August 10, 2015

It’s something in the way you move – autism and interpreting body language

Reading in ADN of a recent Australian study which suggests that children with autism don’t have problems interpreting body language, I wasn’t unduly surprised. I’ve always suspected that the problem lies more in processing that information and choosing an appropriate response rather than knowing what a facial expression or gesture means.

I sometimes think of autism as being without an appropriate filter on the world – anything can get through if you’re not careful so that apart from processing, interpreting and responding, we’re often exposed to a lot more information too.  I’m not psychic but all my life I seem to have had a radar which picks up on unspoken energy fields around people and animals, a hyper awareness which makes me permanently on edge and anxious unless I manage to periodically tune out.  Not having the best of social skills, I have to work extra hard to respond appropriately but this is draining and depleting and I would often prefer to shut down and be alone.

It is the same reason why I (and perhaps many more autistic people) may be unwilling to share time, space and interests – other people may be too distracting to be around, bringing too much information to interpret and respond to.  The problem is not that we are not picking up on body language but that perhaps we are picking up on it too much – overloaded by information rather than underwhelmed by it.  Doing something alone is often relatively calm and relaxing and a much needed break from too much stimulus.

Perhaps picking up on unspoken communication is a more basic instinct, one which precedes social interpretation, perhaps it is part of a primitive survival mechanism but I do not think this is unique to me.  When I work with young adults with autism and limited verbal communication I’m often struck by how little actual language we need to communicate.  I’ve watched in awe as walking down the street with a particular young man,  his own body language perfectly mirrored mine, how he increased or slowed his pace in perfect time with me, seemed to know instinctively when I was going to stop or when I had noticed something else going on.  His focus on me was total, his interpretation faultless.  I in turn mirrored his body language back and at one point we turned and grinned at each other – this was fun, communication without stress, a relaxed comforting space for both of us.

As Science listens to and observers more of how autistic people experience the world instead of telling them how they experience it, we might be able to dispense with a few more myths and actually concentrate on what is really going on.  It is only when Science measures up the actual experience of people with autism with research that it is going to be meaningful and have a hope of getting it right.

About the author 

Susan Dunne

Susan Dunne has Aspergers and works with young autistic adults. She is the author of “A Pony in the Bedroom” (Jessica Kingsley 2015), an insider account of an autistic person’s relationship with horses. She lives in Yorkshire and has 4 horses and runs a pony therapy service.

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It’s something in the way you move –