Autistic children struggle with body language and non-verbal communication

Scientists have found that children with autism miss out on aspects of communication that are non-verbal such as body language and facial expressions.

Research conducted by Durham and Northumbria Universities was presented on September 12 at the annual British Science Association festival.   This work was published in the journal of Developmental Sciences on March 15. They found that people tend to look at people when in conversation with them but look away to process the information they have just taken in.

The team looked at children with a number of autism spectrum disorders and Williams syndrome  a rarer disorder than autism but has the polar opposite effect on social cognition. Williams syndrome children are hyper-social, empathic and seek out interaction with other people.

The research looked at the differences in the way a group of children tackled maths problems without guidance, or whilst being asked to maintain eye contact with an invigilator while they were asking a question.

All children made errors when forced to maintain eye contact when providing an answer.

Researchers concluded that their results showed a distinct difficulty to remain focused on the invigilator whilst being asked to answer a question, particularly in children with ASD who struggled to maintain contact for a short period of time.

Debbie Riley, lead author thought it an important message to present educators and families saying:

“One of the really important things for teachers to be aware of is that we shouldn’t expect children to keep looking at us when were trying to think.

If teachers work with pupils with autism they also need to be aware that these children might be missing important non-verbal cues. We could encourage them to look at us when they’re listening, but we shouldn’t get that mixed up when they’re thinking.”

Researchers were quite surprised that children look away when they’re thinking and often stare at people when talking to them.

When talking and listening people get non-verbal cues from areas other than speech that autistics children miss. To demonstrate her point , Ms Riley asked an adult volunteer to work out a maths problem at the festival and as soon as the maths became complex, he averted his gaze.