Autistic in NYC

Resources and new ideas for the autistic adult community in the New York City metro area.

"Nonviolent Communication" (NVC)


"Nonviolent Communication" (NVC) is a specific methodological approach to both assertiveness and active listening.

I'm inclined to recommend NVC more to trusted close NT friends or family members of autistic people (for those of us lucky enough to have such people in our lives) than to autistic people ourselves. Most autistic people are probably better off learning other styles of assertiveness and active listening that don't emphasize feelings.

There are nevertheless some important lessons (such as the distinction between "needs" and "strategies") that autistic people can learn from the NVC paradigm, even if we don't practice the full NVC methodology.

NVC has some big pitfalls when used inappropriately, and it has key aspects that are difficult or impossible for many (though not all) autistic people. Some sources of difficulty for autistic people are:

  1. NVC emphasizes feelings and universal human needs, both one's own and the other person's. The emphasis on feelings makes NVC hard for many autistic people, many of whom have alexithymia (difficulty naming feelings) to one degree or another.

    However, at least some alexithymic people can learn to name their feelings if they are fortunate enough to have a trusted non-alexithymic friend or family member willing to talk to them in detail about both one's own and the other person's feelings. To that end, it might be helpful for the friend or family member to use an enhanced variant of NVC -- involving not just "feelings words" but detailed descriptions of what the feelings feel like -- as discussed further down on this page in the section on More about alexithymia. Perhaps this might be especially useful for NT's who feel frustrated by a lack of emotional awareness on the part of an autistic spouse or romantic partner.

  2. Another problem with NVC, for many autistic people, is the assumption that human needs are "universal," i.e. that all people have the same needs. A big part of NVC is distinguishing between our needs themselves and our "strategies" toward the satisfaction of our needs. And it is generally assumed that human needs (e.g. the needs listed here) are universal, whereas strategies can be individual. But most autistic people -- due to sensory issues, attention issues, etc. -- have some highly individual, idiosyncratic needs that most other people don't have.

    Many of our sensory issues can be described as special cases of a more "universal" need for physical comfort. Likewise, a need to work around our attention issues can be described in terms of a more "universal" need for effectiveness. So NVC, if practiced in its pure form either by an autistic person or by a neurotypical person communicating with an autistic person, would have to include the extra step of relating the autistic person's unique individual needs to the corresponding "universal" needs.

    But it must still be recognized that our unique individual needs are indeed needs, not mere "strategies."

    It must also be recognized that an autistic person may experience various "universal" needs either more or less intensely than, or otherwise differently from, the way they are typically experienced by most NT's. (For example, many autistic people have a greater need for order and stability than most NT's do.)

    If an autistic person's individual neurological issues are recognized as needs, and if there is a mutual understanding, by both parties, of any differences in how the relevant "universal" needs are experienced, then a mutually-agreed-upon distinction between needs and strategies could indeed be very helpful in conflict resolution, as detailed in the video listed here, even without the rest of the NVC methodology.

  3. NVC, if done wrong or in an inappropriate context, can all too easily come across as condescending and/or invasive, or like a bad psychotherapist wannabe. So, for those of us who already have a tendency to say inadvertantly annoying or offensive things, attempting to learn NVC would likely be just another way to be inadvertantly annoying or offensive.

Because of these issues, most autistic people, especially those with alexithymia, are probably better off practicing other forms of assertiveness and active listening that don't emphasize feelings as much as NVC does.

But I nevertheless think that NVC -- with the autistic-friendly enhancements of (a) recognizing our individual neurological issues as first-class needs and (b) recognizing any differences in how we experience the "universal" needs -- can be valuable for trusted NT family members, close friends, and especially spouses and romantic partners of autistic people, as a way to improve communication and mutual empathy with their autistic loved ones. Additionally, for those of us whose alexithymia consists of simple ignorance of what various feelings are called, it seems to me that a trusted friend or family member, using an enhanced variant of NVC, can help them acquire an emotional vocabulary.

Learning and practicing NVC can also be helpful for some autistic people themselves -- those of us whose social impairments do not include alexythymia and who have developed enough social awareness to know when it is and is not appropriate to talk about feelings and needs.

As for the rest of us, it behooves us to learn at least enough about NVC so we can recognize it and respond appropriately when other people are using it with us, and so we can recommend the methodology to any trusted NT (or at least non-alexythymic) family members, friends, and/or spouses/partners whom we may be fortunate enough to have.

NVC: Brief outlines and reference material

Below are some pages on the website of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication:

Below are some pages on the website of the main Center for Nonviolent Communication:

Below are some pages on the website of the New York Center for Nonviolent Communication:

NVC: More how-to, from various sources

Pitfalls of inappropriate use of NVC

Articles about NVC pitfalls, by NVC practitioners and/or trainers:

Articles about NVC pitfalls, by non-practitioners:

Note that most (though not all) of the pitfalls mentioned by the non-practitioners are also addressed by the practitioners/trainers, as mistakes likely to be made by novice practitioners.

NVC for autistic people

More about alexithymia

Back in 1992, Jim Sinclair, one of the main founders of the autistic rights movement, wrote1:

... I had a friend who, with no formal background in psychology or special education, figured out for herself some guidelines for relating to me. She told me what they were: never to assume without asking that I thought, felt, or understood anything merely because she would have such thoughts, feelings, or understanding in connection with my circumstances or behavior; and never to assume without asking that I didn't think, feel, or understand anything merely because I was not acting the way she would act in connection with such thoughts, feelings, or understanding. In other words, she learned to ask instead of trying to guess.


I finally started learning to talk about feelings when I was twenty-five. I knew someone then who taught me a vocabulary. She didn't know that was what she was doing. She didn't do it because she wanted to help an autistic person learn to "deal with" feelings. She just happened to be someone who talked a lot about her own feelings. She identified what each feeling was called, and where she felt it, and how it felt, and what her face and body were doing about it. When I asked questions about what the words meant, she explained. When she asked questions about my feelings, and I asked for clearer definitions of what she was asking, she clarified the questions until I could answer them. That's all it took to get started; once I realized that words could be used for subjective experiences too, I took off again the way I did with idea-words when I was twelve.

Jim Sinclair's friend was probably not practicing the NVC methodology per se, but did practice at least one of the key aspects of NVC. She also described feelings in much more detail than the NVC methodology calls for. Such detail may be needed when practicing NVC with an alexithymic person -- or at least with one whose alexithymia is rooted in ignorance of the names of one's feelings.

I should point out that simple ignorance of the names of feelings isn't the only reason why a person, autistic or otherwise, might have alexithymia. Another possible reason might be attention focus issues. Some autistic people might be so intently focused on the thing they are having feelings about that they just don't notice their own feelings about it, beyond a simple categorization of good, bad, or neutral. Such people might be able to identify their feelings in more detail in retrospect, though not in the moment. I'm often like this.

Another possible reason for alexithymia might be repression of one's feelings. This is especially likely in autistic people who do a lot of heavy-duty masking, or in people (autistic or otherwise) who have experienced childhood trauma. Traditionally, many psychotherapists have assumed that repression is the only cause of alexithymia, which is not true.

For more about alexithymia, see the SnakeDancing Tumblr blog post #Aspergers & Emotion: Alexythemia, January 7, 2013. (See also #Aspergers & Emotion: The Great Stone Face, March 2, 2012, on the same blog.)

Psychotherapists often try to help their clients identify feelings. If you have alexithymia but are fortunate enough to have a non-alexithymic close friend or family member whom you trust, that person, practicing an enhanced version of NVC or some similar methodology, might be able to help you identify feelings better than a therapist can. Why? (1) You can spend more time with the friend or family member than you can with your therapist. (2) Friends or family members can talk to you about their own feelings as well as yours, whereas therapists are supposed to maintain a professional demeanor and (for the most part, at least) keep their own feelings out of the picture.


  1. Bridging the Gaps: An Inside-Out View of Autism (Or, Do You Know What I Don't Know?) by Jim Sinclair. Ooriginally published in High-Functioning Individuals with Autism, edited by Eric Schopler and Gary B. Mesibov. Plenum Press, New York, 1992)

    (For some historical context, see Historicizing Jim Sinclair's "Don't Mourn for Us": A Cultural and Intellectual History of Neurodiversity's First Manifesto by Sarah Pripas-Kapit, Autistic Community and the Neurodiversity Movement , 08 November 2019.)

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