By: Catherine H. Knott, Ph.D.
High-functioning autism causes a complex array of neurologically related symptoms and associated behaviors, some more noticeable than others. For relatives and friends interacting with an autistic child daily, as well classmates and strangers who may be less forgiving, few behaviors are as confusing and annoying as the lack of awareness of nonverbal communication these children exhibit.
According to anthropologist Edward T. Hall, in any encounter, particularly intercultural or interethnic, the correct reading of the other person’s verbal and nonverbal behavior is basic to transactions at all levels (Hall, 1976, pp. 82-83). Children with autism, like people experiencing a foreign culture, may also have difficulty synchronizing their body movements with those of others, something that most of us do unconsciously (see Hall, 1976, Chapter 5). Failure to understand nonverbal behavior correctly and failure to give appropriate nonverbal signals in communication can cause serious social problems for people living in cultures different from their own–similar to the social problems experienced by a child with Asperger’s. These social problems can include exclusion, lost friendship opportunities, and even to unintentionally provoking aggressive assaults and bullying.
Non-Verbal Communication and Different Cultures
Non-verbal signals account for up to seventy percent of human communication, according to renowned linguist Erving Goffman. In addition, different patterns of nonverbal communication, though rarely spelled out for us verbally, distinguish different cultures. Edward T. Hall discusses these differences in his books, The Hidden Dimension and The Silent Language. He says people from Middle Eastern and Arab backgrounds stand closer to each other, finding it acceptable and even desirable to breathe on each other when talking. Most Americans of European descent are taught to stand approximately eighteen inches to two and a half feet apart from friends and associates while carrying on a conversation. Describing Latin American nonverbal communication, Hall writes, “In Latin America the interaction distance is much less than it is in the United States. . . . The result is that when they move close, we withdraw and back away. As a consequence, they think we are distant or cold, withdrawn and unfriendly” (Hall, 1973. p.185).
Eye contact patterns during conversation have extreme importance, setting the tone of friendliness, indifference, or hostility. Lack of eye contact can make many Americans suspect dishonesty, while eye contact that is too intense can imply hostility. Hall worked with a Middle Eastern man who said he was in constant hot water with Americans because of the way he looked at them without the slightest intention of offending–on several occasions barely avoided fights with American men. Hall says Arabs look at each other with an intensity that makes most Americans highly uncomfortable (Hall, 1969. p.161).
A Child with Autism May Feel Like He is Operating in a Different Culture
In some ways, a child or teenager with autism is always operating in a foreign culture. They do not process or absorb social interactions, including nonverbal communication, in the same way others do. As a result, their behavior often seems culturally and socially inappropriate.
In addition, the behavior of others can seem confusing and frustrating, as if he or she just doesn’t have the key to understanding communication patterns. He or she may feel like an American just arriving in Japan! The teen or young adult with autism, lacking the awareness of nonverbal communication allowing better social skills risks serious mistakes that can not only annoy and frustrate others, but cause lost jobs and relationships. The problem of nonverbal miscommunication for teens with autism can be severe and impact their adult world.
The following examples of teenagers with autism demonstrate some of the inappropriate nonverbal behaviors that commonly frustrate those around them (names have been changed).
Jared walks too close to other people, sometimes even bumping into them.
Samantha talks too loudly and right in people’s faces. She doesn’t sense when she has gone on too long, not noticing the people she is talking to wish to end the conversation.
Mark looks away from other people when they are talking to him, and sometimes ends conversations abruptly by walking off while the other person is still finishing a sentence. Sometimes he turns off lights in a room while people are still in it without recognizing that he needs to ask their permission.
Jonathan walks up to adults and right into their (European-American) personal space, inadvertently threatening them. He also accidentally knocks things off tables or other people’s desks, breaks dishes frequently, and trips over things because of his clumsiness. Worst of all, not realizing from the looks on people’s faces and other nonverbal cues, he doesn’t apologize, or signal with a glance, facial expression, or other acknowledgment that he knows he has made an error.
Helping Teens with Autism Understand Non-Verbal Communication
If your teen has autism syndrome, how can you help with the exasperating and difficult behaviors that stem from an innocent failure to read nonverbal communication? Fortunately, there are ways to overcome at least some of the most troubling behaviors and create a self-training system for greater success in social interactions. Because many teens with Asperger’s are also bright and good at systematic thinking, you can enlist their active participation in creating a system to help them help themselves.