*I recently ran a workshop during the Unholy Army's Spring Fling on neurodivergence (defined below) and communication. I had a lot of requests for a copy of the text; this is a slightly cleaned up version (cleaned up stylistically, I mean. Unlike much of my writing, it wasn't that filthy to begin with.) Just a note: I try not to police the comments sections on my posts, but just as with my workshop I want this to be a safe space for neurodivergent people to express themselves. Questions are encouraged, but ableism will not be tolerated.*
So, to start off:
One of the lovely things about having such a vibrant online fetish community (as well as a thriving local in-person one) is that there is a lot of really excellent discussion taking place around consent and communication. In my experience, though, these discussions seem to make a lot of assumptions about the abilities of the people doing the communication. We need more safe spaces to take the time to talk about alternative methods for communication and some solutions to problems that can occur during a scene for people who are on the autism spectrum, people with intellectual disabilities, people with mental health issues such as anxiety or depression, and their partners. In my workshop, I shortened this mouthful down to "neurodivergent", which is commonly used in the Autism community, but also includes "all brains that function in ways that diverge significantly from the dominant societal standards of "normal." (I use the phrase "neurotypical" to refer to people whose brains do conform to these standards, so people who aren't neurodivergent.)
In my experience, there is a lot of communication between neurotypicals that never *actually* gets communicated. It's all winking and nudging and extremely subtle eyebrow movements, from what I can tell (which, incidentally, can leave a neurodivergent gal like myself very anxious – "oh my god, that girl scrunched up her nose while talking to me, does she want to kiss, or does she have an itch?"). This is probably why one of the biggest internet communities for Autistic folk is called "Wrong Planet" – communicating with neurotypical people can feel like being an alien trying to decipher a new language and set of customs. Now, to be honest, I'm never entirely sure if people are *really* understanding each other in these situations or if it's a case of the Emperor's New Clothes, where nobody wants to be the first one to speak up and tell their partner that they don't understand these cues either, but I do know that in neurodivergent relationships these assumptions can become dangerous.
Before I go on: I was asked why I would gear my workshop specifically toward neurodivergent people and their partners (who may themselves be neurodivergent or neurotypical), when a lot of the advice or suggestions I'm giving are helpful for everyone. I most definitely would hope that everyone reading this takes something away that helps them to communicate more clearly in their own relationships. However, there are not necessarily a lot of safe spaces in kink communities (or anywhere) for neurodivergent people to feel like they're being heard, and a lot of times when we try to express our concerns we get an answer along the lines of "oh, everybody feels that way sometimes." Before I found out that I was Autistic, I was terrified to try and explain to people my limitations and anxieties for this very reason. Having an isolated incident where you are nervous, or where you have a communication breakdown, is not the same as having to structure your whole life around these incidents or breakdowns – hence the need for this particular conversation.
With that out of the way: here we go.
**Scene negotiation: When talking isn't an option**
As many of us know from having emphatically reassured vanilla friends about the safety of our extracurricular activities, good, safe, sane and consensual kink is all about communication. From the amount that we emphasize communication, you would think that all that kinky people do is talk all the time. We talk about our limits and we talk about our fantasies and we talk and we talk and we talk and we never shut up. Honestly, I'm not really sure how we have any time to play at all with all of the talking we do. Talking about consent is how we know we're doing it right. So what happens when talking isn't an option?
I often hear people say "if you're not mature enough or you don't know yourself well enough to be having a conversation about sex and kink, then you shouldn't be doing it". I call bullshit on this. Verbal communication is not equally easy for everyone, and oftentimes we lack the language to even begin to articulate our desires until we have a little experience. It's a bit like jobs that you can't get until you have experience in the field but you need those jobs *to* gain experience in the field – if you don't start somewhere, you can never start at all.
You have to adapt to suit your relationship. In my case, when I first met my partner four years ago, my complete inability to talk on the phone and near-complete inability to talk in person, coupled his rheumatoid arthritis and inability to type for very long, meant we had to get a bit creative. Before ever playing we went for a number of drives where he would suggest different activities we could try together while I sat in the passenger's seat completely unspeaking, beet-red, and (according to what he told me later in the relationship), looking enough like I was going to tuck and roll out of the car that he was afraid to slow down at stoplights in case I made a mad dash for freedom. This was part shyness, and part cognitive processing difficulties - that is, difficulties with the way my brain takes in, sorts out, and interprets information. I can listen to you and actually take in what you're saying, or I can listen to you and only hear half the words so that I can plan how to "take my turn" in the conversation. I chose the former. After the rides, when I'd had a chance to process his suggestions and my feelings about said suggestions, I would send him a barrage of emails with questions, comments, concerns, and fantasies.
So the first step is that we don't assume that oral communication is necessarily an option for everyone.
Now, written communication isn't exactly optimal for a lot of people either. So where does that leave us? For someone who struggles with verbal communication in person but also struggles to communicate clearly in writing, there are a few things a neurotypical partner can do to help facilitate the conversation.
First of all, throw out all of your preconceived ideas about how a casual conversation needs to be structured, and let your neurodivergent partner pick a format. Maybe they need to bring a checklist with them to make sure they don't miss any points. A lot of neurodivergent people have varying challenges with cognitive processing. If they are socially anxious or autistic, you may not get any eye contact from them, or you may get uncomfortably persistent eye contact. Don't make assumptions about what this means for their interest or comfort level. In my own experience, most people I know who are neurodivergent struggle with phone calls because they strip the conversation of any and all useful context, including knowing when it's your turn to speak, but you may also encounter someone whose conversational abilities are heightened on the phone because they are able to place all of their focus on the conversation and not have to deal with body language.
Another option may be for the neurodivergent partner to bring a trusted friend to the scene negotiation with them, just like you might bring a family member or friend with you to the doctor's office for support. This isn't about asking someone else to consent for you, and the trusted friend needs to be really careful to make sure they are acting as a resource and not as someone talking over you. Also, neurotypical folks, just as a general rule in dealing with anyone who is disabled, if someone has a support person with them, whether it's in an official capacity (say, as a sign language interpreter) or an unofficial capacity, for the love of god continue to address yourself to the person you're conversing with and not the support person.
Think of verbal communication this way. Neurotypical people, in my understanding, tend to take in a whole conversation at once. All of the nuances of word choice, posture, tone, sarcasm (ugh, sarcasm) – they all are part of the same input. It's all being processed sort of simultaneously. For someone with cognitive processing issues, handling all of these inputs at once can be more like if you asked me to ride a unicycle while juggling geese. No matter what, something's going to get dropped in the process.
There can be some really simple tricks to helping eliminate some of the distractions during in-person conversation. If you're meeting in public for safety's sake, something as simple as sitting in a booth by the wall rather than a table in the middle of the room can eliminate a huge number of distractions right off the bat. This is just good advice generally for being polite, but don't talk over your partner. Wait for them to finish their full thought. A thought that gets derailed for someone with cognitive processing issues could end up anywhere, really, and the more you interrupt, the less your partner will be able to communicate.
You may also need to put extra thought into how your questions are framed. It's often not as straightforward as you think it is. For instance, "do you like X" is not necessarily a helpful question (or worse, "how do you feel about X".) For me, I often have no idea how I feel (alexithymia, frequently co-morbid with Autism and a number of mental health conditions, is the inability to identify and describe your own emotions). Sometimes if I'm having a rough day and my partner asks what's up, all I can manage is to wave my hands around and say "I'm having a Feeling!"
Look, if you are the neurodivergent partner in the relationship, you probably already have some idea what works for you in communication generally. Don't be afraid to be very clear with prospective partners about what you need in terms of communication, and neurotypical partners and allies, don't call those needs into question. The change from a table to a booth might not seem relevant to you, but it might be difference for your partner between remembering all of the points they want to raise with you about an upcoming scene and leaving out an important piece of information.
**Want/Will/Won't lists: Also Maybe/With the Right Partner/Only on Tuesdays**
Will/Want/Won't lists are a tool that I've seen making the rounds recently in order to help partners better communicate their interests. We might also refer to the will and won't aspects as soft and hard limits, depending on how you define those terms – there are things we're wary of but might be interested in trying with further discussion or in a particular context, and things that are absolutely no-go-never-nuh-uhs not interested.
There are some obvious positive sides to laying everything out in a really clear format like this, but let's talk about some of the issues with Will/Want/Won't lists, starting with the "won't" component. The first and very obvious one is that you can only put on that list things that you're aware of. There's a really great webcomic called Questionable Content and when two of the characters hook up for the first time, one gives the other a relationship checklist of things she likes to know before dating someone. When the guy gets to the question "are you sexually aroused by urination" and gives her a surprised look, she explains "you only need that kink sprung on you once before you start asking in advance." Now, obviously the character springing watersports on his partner should have discussed it first with her, but this does illustrate one of the problems with simply telling people your hard limits or the things you won't do – if you have no idea that peeing on each other is a thing that people do, you're not going to think to add it to your hard limit list. You see this a lot when new people in the scene post ads looking for Mistresses in particular and they add "no limits, anything goes." A lot of veterans of the scene jump in right away and say stuff like "oh really, can I cover you in honey and release the fire ants?" And they're joking, but the thing is that you can't put something on your won't list if you don't even know what it is.
The bigger problem with these lists for everyone, but especially I think for neurodivergent people, is they assume that our desires and our limits are constant, which we're not. Again, this is true for everyone to a certain extent – just because someone puts "spanking" on their "want" list doesn't mean that they want to be smacked on the ass if you run into them downtown. But for people whose abilities to socialize and to interact with other human beings can vary widely from day to day, even big desires (not to mention limits), can be in constant flux, up to and including during actually during a scene. So Want/Will/Won't lists may be a decent starting point, but everything on the list is going to need a lot of caveats.
Which brings us to the sort of ironic part given that we're here talking about challenges to communication – being neurodivergent or playing with someone who is neurodivergent frequently means not just more difficult communication, but a much higher frequency and volume of communication. This can get exhausting. One thing that my own partner has had to adjust to is that we can't just know that I have a list of likes and dislikes and that he can't just make a scene building on that. We've been together for four years and we still have to communicate before each scene to know what's on and off each of those lists today. If I had a rough week at work with a lot of stress, I might be incapable of sexual play Friday night but desperately in need of a spanking. Another week that same amount of stress might mean no play at all, or just cuddling, or a much more D/s oriented scene than usual. This isn't necessarily true for everyone who is neurodivergent, but speaking from my own experience, spontaneous play may be really challenging. Your will/want/won't list may end up looking more like a thought web that you do for the start of an essay, where one idea leads to another which leads to another. Go with that. It's great to have a foundation of strict limits or "things that are totally up for discussion", but they're just the foundation from which you're going to need to do an awful lot more communicating.
And finally, be prepared to re-negotiate mid-scene. This doesn't mean leaving things out of your negotiation, but it may mean saying "look, I have been fantasizing about this particular activity, but it's going to depend on my headspace in that moment". You could say "these things are on my "conditional want" list; plan a scene that works with or without that element, and when it comes time to incorporate it, just do a final check-in before proceeding to see if that's still the headspace I'm in."
**(Try to) know thyself: Why we can't always anticipate our triggers and limits**
Ok, so on a bit of the same tack as before - one of the things we advise new people in the scene to do is to list their hard limits. Above we were mostly talking about not knowing what we like, here we're going to talk a bit about not knowing what we don't like. For someone who is neurodivergent, giving a list of hard limits is not necessarily easy either. Don't get me wrong; the language of hard limits can be very useful. I can say, for instance, that I never want to be slapped across the face. Cool. Sometimes, though, I can't know something is a limit until it happens. For someone who has social anxiety, for someone who has sensory processing difficulties (which is basically when inputs to your nervous system don't give the expected outputs), for someone who is experiencing mental health struggles as the result of sexual assault and may be dealing with PTSD or other stress or anxiety-related disorders, it can be really difficult to anticipate exactly what is going to trigger a negative emotional response.
The point to this is that sometimes it is impossible to know all of our limits before they crop up. Ideally by the time we're playing together we've found a way to communicate that works well for us, and we have a system in place to stop the scene if things start to go haywire, which is what we're going to talk about next.
**Red, Green, Aquamarine: Safewords and their Alternatives**
Safewords are something that we talk about constantly in kink. They're sort of the bedrock, the foundation. A lot of us like to be able to freely yell "no, no, stop, please!" during a scene without our partner actually paying any attention whatsoever to those words (except, perhaps, to cause sadistic glee), and we also want a shortcut to let our partner know when something is going wrong, now. Safewords can be used by both tops and bottoms, although in a lot of situations it is easier for the top to put a stop to the scene. Some people also use the "traffic light" system as a shorthand communication – red for stop, green for go, and yellow or orange for "hang on a minute, I want to keep going but I'm getting a cramp in my calf, can we change positions".
Sometimes we'll hear people talk about what to do when you physically can't speak during a scene, which is a good start. After all, we all know that feeling when you can't call out "red" because you have a pair of underwear shoved in your mouth to keep you from talking. That's just how life goes. In those cases, a lot of people will use a non-verbal cue as a safeword, such as giving the incapacitated party something heavy to drop or a bell to ring.
Those are all really good starts for communication, even for those of us who might experience communication issues during a scene. They have the benefits of being short and succinct. You can communicate an awful lot with one syllable or one motion. Even someone who sometimes goes non-verbal during a scene has a good likelihood of being able to let go of something from their hand or to ring a bell.
The problem is that sometimes people set up a safeword or safe gesture and think that's it, they've handled in-scene communication, when really they've just gotten started.
So, let's talk about why communicating in-scene might be extra challenging for someone who is neurodivergent. For a lot of us, we have difficulty multitasking or experiencing too many sensations or emotions at once. Have you ever plugged in your microwave and toaster at the same time and blown a fuse/tripped a circuit? For someone who is autistic and having a meltdown, or someone who has an anxiety disorder and is having a panic attack, that's pretty much what happens. There are too many inputs – and they don't have to be negative inputs – and the body and/or brain shut down. Now, having your partner become non-verbal during a scene is not an inherently bad thing, or something that should cause immediate panic, or necessarily even end the scene - *as long as you've already discussed what to do in that situation.* Remember what we talked about above – verbalizing your needs is not the be-all-end-all of communication! If you talk to me during a scene and I seem unable to answer, I may be having a meltdown, but I may also be so overwhelmed with sensations in a pleasant way that I can't speak. The trick is knowing if that's something I *want* to have happen or not. For me, as someone who has an awful lot of trouble relaxing/letting go/shutting down my brain, a "right proper" beating can be exactly what I want. It resets the whole system. But it can also mean that I can't communicate with you whether I'm having a terrified meltdown or I'm in glorious subspace, and you might be surprised at how similar they can be visually to the other partner.
But what you need to keep in mind is that even if this is your partner's very first time having a meltdown or panic attack during bdsm play, it is not their first time having a meltdown or panic attack period. It's just not. So that's where the pre-scene communication is going to help you. An important question to ask is "what does a bad experience *look* or *sound* like for you? For me, for instance, in a bad scene I may not be able to safeword or even ring a bell, but I will probably make a high-pitched sort of whining noise. That's not a good noise for me. It's not really a good noise for the people listening either; my partner very flatteringly calls it my stuck pig noise. But I knew this long before I started doing bdsm play, because it's the same noise I make when having a meltdown at work or in a crowd or at school. Talk about these cues before you ever play.
**To assume makes… well, you know: why one person's caress is another's pain**
So, the topic of this section probably sounds really familiar and kind of obvious to pretty much everyone here. A lot of us are masochists or sadists, or the lucky ones are both. We are really used to having to think about how weird interesting and kind of cool it is to be wired in a way where pain gets us off. What we're maybe a bit less used to talking about is how, for neurodivergent people, the opposite can hold true – stuff that other people sort of take for granted as pleasurable, or at least neutral, can actually be really painful or scary.
Even though we're pretty used to talking about boundaries and consent and the way that some people like floggers and some people like canes, we're not used to maybe applying those concepts to more basic types of interaction. So, for instance, no one would walk up to someone and spank them without asking (well, no one we would consider safe to be around), but lots of us will walk up to someone and give them a hug, or even just start a conversation without checking in, because these are very basic and seemingly unobtrusive things. For people who are neurodivergent, though, this can be really scary or challenging. For instance, a lot of people on the autism spectrum don't experience gentle touch as calming or friendly; it can register as something between a physical and emotional pain, and even threatening. If you want to hug me, for instance, you need to ask first, and you're likely to get a hug of the rub-crushing variety, because I find touch without intense pressure fairly unpleasant (so if you're in for a hug with me, you're in for a serious hug.)
So that's the reason for the title of this section… to assume makes… well, we all know what it makes. This is a communication issue because it basically is something that usually doesn't get communicated at all. There are a lot of social conventions that neurotypical people take for granted and, as a result, think are things that don't need to be communicated. So, for instance, say you're planning a big impact play scene with someone. You've talked about which toys work and which don't, where it's ok to hit or not, bruising, name-calling – all the fun-but-sometimes-scary stuff. But then you're playing with your neurodivergent partner, and in between heavy smacks, you give them a gentle caress. Whoops. You never talked about this, because we pretty much assume that if you've consented to have someone beat you, you've consented to them gently running their hand across your skin. That's not necessarily the case.
**When things go wrong (as they often will)…**
So at this point you've communicated as well as you can and in the best possible way, you've got your safewords lined up as well as your safeguards to your safewords, and you're playing… and it all goes wrong anyways. Sorry. That just happens sometimes. So what do we do?
The biggest thing is for us to be really open about this and not to lay blame. The most well-intentioned, consent-respecting top (or bottom) can trigger a totally unexpected emotional response in their partner. Assuming there wasn't actually a consent violation, what we need to do in this situation is avoid placing blame, and avoid feeling ashamed for what happened. It happens. Both parties are going to be worried and likely feel guilty about what took place; the neurodivergent partner because they're going to feel like Jesus Christ can't this stupid body or brain of mine get anything right?; and the neurotypical person for feeling like they've caused it. These are normal feelings, but they are also useless feelings. A surprising number of the feelings we experience day to day are utterly useless, but that's just being human.
So, remember when we talked right above about not making assumptions about what works or doesn't work for your partner even on stuff that feels really basic or obvious? This is the perfect time to put that into practice. Of course, you and your partner are going to need to communicate about what happened at a certain point. That point is not necessarily right now. We talk a lot in the scene about the importance of aftercare, but we make assumptions about what that means – blanket, water, cuddles, talk about the scene. Those work for a lot of people, but definitely no everyone.
Look, nobody likes to think before a scene that things are going to go horribly awry, but it's not something we can just ignore. You need a plan beforehand. You might even consider *practicing* the aftercare section before you ever play together, or at least writing up a list of how things will need to proceed in the case where one partner ends up not able to communicate their needs in that moment. If someone is having a panic attack or a meltdown, the last thing they want may be more sensory and auditory inputs. They may want to have a pair of noise-cancelling headphones so that they can cut down on the number of inputs they're experiencing. I've actually put a blindfold on before during aftercare after a particularly challenging scene rather than during the scene itself, because afterwards everything just feels very emotionally raw and exposed. The person may want to be left totally alone for a few minutes. Of course it's important to follow up later on, but the big thing here is basically this: the neurodivergent person needs to think about these needs and find a way to communicate them before play ever begins, and the neurotypical person needs to respect these needs, full stop. If your aftercare needs are incompatible with those of your partner, you need to know so that you can choose not to play or else choose to delegate. For instance, if I require that I be left alone after a hard scene but my top needs to be physically reassured, then we can choose not to play, or my top can find a surrogate cuddler to take care of their emotional and physical needs while I am incapacitated. As with everything else, though, the key is to never make your partner feel badly about the way they react to something during a scene, or the methods they use to cope.
**Spoons: Not just for soup and spankings anymore!**
Let's talk about spoons. Not the ones you use for soup or for beating your partner, but the ones that are part of a metaphor for disability. The spoon theory was developed by Christine Miserandino, a blogger with Lupus. She used it to explain to a friend what it was like to live with a chronic illness, and since then the disability community has expanded the metaphor to talk about all sort of chronic physical and mental conditions. Essentially, she handed her friend a handful of spoons and told her to talk through how a normal day would go, but for each activity she would lose a spoon. Her friend very quickly realized the importance of rationing these spoons. Something as "simple" as getting out of bed in the morning can take an entire spoon for someone who has health struggles, and your stash goes pretty quickly from there. On the other hand, certain activities can help replenish spoons – an afternoon nap, for instance, might provide the physical or emotional energy to go out and socialize that evening. More insidiously, some things, like alcohol – or even coffee – can give an illusion of spoons in order to get through a tough moment, but you end up running the next day at a spoon deficit (anyone who has ever survived exam period only to come down with the flu the minute they hand in their last paper knows exactly what I mean.) Everyone runs out of energy sometimes, obviously, but for people like me, that energy can be in very short supply.
For someone who is neurodivergent or who is experiencing mental illness, playtime may take a lot of spoons out of them – or it might help to replenish them. What's important to think about in terms of communication both before and after the scene is being clear with you partner about which you're experiencing. I say before OR after because you may not know beforehand which will happen – I might go into a scene thinking it's going to give me all sorts of energy for the week, but then the mood is off and I have to leave the party right afterwards because the scene took all of my spoons. It's particularly important for the other partner *not to take offense at this.*
Keep in mind, too, that spoons can be used up very quickly and in very unexpected ways. So, for instance, say you plan to play at a party. Getting ready for the party can take up a lot of spoons. Travelling can take up even more. For me, for instance, part of my calculation about the number of spoons I need for a party is not only the party itself, but how I get there (the metro eats a lot of spoons that I can save if someone gives me a ride), and the unfamiliarity of the location. It's really important before play to think about spoons; how many you have, what is likely to eat them up, and how to conserve them.
So keep in mind that you need to think about and communicate with your partner about what is going to affect your spoons so that you can make a plan together. For instance, maybe you can carpool to an event to safe a public transit spoon. Maybe you need to play early in the evening, when your energy is still very high or because playing gives you more spoons to work with, or maybe you need to play later on because after a scene you're utterly spoonless and will need to head home. These are things that neurodivergent people are having to think about constantly.
**Underwhelm me please! Why BDSM is not a competitive sport.**
I want to finish up by talking about something that is fairly universal, I just happen to think that it becomes even more dangerous when the parties involved aren't communicating well. This is maybe more of a cautionary tale than anything else, but it feels like a growing phenomenon amongst a lot of people I know, and I really want it to stop.
BDSM is not a competitive sport. There is a tendency I think, especially amongst people who are new to the scene, to always try to be more intense about their play. They see a picture on Fetlife of someone who took or gave a beating that left big bruises, and they say "I wish I could take a beating like that." They worry about their kinks not being kinky enough, that their pain isn't painful enough, etc.
Here's the thing – this is really a broader issue I see in the community. But speaking from my own experiences as someone who is neurodivergent, when I started out in the scene I fell particularly prey to that sentiment, because I felt like I had extra to prove. Look how much pain I can take without having a meltdown. Look how my disability doesn't hold me back. I crashed a lot. There was a lot of sub-drop going on, and I couldn't understand why.
The competitive culture in BDSM can be really toxic, and it can be extra toxic when people already feel insecure or self-conscious. When you are neurodivergent, in my experience, you can be extra vulnerable to that sort of mentality, because a lifetime of people either telling you that you're incapable of doing certain things or criticizing you for setting limits.
This isn't really a communication issue except for the fact that if someone comes at you with a comment like that, I strongly recommend communicating with them that they can fuck right off. The really important thing is to know and set your own limits and to never let someone shame you or shame someone else for whatever those limits are, no matter how unconventional they seem to be.
And that's the broad theme here, isn't it. I can have all of the communication tools above at my disposal, and still have a scene go awry if a partner doesn't take those needs seriously. I don't care how silly any of these needs seem; if you dismiss them, we won't be playing together, but worse, if you agree to them but then ignore them because you can't see how they're relevant, then I haven't really consented to the scene. It is, it should go without saying, more than acceptable to listen to a potential partner's needs and then to acknowledge that you are not able to fill them. But that needs to be communicated too.
With great love,