A smile. A laugh. A tear. A hit. A bite. A point. A hug. Despite no words being spoken, communication is being conveyed with each of those actions. We are always communicating through our actions, our gestures, our expressions, and in our touch. Think of how someone might say “I love you” with a hug, “great job” with a high five, “I’m so mad” by stomping his feet, or “that hurt” by crying. These are examples of nonverbal communication.

Nonverbal communication is an essential part of how each person communicates in their daily lives with their peers, their friends, and their loved ones. This is especially true for our kiddos with autism. We often focus on giving kids expressive vocabulary to convey their thoughts and emotions but we cannot forget the importance of the subtleties and nuances of nonverbal communication which can make social communication a success or make it a difficulty.

There are a variety of types of nonverbal communication that help support a person’s spoken message. Here are a few that can a play an important role in social communication and social awareness:

  1. Facial Expressions: Consider the look on a person’s face; it’s one of the first things you notice before even speaking. You can detect the type of mood a person may be in based on their facial expression – happiness, frustration, anger, sadness. Many of these facial expressions are similar around the world so you can read a person’s emotion despite not being from the same country. We look not just at whether a person is smiling or frowning, but if their eyebrows are arched or furrowed, if they are sweaty or flushed, if they are grimacing or grinding their teeth. All of these can have different implications of emotions.
  2. Gestures: Common gestures include waving, pointing, or head nod/shake and these are often taught in early intervention as a way of responding and indicating. But what about in more subtle situations such as a person glancing at his watch to suggest that they are running out of time or someone holding their palm up to indicate “stop”. These may be commonplace in society but hard to acclimate to for a person with autism because they may have hidden meanings.
  3. Paralinguistics: We all know the parent tone of voice when we are in trouble. All a parent has to do is say our name in a certain tone of voice and we know to stop what we are doing “or else” (think Mom voice!). But for a person with autism that can be really hard to decipher. Varying the tone of voice, the loudness, the pitch, or the inflection can change the meaning of the message, even if that message is only one word. For example, if I am given the word “ball”, I can change my inflection to make if sound like I am asking a question about it, demanding it, or labeling it.
  4. Body Movement and Posture: Our perceptions of others can often be influenced by a person’s gait, how they stand, or how they sit. Think of a student sitting in class with his head down on the desk – he’s communicating a message pretty clearly. Or think of a person walking briskly to the bathroom – his message is being conveyed clearly as well.
  5. Proxemics: When a person decides how close or how far away to be from another, they are communicating their thoughts or feelings about that person. Maybe by getting closer to another person someone is trying to communicate feelings of interest. Or maybe by trying to standing further away a person is trying to avoid another’s bad breath.
  6. Haptics: Touch can be used to communicate a multitude of emotions such as affection and sympathy but is easily misunderstood for those on the autism spectrum. Touch can sometimes not be tolerated due to sensory sensitivities. For example, a person may want to give a hug to show affection but a person on the autism spectrum who cannot tolerate that type of touch may interpret a hug as a type of punishment. This may lead to miscommunication of different types of touch.

For those on the autism spectrum who have difficulties with the nuances of communication, this can lead to many communication breakdowns and a real struggle with social relationships. This is why it is so important to emphasize teaching nonverbal communication but also to individualize the teaching in accordance to the needs of and tolerance of the child. Not every person will like hugs or high fives or want to be closer to another person but it is still important to teach awareness of these skills in order to provide our kiddos with opportunities to flourish in social situations.

Before we can start teaching nonverbal communication, there are a few foundational skills we must make sure that our kiddos have or have an emergence of in order to benefit from direct teaching. Those skills include:

  • Joint attention: the shared focus of two individuals through eye-gaze, pointing, or other verbal or non-verbal indications. This is an important in developing perspective taking.
  • Comprehension of factual information: understanding of the concrete information such as labels, actions, and colors which is necessary prior to diving into teaching more abstract information
  • Theory of Mind: the ability to think about mental states including emotions, desires, and beliefs, both their own and others.

Once it’s determined that a child has developed these skills or has an appropriate emergence of these skills, the team should begin focusing on teaching nonverbal communication in a direct manner. A great place to start is with teaching items discretely and then moving into a more naturalistic environment. For example, we can teach a child to decipher a facial expression through picture cards in an isolated setting, then move to picture books and work on deciphering emotions of characters. Once the child shows mastery with those situations, the child can work on interpreting emotions of adults during contrived situations and then finally move on to his peers during less structured situations such as lunch or recess. This sequence can be applied for many of the nonverbal skills and can move at any pace in accordance with the child’s rate of acquisition.

There is no real hierarchy of skills that can or should be taught; it should be according to whatever is most meaningful to the child at that moment and according to what his or her present levels show. However, in younger years we often see emotions, gestures, and proxemics being taught while in older years haptics, body movements, and paralinguistics are taught. Again, these skills should be based on the needs of the individual and should be discussed with the child’s caregivers and team to determine what is most impactful and relevant to the child’s entire day.

It’s extremely important to practice generalization with these skills and move into a more naturalistic environment, when appropriate, so that the child is getting as much real-life practice and feedback as possible. This will only allow for more opportunities to develop more successful interactions in the school, in the home, and in the community where all of the natural opportunities are taking place.

Understanding and teaching nonverbal communication will increase the ability of children on the autism spectrum to understand the world around them in a more meaningful way. It will allow them, and you, to enjoy the benefits of a hug, a smile and a laugh.

For more information on The Shafer Center contact [email protected]m or call 410-517-1113.