April is Autism Awareness Month, and as is the case, we thought we’d shed a little light on the topic of body language. First, what is body language? Body language is defined as the process of communicating nonverbally through conscious or unconscious gestures and movements. Second, there are many different types of unconscious body language such as: facial expressions, body movements and posture, gestures, eye contact, and touch. Our body language and ability to identify it play a big role in the lives of averagely-abled people and those with autism. In the not-so-distant past, studies were conducted that said that an individual with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) had more difficulty identifying and understanding the body language of those around them.
However, in the last few years, new studies have shown that individuals with autism don’t always have issues with understanding what someone’s posture is indicating. In fact, someone with ASD is just as likely to capably read body language as someone who isn’t on the spectrum. So if it is not a problem, why are we discussing it?
Because what individuals with ASD do struggle with is identifying body language because they don't use it themselves. Also, they tend to struggle with emotion based solely on facial expressions or eye contact. For example, people with autism spectrum disorder have a difficult time making relevant facial expressions at the correct times. Instead, they tend to stay expressionless or generate looks that are hard to interpret. Additionally, individuals with ASD, have more trouble making more spontaneous facial expressions than more intentional facial expressions. This is because in general, people with ASD have a hard time understanding how they communicate with and relate to other people, and also have difficulty understanding the world around them. With this being said, an individual with autism and an average individual express themselves in a different way and may not understand each other’s emotions unless the non-ASD individual understands how to “read the language” of autism.
To better understand why body language is often an issue associated with autism, it’s important to understand what autism actually is. Originally, autism was seen as a distinct diagnosis in and of itself. However, in 2013 the American Psychiatric Association determined that autism encompassed a spectrum of disorders, hence the common phrase “being on the spectrum.”
Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that causes an individual to communicate, behave, and interact with others a little differently. Autism isn’t caused by any one thing, and there is no cure. That being said, the severity of the symptoms can range from mild to extreme. Most people begin presenting with symptoms within the first year of their lives and getting an early diagnosis can greatly improve an individual’s ability to live independent lives. Behavioral therapy and medication for specific symptoms are common treatments for someone living with an autism spectrum disorder.
The symptoms of autism are usually broken down into three categories: Social skills, communication skills, and behavioral patterns. Not all individuals with ASD necessarily have every symptom since this disorder is on a spectrum basis.
Now that we have a better understanding of the challenges that an individual with autism faces, let’s take a closer look at body language. There are so many different things that we convey in subtle ways when we interact with others, or while in public. On the other side of that same coin, we can learn a lot about how people are feeling based on their expression, posture, and other identifying markers. For example, facial expressions play a large part in how we communicate with each other, specifically what we do with our eyes, lips, arms, hands, and feet. We’re always communicating something, whether we realize it or not.
Body language is one of the most complex communication skill sets we develop, but we do it naturally as part of growing up. For someone with autism who has trouble interpreting some of these important body cues, communicating can be very frustrating. And like many of us, when we try something many times but feel like we’re failing to get our point across and give up, individuals with autism can become quickly frustrated when they fail to correctly interpret a co-worker, friend, or family member. There are few things more frustrating than feeling misunderstood.
Even people who don’t live with an ASD often practice how to communicate with their bodies. If you want to exude more confidence, you might want to practice confident stances and stand in the mirror miming a conversation. In many ways, this is how someone with autism gets better at communication. Where speaking and making eye contact might come easily to some, for an individual with autism, these can be major challenges that they spend more time practicing either with family and friends or with trained behavior therapists.
Practicing these skills often includes a variety of different components like visual teaching tools (flashcards, workbooks, etc) and role-playing scenarios to help a person with autism work on these habits in a safe environment where they won’t get funny looks if they fail to get it right the first time.
The Baddour Center is a colorful community of people with varying ability levels. We know that everyone has their strengths and weaknesses. As the caretakers of the people you love, we know how important it is that everyone is included. We hope that you join us in celebrating Autism Awareness Month, and remember to let your true colors shine! For more information about the services we offer, reach out today!