensitivities, and differences in processing information can escalate tensions quickly. Recognizing positive intent acts as a buffer during conflicts, preventing misunderstandings from spiraling out of control and facilitating smoother resolution.

So, how can one recognize positive intent in a neurodiverse relationship, especially when facing tough times?

  1. Practice Empathy: Put yourself in your partner’s shoes and try to understand their perspective. Recognize that their actions are driven by their unique neurological makeup and not necessarily by malice or ill intent.

  2. Communicate Openly: Encourage open and honest communication within the relationship. Create a safe space where both partners feel comfortable expressing their thoughts and feelings without fear of judgment.

  3. Look for Patterns: This is a biggie. Pay attention to recurring behaviors or communication patterns that indicate positive intent. Even small gestures, such as a reassuring touch or a thoughtful gesture, can convey love and support.

  4. Seek Professional Support: Consider seeking guidance from therapists or counselors specializing in neurodiverse relationships. They can provide valuable insights and tools to navigate challenges and strengthen the relationship.


Real-Life Example: Understanding Positive Intent in a Neurodiverse Interaction

Meet Sarah and Alex. Sarah is neurotypical, and Alex has autism. They often face communication hiccups because Alex tends to get deeply engrossed in his work, sometimes forgetting to respond to Sarah’s messages.

One day, Sarah texts Alex to pick up groceries on his way home. Hours pass without a response, and when Alex arrives home empty-handed, Sarah feels hurt and frustrated.

Instead of lashing out, Sarah takes a deep breath and reminds herself of Alex's tendency to hyper-focus. She calmly says, “Hey, I noticed you didn’t reply to my message about the groceries. I felt a bit neglected. Can we talk about what happened?”

Alex, sensing Sarah's calm approach, explains, “I’m really sorry, Sarah. I got caught up in my project and didn’t see your message. I wasn’t trying to ignore you.”

Understanding Alex’s perspective, Sarah suggests, “I get it. Maybe we can set a reminder on your phone to check messages during breaks. That way, we can stay connected even when you’re busy.”

By assuming Alex’s positive intent—that he wasn’t ignoring her on purpose—Sarah turns a potential conflict into an opportunity for better understanding. This not only resolves the issue at hand but also strengthens their communication for the future.

Scripts for Your Next Interaction:

  • Acknowledging Efforts:

"I appreciate how hard you work on your projects. I know it can be easy to get lost in them. Can we brainstorm ways to stay better connected during those times?"

  • Expressing Feelings Without Blame:

"When you didn't respond to my message, I felt a bit overlooked. Can we talk about how we can handle this differently in the future?"

  • Suggesting Solutions Together:

"I understand that your focus is intense when you're working. Maybe we can set a reminder or have a quick check-in during the day to help both of us stay on the same page."

  • Reinforcing Positive Intent:

"I know you didn't mean to miss my message, and I appreciate your dedication. Let’s find a way that works for both of us so we don’t have misunderstandings."

By using these prompts and phrases, Sarah and Alex can foster a deeper understanding and navigate their neurodiverse relationship with empathy and cooperation.


Recognizing positive intent in a neurodiverse relationship is not just important—it’s essential. It forms the cornerstone of trust, empathy, and mutual understanding, enabling partners to weather the storms together with grace and compassion. By embracing each other’s differences and assuming the best intentions, neurodiverse couples can cultivate a relationship filled with love, respect, and resilience.

Takeaway Questions:

  1. How can I remind myself to see my partner's actions through the lens of positive intent, especially during challenging moments?

  2. What are some strategies we can implement to ensure clear and compassionate communication in our relationship?

  3. How can we both contribute to creating a supportive environment that values each other's unique needs and perspectives?


As an individual with Autism and ADHD, as well as a counselor and writer, I navigate the intricacies of neurodiversity firsthand, championing diverse perspectives. In counseling, I foster a safe, inclusive environment that celebrates neurodiversity. Through my writing, I aim to enhance understanding and appreciation for the complexity of human cognition. By advocating for the rights and strengths of neurodivergent individuals, I am dedicated to fostering a world that embraces diverse experiences.


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