Non-verbal communication in autism

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.

  1. 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.  
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

5 responses to “Non-verbal communication in autism

  1. One worrying thing I noticed. I used to take part in old amateur radio forums. What I noticed was if a member had won status and someone disagreed over a point, other members would practically abandon their former convictions and defend the individual who had the high status reputation. I had at the time shared an unorthodox method to measure radio waves mathematically. Admittedly, this was no major discovery but all my maths uses indivudual formulae. Why the group at the time became so opposed to this I couldn’t fathom. The saving grace is you can prove mathematics with figures but really I was amazed not one member there dared to disagree with the consensus. This problem you can see reflected in the film Contact with Jodie Foster.

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  2. A few comments maybe of interest. I started to think it may not be usual at all for autism spectrum people to be able to see themselves from a neurotypical perspective. However, it is possible. As in all cases, Asperger concluded his child patients can acquire some social knowledge by factual explanation. Going by my own experience, it was vital for me to understand human beings require social language in order to survive as a group. Most humans evolved to be part of a group or knitted community where all share a very large percentage of their individual life. Autistics or Schizoid types obviously lack this quality. They experience exclusion from communities for many reasons. In my case mostly it was stuff like not taking advice more directly and still choosing to be very individualistic.
    Over time, these repeated conflicts lead to deep anger and anti-social tendencies, as well as narcissism. However, if autistic people receive a logical explanation as to how pack mentality works, I believe it can help diffuse anger and frustration. Basically people evolved to be inclusive towards those who appear capable of harmonization and shared objective. So really, at this stage I feel I understand how all of this is basic evolution. Should we do away with these mechanisms altogether, survival of the species would be problematic.
    I now know I represent a category of higher functioning autistics who have more severe motor impairment and very weak emotional response. The soviet psychiatrists believed this group has either encephalitis in common or bacterial inflammation of the brain at early age. All I can say is only fairly recently did I truly understand “mimic” and “парамимия , which is where the facial expression doesn’t reflect a given emotion (found this in Suhareva’s essays).
    To understand “mimic” I carefully observed actors in TV shows and very carefully noted how their face muscles move in sympathy with communicative impulses, just like a speaker diaphragm reflects audio frequency signals. To me this was something I’d never noticed. People signal with their eyes, smile with ease and all their vocal tones and mimicry show modulation of signal.
    Once in a blue moon, I spot people who may not be fully on the autism spectrum but reveal borderline signs. These individuals seem to be talking to nobody in particular about what interests them. As if the subject was the most important thing for all concerned.


  3. Are there scientific studies concluding that social exclusion can lead autistic persons towards anti-social behaviour or narcissism?


  4. Sorry, not my field. However, in autism, any and every idea appears to have been pursued and tested. Would not be surprised if such a study was done, regardless of the conclusions.


    • Thanks! I asked because I saw just a few studies concluding that there are not difference in criminal convictions compared to general population, and another concluding that autistic people are uncapable of manipulation, and another one which not found cluster B comorbidities. But the previous comment makes me doubt and I just found a study (Haskins, Silva) concluding hfASDs could be overrepresented in criminal population.

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