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Easing the path to love and friendship for neurodivergent individuals

Interpersonal interactions can be a challenge for many neurodivergent people, but there are ways to make them easier

Partners, spouses, close friends, family and caregivers are an integral part of a social support system required to manage mental health. Photo: iSTOCKPHOTO

By Rush Mukherjee

LAST PUBLISHED 12.02.2024  |  01:00 PM IST

When Putul Tiwari started to experience extreme bouts of depression in 2014, followed by equally extreme bouts of hyperactivity, she knew something was wrong. “I was losing grip on reality," says the 33-year-old, speaking from her car for privacy in her hometown of Bhilai, Chhattisgarh. By the time her then-husband suggested she go to a psychiatrist, Tiwari had begun to hate herself for the symptoms, one of which was hypersexuality. And it was threatening to jeopardise her marriage. Many years later, Tiwari was diagnosed with Bipolar I—a disorder that causes people to swing between manic and depressive episodes.

Like millions of other Indian adults, Putul is neurodivergent—a non-medical term used to indicate people whose brains are ‘wired differently’. The term ‘neurodiversity’ was Initially coined by Australian sociologist Judy Singer in 1998 to describe autism spectrum disorder (ASD)—to indicate that there is nothing ‘wrong’ with the way an autistic person’s brain works, just that it is different. It is now used to describe a whole range of conditions, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and bipolar disorder. “I wish I had been diagnosed earlier," says Tiwari. “Perhaps then my marriage wouldn’t have failed, and I would have understood myself better."

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Many neurodivergent conditions, including ADHD are characterised by difficulties in maintaining relationships. Studies show that adult neurodivergent people face immense difficulties while socialising, whether it’s in the workplace or with family and friends.

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Many of my clients have faced issues in friendships and intimate relationships, resulting in loneliness," says Shilpi Banerjee, a therapist-turned-programmer based in Gurgaon. Before she stopped practicing in 2023, Banerjee counseled neurodiverse clients. Banerjee used to receive many queries from clients such as: What is the key to social interactions? How do you handle your place in a group? How can you approach someone that you’re interested in? These questions can come up for everyone, but they can be particularly challenging for those who are neurodivergent.

Many people who don’t deal with these conditions may be unaware of the needs of their neurodivergent loved ones. Partners, spouses, close friends, family and caregivers are an integral part of a social support system required to manage mental health. Lack of awareness can lead to neurodivergent individuals becoming ostracised in social situations, leading to loneliness, isolation, and discomfort.

So how can people understand these nuances? It all starts with open and empathetic communication, suggest experts. “Consistent therapy is an essential tool," says Dr Janani S, a consultant psychiatrist based in Chennai. It can help neurodivergent people identify their triggers—that is, conditions that can create stress—and avoid them. It can also help family members understand the kind of arrangements they need.

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“We consistently see that in accepting families, which have a lot of warmth, positivity and support, neurodivergent individuals thrive, despite the ups and downs of their conditions," she says. Early diagnosis is very helpful as it gives individuals a longer chance to work with their therapist on socialisation.

Former therapist Banerjee recommends approaching differences with patience and curiosity, especially in intimate partner relationships. “It's important to understand that there is no single roadmap for any relationship," she says. “If we hold the space to accept differences of expectations and communication, if we learn to increase our capacity for handling difficult conversations and emotions, then things become easier."

According to Anjana Moraes, a clinical psychologist based in Bengaluru, technology can be a huge help. She recommends an AI app called GoblinTools. “One of its sections, called ‘The Judge’, helps figures out the tone of a text if someone is struggling to interpret it," she says. The same help can be given by a friend whom a neurodivergent individual trusts.

Many neurodivergent people have figured out a way to deal with these issues on their own. One of them is 32-year-old Shreya Sridhar, who has ASD and ADHD. The Chennai-based marketing professional says that having a partner who is also neurodivergent has changed her life for the better, partly due to sharing of resources. For example, her partner suggested she use earplugs and noise cancellation earbuds to deal with noise sensitivity—a tip he came up with from his own experience.

“It’s okay in our relationship to just say ‘my social battery over, I can’t come with you, I’d rather sit at home and read,’" says Sridhar. “We now always check in with each other and make plans that accommodate both of us."

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For National Law School Bengaluru professor Saurabh Bhattacharjee, who has ASD, it’s about finding the environment in which one can thrive. Building a relationship with his students comes much more naturally to him than many other interactions—a phenomenon he attributes to the controlled environment of the classroom. He was diagnosed in 2021 after experiencing severe burnout when his safe space—his office—was suddenly out of reach due to the covid-19 pandemic.

“I have no problem with public speaking or teaching, but during close interactions I always prefer one-on-one conversations rather than group sessions, in which I find it much harder to pick up on cues," says the 41-year-old.

As he has got older, Bhattacharjee adds, he has stopped ‘masking’ himself—a phenomenon that many neurodivergent people are familiar with. ‘Masking’ or ‘camouflaging’ is the urge to hide neurodivergent traits for greater social acceptance by strategies like continuously monitoring one’s own behaviour. Studies say it is found more commonly among women than men, and that it can be cognitively exhausting.

There is no silver bullet for dealing with such situations, says 25-year-old Kolkata-based NGO worker Chhandas Bhattacharya, who was diagnosed with bipolar II in June 2022. For him, self-acceptance is the most important step. “The first thing that I try to do is to be comfortable with myself," he says. “I will never be a neurotypical person and my mind will never work in the same way. It’s not easy to accept all the time but I have to try."

One of the strategies suggested by Moraes is to find a ‘safe space’, in which a neurodivergent person wouldn’t have to worry about hiding. “It’s a great way to decompress and reduce burnout," she says.

Rush Mukherjee is a writer based in Kolkata.