We live in an expressive culture. When talking, we tend to move our hands, modulate our voice, and express our own idiosyncratic gestures. Talking without gesturing is virtually impossible for some people. It is often said jokingly that the best way to keep some people quiet is to hold their hands down. In the next few paragraphs, I would like to approach some of the problems with nonverbal communication that apply to autism spectrum disorder (ASD). In particular, I have opted to expand on some of the seldom discussed problems associated with nonverbal communication. The idea for this blog is to foster understanding about some autistic behaviors and to prevent misconceptions.
- While engaging in a conversation, it is not unusual for neurotypicals to lie. This response may be an instinctive reaction for inclusion in a group. Alternatively, white lies may offer an agreeable fib for polite purposes or may serve to emphasize a particular point of view. On such occasions we tend to disclose the real intent of our lie through gestures. Without the gestures such “lies” may be misleading. This ability to distinguish truth from lies is diminished in people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This inability to make inferences about deceit makes autistic individuals more susceptible to manipulation and exploitation.
- Speaking often requires for us to wear our emotions on our sleeves. Gestures indicate not only our ideas but also our inner emotions. In our culture, patterns of nonverbal communication appear to be gender related. Boys usually cower from spontaneous outbursts of emotions and exaggerated gestures. No such restrictions apply to females. Knowing and using these gestures allows you to flourish in our culture, distinguishes you from other people, and may even make you more popular within your own social group. Deficits in nonverbal expression may be at the crux of communication problems in autism. Teachers often find that nonverbal communication is one of the hardest things to convey in autism social skills groups, especially when rules may vary according to gender.
- People say that talk is cheap. I have to wonder if this is the case as much of the richness of our expressions comes from nonverbal communication. Indeed, for many neurotypicals nonverbal communication manifests aspects of their personality while giving clues as to their state of mind. A telephone call from a friend may be judged as either banter or alarming depending on the tone of their voice. During a telephone conversation these nonverbal elements allow us to create a mental picture of the speaker, to imagine some of their character traits, and to formulate an idea as to both their level of education as well as age. All of this information is often lost to an autistic individual. This does not denote that they are hard of hearing or are not paying attention; rather, it is difficult for them to acquire a gestalt out of the multiple subtle clues of nonverbal communication.
- Some aspects of our nonverbal communication involve greeting norms. Fist bumps, for example, are the way the younger generation distinguishes itself from the previous “high-five” generation. Autistic individuals, in my experience, only rarely develop spontaneous greeting norms particular to their age and culture. They tend to lack greeting norms that identifies them as members of a group. In this way deficits in nonverbal communication may help ostracize autistic individuals by making them look different from other individuals within their social group.
- In a conversation, rapport between individuals is usually signaled by mirroring their movements. People that agree and like each other will nod their heads or rock their bodies back and forth in synchrony. Indeed, a successful salesperson will try to mirror these movements deliberately. Autistic individuals have difficulties in mirroring movements. This deficit may provide an erroneous impression about your overall rapport with an autistic individual during a conversation.
- There may be some legal implications to the nonverbal communication deficits observed in autism. In testimony before a jury, a person who lacks inflection in his tone may be considered as socially deviant or a liar. Lack of nonverbal communication can be taken to mean someone who is pokerfaced; that is, someone who is purposefully trying to conceal something. Usually we accompany our speech with gestures that illustrate our cadence. However, repetitive movements may interfere with this judgement. It may be confused with someone being fidgety or anxious; a person who has something to hide. This is specially the case for “manipulators”, aka those autistic individuals who tend to touch themselves (e.g., patting their chests or legs). Furthermore, not looking at the eyes of a person while talking may convey the subtle impression of a lie or deception.
Gestures of the face and movement of the hands during normal speech are meant to supplement the spoken words. Changes in pitch, amplitude (loudness) and rate of speech may denote fear, happiness, or anxiety. As such, these changes in nonverbal communication may serve as an expression of how a person feels at a particular moment. The inability to express many of these inner emotions through gestures is a core deficit of ASD. Autistic individuals are cognizant of individual aspects of nonverbal communication but often cannot piece them together. Fortunately, communication strategies and social skill training may serve to enrich the quality of life of an autistic individual.