By: Catherine H. Knott, Ph.D.
Asperger’s syndrome causes a complex array of neurologically related symptoms and associated behaviors, some more noticeable than others. For relatives and friends who have social interactions with the child with Asperger’s on a daily basis, as well for classmates and strangers who may be less forgiving, few behaviors are as confusing and annoying as the lack of awareness of nonverbal communication that many children with Asperger’s 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 Asperger’s, 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, in ways similar to the social problems experienced by a child with Asperger’s. These social problems can range from exclusion, to lost friendship opportunities, and even to unintentionally provoking aggressive assaults.
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 shows that people from Middle Eastern and Arab backgrounds stand closer to each other when talking, finding it acceptable and even desirable to breathe on each other when talking, whereas most Americans of European descent are taught not to breathe on people while talking to them, and to stand approximately eighteen inches to two and a half feet apart from friends and associates while carrying on a conversation. In more formal conversations, such as in a business meeting with unfamiliar people, they stand even further apart. 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; he had 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). 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).
In some ways, it is as if the child or teenager with Asperger’s is always operating in a foreign culture. Because people with Asperger’s do not seem to process or absorb social interactions, including nonverbal communication, in the same way that people without Asperger’s do, they do not learn to read nonverbal cues as well as other people, and their behavior thus often seems culturally and socially inappropriate. Likewise, for the teenager with Asperger’s, 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 who has just arrived in Japan! The teen or young adult with Asperger’s, lacking the awareness of nonverbal communication that would allow him or her to build better social skills, thus risks serious mistakes that can not only annoy and frustrate those around him or her, but can also cause lost jobs and relationships. The problem of nonverbal miscommunication for teens with Asperger’s can be severe, and has impacts that reach into the adult world; behaviors that in a child seemed merely puzzling or odd can seem threatening or offensive in a young adult.
The following examples of teenagers with Asperger’s 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 that the people she is talking to are giving her nonverbal cues that show that they 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 that this is not regularly acceptable behavior, he doesn’t apologize, or signal with a glance, facial expression, or other acknowledgment that he knows he has made an error.
If your teen has Asperger’s syndrome, how can you help with the exasperating and difficult behaviors that stem from an innocent failure to read all-important nonverbal communication? Fortunately, there are ways to overcome at least some of the most troubling behaviors, and to create a self-training system that will work for a life-time of greater success in social interactions. And 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.