When I was about seven I really got into reading. I could tell from the context of the books that other human beings were doing something I hadn’t come across or understood existed. They were communicating information through their body gestures, eyes and facial expressions. A couple of years later my mum came home with a book about body language. My family are all fairly Autie so I don’t think any of us had really paid attention to body language – ours or others’. At the time I had no point of reference for the differences I experienced around non-verbal communication. I just thought it was a skill I hadn’t acquired, like playing cricket or reading French.
When I was diagnosed as Autistic in 1994, at the age of 20 the most confusing part of the assessment was trying to work out a sequence of cartoons in which the characters did not speak. I thought the whole thing was impossible to decipher and that surely nobody else could figure out the story either. I couldn’t imagine how anybody could understand a narrative based on what the characters were doing if you couldn’t read the words they were saying! When I was diagnosed I was told that non-verbal communication was something which Autistic people often have difficulty with.
I am now 42 and I still struggle to work out what people’s non-verbal communication means. I have an intuitive, empathic sense of people’s feelings which I often experience but it is based in feel and sense rather than looking at their face or body. I can only tell emotions and thoughts from looking at someone if they are actually crying (sad) or yelling (angry). Other than that your guess is as good as mine!
Even now after many years of trying to learn how to ‘do’ non-verbal communication I have limited skills at it. I can’t tell much from someone’s face mid-conversation. I can only really identify facial expressions when watching a movie many times over and linking what is happening in the film to the character’s emotions as expressed on their face. Symbols of emotions such as emojis are tricky too. I can only work out the smiley face, winky face, angry, crying and surprised emojis (so there are lots of smileys on my social media posts!) I am just as happy to have a conversation not looking at the other person although have learned that non-autistic people struggle with this so I look in the general direction of their face – when I remember! In terms of body language, unless someone is leaning right over me or physically assaulting me, I’m never going to figure out what they are expressing.
Like many other Autistics I am resourceful and quite intelligent so I can work out someone’s feelings through listening to what they say and ‘reading between the lines’ and understanding context. In practical terms at this point in my life, I don’t think my inability to understand non-verbal cues makes much difference to my ability to understand other people and where they are coming from.
Difficulty with non-verbal communication is not intentional on the part of the Autistic person. It is part of the wiring of our brains. Some people can learn to recognise different expressions and body language and others can’t. It isn’t necessarily a deficit in and of itself but it can result in some difficulties when communicating with non-autistic people.
There are some issues around not understanding or being able to interpret non-verbal cues. Autistic people can experience at best surprise and at worst outright discrimination due to their difficulties picking up on non-verbal cues.
Non-autistic people are the majority in terms of neurology. I will note that being non-autistic does not guarantee privilege or the ability to live well in the world. There are non-autistic homeless people. Non-autistic people can have mental illness or belong to another group which experiences disadvantage. But as he neurological majority, most non-autistic people do not question that their form of communication is the ‘correct’ one. They may be unaware that a large section of society interprets communication differently. So when faced with an Autistic person they can think we are very odd indeed. If your reality does not include knowledge of different ways of doing things, it is probably going to be hard to understand or respect their different approach.
Another issue for Autistic people is that we can feel our not understanding face expressions and body language is a fault or failing. I have certainly felt that in the past. It isn’t a failing at all. It is a difference. It is he result of part of how my brain is wired. It is a ‘failing’ in the same way my brown hair or the size of my feet is. As Autistic people we can be criticised for things we can’t change which can make us feel self-conscious and that our reality is ‘wrong’. Many Autistic people try to look and act like non-autistic people in order to be accepted which can be really damaging to self-worth and a sense of identity. Different is OK. Issues do not really arise due directly to someone being different. The issues tend to arise when others either do not understand or actively discriminate based on that difference.
One good thing about being Autistic is that we can help others to understand diversity through talking about our own experiences. By opening somebody’s mind to the idea that not everyone interprets non-verbal communication they way they do can open the doors to other understanding and inclusion.
I used to find my difficulties with understanding all those physical gestures and facial contortions which non-autistic people communicate meaning through quite disabling. However, like many Autistic people, I have developed effective strategies which means I can usually have some idea of what the person means. I have no idea what my now body language and face might be saying so I try hard to use clear verbal communication while talking to people. While my being able to use my ‘do what works’ skills to manage difficulties, it is also useful to build understanding in the wider world that not everyone ‘gets’ non-verbal communication so assuming they can will be unhelpful.