Dialects of nonverbal language.


(Inspired by a recent discussion with Joel on this blog.)

I took a class once where we learned how nonverbal language can vary from culture to culture, both in terms of intonation and body language. The same seems true from brain type to brain type.

I’ve known for awhile that autistic people tend overall to make more sense to me than non-autistic people. This is an overall tendency though. Some are this way more than others.

Joel Smith is a really good example of someone whose body language is almost completely comprehensible to me, and vice versa. We were instantly like open books to each other, in a way so extreme as to be uncomfortable. Too many layers: What we are feeling, what we feel about that, what we want to be feeling, what we want to look like we’re feeling, all in a big jumble. As Joel said, it’s like being naked, and not always in a pleasant way. I began to understand why there are so many polite conventions among non-autistic people built around sparing each other’s feelings: They can often see all that about each other, and it must be a protection and a politeness to avoid being too invasive.

Phil Schwarz is someone I can read somewhat, but not the way Joel and I can read each other. I can read Phil because I grew up around my brother, and my brother and Phil have a lot in common in terms of certain intonation and movement patterns. Their bodies look nothing alike, but something about their mannerisms and speech has a likeness. I have met several other people who fall into this general category.

And there seem to be a lot of different “dialects” of body language among autistic people in general, independent of the assorted cultural overlays we also develop. I also find that these boundaries often totally defy the standard categorizations of autistic people, whether HFA/LFA or autism/AS. I find this interesting, when not finding it too much like nudity.


About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Developmentally disabled, physically and cognitively disabled. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died in 2014 and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

46 responses »

  1. This isn’t really the same thing, but I remember watching a video you made in which your cat came up and you kissed foreheads with it and I thought “yay! Another person who says hello to her cat like that.”
    I’m hopeless at reading anybody’s body language though, I had to be specifically told at 17 that folding arms could mean “keep away from me”. I just thought they were comfy like that.

  2. Could you describe the categories? I notice so much variation from person to person that I’m not able to group them into categories. I see similarities, but can’t percieve any organizational structure behind the variations among people.

  3. I think this is something many autistics notice, and it doesn’t seem to be something Nts really understand. Because we don’t understand their comunication well, they assume we utterly lack “comunication skills” in general- but actually, it’s just that we lack NT comunication skills. We have autistic comunication skills. This is something I’d like to see more understanding & study of from NTs.

  4. “I began to understand why there are so many polite conventions among non-autistic people built around sparing each other’s feelings: They can often see all that about each other, and it must be a protection and a politeness to avoid being too invasive.”

    Oh god, that’s scary. That means that, since i’m not “obviously” autistic for most NT people to look at (although neurodiverse people and those very familiar with autism can often tell), most NT people must be thinking they can see my feelings all the time, when in fact, in all probability, they are seeing something with no relation at all to the actual reality of what i’m feeling…

    Interestingly, i have one friend (the longest-running close friend i have ever had, which probably has something to do with it) who claims that ze can read my facial expressions, despite them being different to those of an NT person feeling the same emotion – according to hir, i have my own set of usually-consistent facial expressions, which is slightly scary to me, as, as far as I can tell, my facial expressions bear no meaningful relation to my actual emotions unless i’m making a conscious effort to use the NT-style expressions i’ve memorised…

    I usually tell people that my body language and facial expressions bear no meaningful relation to what i’m actually feeling or thinking, even when that’s not strictly true, because it’s somewhat easier to explain – open-minded NTs can, IME, get their head round completely disregarding my body language and paying attention only to my words (luckily my verbal communication, despite the odd bit of echolalia, is usually very literal and accurate in the stereotypically “Aspie” way) easier than they can having to learn a whole new set of mappings between bodily expression and emotion in addition to the one they’re familiar with – especially when I don’t always know myself if there is any meaningful relation between them…

    My friend (who *possibly* isn’t quite NT hirself, although ze definitely isn’t autistic) generally agrees with me that the world would be a better place if it was culturally normal to take people at their word, rather than attempting to read their body language (and for me, there’s arguably even an element of physical violation in the idea of “reading” someone’s body language without their consent), ie assuming that verbal communication takes priority over non-verbal, and is honest and meant literally unless proven otherwise – but then, i don’t know how that might impact on non-verbal autistics – would be really interested in your views on that…

    (BTW, Amanda, as this is my first post on your new blog, i’d like to say that your blog is my main inspiration (yeah, i know, horrible word, but i can’t think of a better one) for starting blogging, and i think your writing in general is some of the best and most important on the entire internet… i’m going to post on my blog about how the internet helped me towards an “out” autistic identity, in which your writing played a big part, soon… :) )

  5. observer: I wish I could. I just know that Joel and I overlap in a particular way, and Phil and my brother overlap in a totally different way, and so forth. I don’t know what exact attributes cause this.

  6. Luai: While I was at MIT, the non-autistic people who worked there saw that I could tell when Phil Schwarz was overloaded and stressed out, and why he was overloaded and stressed out, when they couldn’t tell anything of the kind. They seemed amazed by this. I hope it does get more study.

  7. As for categories, everyone seems to want to seperate people into Green Auties, Red Auties, and Blue Auties. People invent whole classifications schemes to do exactly that, even when the difference they find may not actually imply anything beyond that specific difference.

    Autistics vary in personality and other characteristics, just like everyone does. That doesn’t necessarily make two people who vary in some given characteristic into members of two different autistic categories.

    I’m still waiting for people to come up with good categories. I haven’t seen that yet though. I think Michelle is the closest though (I only have some concerns over what she calls the categories – I think redefining descriptive language when it means lots of things to lots of people – in this case “Autistic” versus “Asperger’s” – is a dangerous thing to do, since it promotes more misunderstanding than a new term would.

  8. I can write majority-consensus body language easily enough because I’ve read many books in which a character folds arms to mean “keep away,” and so forth. In real life, though, I often don’t notice such things because I focus mainly on the content of what the other person is saying; and sometimes I fold my own arms just because it’s comfy, without thinking about how others will perceive that.

    There are a few people whose body language I can read fairly accurately, but I’m not quite sure how to describe the differences.

  9. I kiss my cat too. Especially right when I wake up and go to greet him in the morning. He rubs noses with me, which I think is cool……..

    abfh, I fold my arms too because its comfortable. I even walk around like that……..and I hug myself tightly…….not sure who does that more, myself or Athena. And it doesn’t matter, it just happens.


  10. I am reposting a comment from someone called “Daeley” because it’s returning an internal server error when I try to approve it. I didn’t write this, Daeley did:

    Hi, this is my first time reading this blog. I found it last night.

    I think that NT’s may interpret certain stims both vocal and nonvocal inaccurately due to the fact that they have probably never experienced sensory overstimulation in ways in which we do. No matter how much you read about how sensory integration works to truly understand how the senses are perceived and what overload is, you pretty much have to experience it first hand. People can guess at what noises, touches, sights, etc are bothersome…but they will miss alot due to the fact that some they cannot even perceive. So you are in an environment that is overstimulating along with the other person on the spectrum…you say you can read their body language…but in fact isn’t it that you are also experiencing similiar feelings due to the environment that it is easier for you to guess what that other person on the spectrum is feeling/thinking? It’s not necessarily reading the body cues so much as seeing they are also stressed…or content depending on how you too are feeling. I think unless you have known another individual for a very long time in a very close way would you be able to pick up smaller even more unnoticed body cues..because then you have had lots of prior experience to seeing those body cues with that specific individual. I have no clue if anything i just said makes any sense…but just brainstorming my ideas on your blog :) lol Do with it what you will :)

  11. It’s more than experiencing the same feelings, it’s knowing subtleties of movement and vocal quality almost instantaneously that apply to what they are feeling, not what I am feeling. And also being able to predict how an autistic person might respond in a certain situation. Both of which are involved when non-autistic people read each other as well.

  12. “in this case “Autistic” versus “Asperger’s” – is a dangerous thing to do, since it promotes more misunderstanding than a new term would.”

    You are right and I shouldn’t separate them up myself, which I do do in relation to myself. But I’ve only recently got my diagnosis and had it explained to me why I’m different from the majority of people, so with myself it’s a way of just settling into myself (that’s not accurate what I’m trying to say, but I really can’t explain. I don’t think I’m better than someone with an autism diagnosis, I’d say that had I been diagnosed as a child I could well have received an atypical autism diagnosis, looking back I think the paediatricians were hinting at it.
    NT people can also have difficulties reading body language, even when they seem patently obvious. I took my younger son to a toddler group this morning and was trying to finish a book for a book group this evening. I don’t talk to the other mums other than a quick hello unless they approach me, so my sitting alone wasn’t unusual. One of the helpers came over and saw me reading, so I explained how I’d only bought the book yesterday and had to finish it for tonight. She ignored that, sat down and began to chat. What was worse was I was using the book to “escape” from all the noise of twenty under three year olds and her talking meant I was drawn back into the sounds.

  13. Makes sense to me. NTs have some variation, too, but it seems to be minimized by the fact that they can so easily read and mimic each other, so they tend to learn the local body language of wherever they grow up. We so rarely are around people who we can read at all that we have to depend on our own impulses without that tempering effect.

    That having been said… I just was at autreat a few days ago with my NT boyfriend, and I had to explain to him afterward what flapping and autie applause (is there another term for that?) mean… I got it even though I’ve never really been around auties before, and he didn’t get it at all. So we do seem to have some common body language for all of that.

  14. shiva: “Oh god, that’s scary. That means that, since i’m not “obviously” autistic for most NT people to look at (although neurodiverse people and those very familiar with autism can often tell), most NT people must be thinking they can see my feelings all the time, when in fact, in all probability, they are seeing something with no relation at all to the actual reality of what i’m feeling…”

    Yeah, seriously. As far as I can tell, because I can use spoken words quite fluently (though not necessarily in the *tone* that’s evidently appropriate), I often pass for “weird” NT. As in, I’m pretty sure that a lot of my initial exchanges with NT folks occur fairly “normally”, but conclude with them turning to each other after I’ve walked away and asking, “What’s wrong with her?”, like they do with my mom. My body language — facial expressions especially — seem to not coincide with the NT standard for whatever’s going on in my head. Most folks presume I’m either very hostile (face doesn’t do much smiling unless I’m really ecstatic) or very edgy (fingers flick all over the place), when I’m generally not either of those things. In fact, the more comfortable I get, the more my natural body language takes over, and my speaking voice follows suit. I’ve been in exchanges with people which I thought were very pleasant, but my voice and face and hands evidently weren’t indicating that, and then later I learned that the person I was talking to thought I was angry with them. People I’m very close to — NT and non- — will still tell me to “calm down” often when I’m actually at my calmest. Because, regardless of what they’ve learned about me, the idea that not smiling means “unfriendly” and finger-flicking means “nervous” is still dominant.

    And Luai: “Because we don’t understand their comunication well, they assume we utterly lack “comunication skills” in general — but actually, it’s just that we lack NT comunication skills.”

    Yeah. And vice versa — it’s also that *they* don’t understand *our* communication skills. Because we communicate just as much; and, in fact, we very well may have an idea of what they’re trying to accomplish with their communication skills (whereas people who have no desire to understand autism just dismiss ours as “dysfunctional” versions of/attempts at theirs); we just aren’t able to mimic them well in return. I in fact consider myself pretty good at reading the body language that occurs when NTs “forget” that they’re trying to maintain a certain standard of body language. For example, I’m much more sensitive to, say, a flutter of disappointment on an NT face that’s trying not to look disappointed. And for some reason I can spot “acting” or overdramatizing better than a lot of NTs. Or, at least, I think I can. I suppose there’s really no way to prove that. Since Lord only knows what’s going on inside *their* heads . . . :P

    Oh, and my mom walks around almost exclusively bent over with her arms crossed. Folks are always asking if she’s cold. ; )

  15. Bullet,

    When I was in about middle school I finally figured out that there’s an important rule (at least in American middle-class culture) in operation there: it’s considered rude, wierd, or otherwise undesirable to read a book when there are people around to interact with. Until I had this epiphany, I would bring my books to lunch and sit with my friends, reading, not understanding why they kept teasingly flipping my book closed. Then, light bulb! My reading was making them uncomfortable. Not that I’m defending the rule (many days I would have preferred to stay in my book) but I think that may have been the reason for her rude interruption of your reading.

  16. It’s a fair enough point bunnyslave and probably applies to UK culture as well. But it was at a toddler group where people tend to veer off into different groups and I’m not renowned for being particularly social, I usally sit on my own in silence for the most part anyway. I wouldn’t have brought the book in as a general rule, I just needed to get it finished that day.

    • The person who sat down to chat with you may have believed that you were actually only reading because you were to shy to interact with others and that reading was just your way of covering it up . They probably felt that they were being kind to come and offer you some much craved social attention . I know that may seem absurd to a reading enthusiast hoping to escape sensory overload and I would have seen it that way since I do the same thing but follows my own belief that NT’s don’t have actual TOM but only an ability to project their own thoughts, feelings and beliefs onto others . The only reason other NT’s believe that these common “projections” are “empathy” is because they share so many of the same traits and experience these projections as actual empathy .

  17. “We were instantly like open books to each other, in a way so extreme as to be uncomfortable.”

    I think that uncomfortable can even be an understatement in that situation. :-p While my father, best friend, and I can read one another, it’s not to the ‘naked’ level… I DID have that with my autistic ex, though, and while it was wonderful in some ways, at other times it was upsetting in a way to not have any of my thoughts private. It’s possible that the emotional bond (or emotional problems, take your pick) made it more overloading, at least for me.

    I don’t think it is just the large gestures or obvious expressions that are communicating the information, though — I think that far more subtle physical signals do it as well. I remember deliberately holding still while not changing my expression, but failing consistently at hiding what was going through my head.

    It makes me wonder if NTs wander around having that happen constantly… If they normally have what seems like a pseudo-telepathic communication with one another, then the total absence with us would explain a lot of their false beliefs. It also reminded me of a short side-piece in the Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (book) where it was explained that an alien race was “punished” with the ability to read one another’s minds, and that they started focusing on constant small-talk (like NTs) just to block everyone else out.

  18. Wow that’s embarrassing. That last comment was mine, but the computer auto-filled my handle for a cute animal blog I visit. :)

  19. If this isn’t too personal of a question, is there a particular emotion or situation that is associated with flapping? As i mentioned, when I feel really excited about something and don’t want to make a lot of noise about it, sometimes I’ll jump up and down and flap my hands just to express joy. This is probably different from other people’s reasons for doing it, not least because I am not autistic.

    This question is posed to anyone who feels comfortable answering it.

    • I flap or flick my fingers when I am trying to block out both internal distractions and outside stimuli and trying to accomplish a task . I am pretty careful not to do it in front of others at work were it could be used against me but I may not always be aware that I am doing it . The fact that I find it so helpful in concentration is one of the many reason it drives me nuts when caregivers try and stop auties from doing it . How would they like someone ripping away the phone from thier ear or the gum from their mouth ?

  20. Not necessarily. “Flapping” is kind of like “baring teeth” in its broadness. There’s sort of idle flapping that hands do on their own without instruction, there’s flapping to figure out where your hands are, there’s a particular kind of flapping that taps my chin and makes me not get motion-sick, there’s flapping because of extremes of emotion (of any sort), there’s flapping to try to communicate something, etc. The different kinds can but don’t always look different.

  21. Evonne: you are exactly like me. Maybe we’re the same “flavour” of autistic… ;)

    (although no one tells me to “calm down”. Utterly regardless of how i was feeling before someone says it, if someone tells me to “calm down”… i get angry. Really, really angry. The sheer… i hardly know what to call it – something way beyond arrogance, into the realm of a god complex – of thinking you can tell someone to change their emotions, and that they either can or should obey you…)

    Smiling is actually very physically uncomfortable for my face. I wonder if that’s possibly the result of having gone through most of my childhood without ever smiling, and thus not having properly developed the relevant muscles? (kind of like the kids in Eastern European orphanages who became unable to walk because they were kept in and never taken out of their cots… that basic “use it or lose it” principle…)

  22. Rachel said: “It makes me wonder if NTs wander around having that happen constantly… If they normally have what seems like a pseudo-telepathic communication with one another, then the total absence with us would explain a lot of their false beliefs.”

    It’s accepted psychology that people read each other’s minds all the time. It’s called nonverbal communication. Here’s an interesting link on the topic that starts off by pretty much saying it all: “You cannot say nothing! … Even if you are able to keep from moving you will still communicate rigidity, anxiety, or something. We are always saying something.”

    That idea still somewhat terrifies me, as I assume it does for many with AS/autism. Even yesterday I was at lunch with a bunch of NTs and the faint idea of suicide came up in the conversation (some sort of joke about wanting to jump off a bridge..), which everybody else shrugged off as something they don’t understand. But since I have some understanding of what that feels like I could feel the spotlight focusing on me for a brief moment. I’m trying to figure out a way for that idea to float through a conversation without causing a diversion. I was glad that it was towards the end of the conversation (during which I basically said nothing). I still largely dislike group chitchat like that.

    But yeah I can agree with Amanda’s original post. I can read some auties/aspies better, and different situations render different outcomes.

  23. Ack! I was too blunt in that 2nd paragraph. Sorry, Rachel. This is a better start to it: “Actually, they do. Psychologists call this nonverbal communcation.”

  24. Is anyone here familiar with the work of Paul Ekman? He is a researcher who started out exploring what he called “emblems,” which are essentially mannerisms or gestures such as winking, giving someone the finger, or waving hello. He then began studying facial expressions by tracking how different muscles in the face move when various emotions are felt. He says that certain stimuli will automatically trigger an emotion, which will then trigger certain facial behaviors. He says this all happens very quickly (less than 1 second). He looked at facial expressions in cultures around the world, and found that there are a few facial behaviors that are similar in all the cultures he studied. What varied, he said, were the “masking rules” (rules about when or where a person should attempt to conceal their emotions). I don’t agree with certain things he says, but I still find it interesting to think about. Silvan Tomkins is another person who has done research in this area.

    • I’ve seen some stuff on microexpressions that are supposed to be so subtle that you need to be trained to observe them and are often used by law enforcement to tell if someone is lying . This leads me to believe that people are not as good at reading NV as they think they are….(if they need special training) and also worries me that my own expressions are so often misjudged that I would likely end up in jail because someone who specializes in reading NT’s might think they can read me .

  25. i fold my arms (a little higher up than is comfortable) when i have gone out without a bra on (to get the mail, for example) and want to be a littl more decent if i accidentally run into someone that i have to talk to. which i guess would be fine if my body language said ‘get away’, because there is only so long i could stand there before i might have to unfold my arms for some reason…

  26. When I was at Autreat I realized I was not having trouble identifying people and remembering their names (two different skills for me).

    About 48 hours after arriving at Autreat, I made a list of 51 names. Of those 51 people, I knew the names of 39 people (and guessed most of the rest). There was only one person on the list whose face I could not quite remember, and that was because I was doing something with my camera while talking to her. For someone who has trouble recognizing faces and remembering names, this was quite a feat. By the end of the week, I had it up to 56, and added one or two after I left!

    When I went home, I wondered if this ability might carry over to my part-time weekend job. I have worked at the job for 8 months, one day a week with some going in on other days. On Sunday I was in a room with approximately 30 people. Some of them looked like total strangers, and for all I know they could have been. But they might also have been people who are there all the time. Some whose faces I did recongize, I could not put names to. I also had difficulty putting names to the faces; it took much longer to come up with the name whereas at Autreat I just KNEW it. So much for my “new ability” carrying over.

    Reasons I might have been able to remember FACES at Autreat but not elsewhere:

    Seeing the people in a way I wanted to, that is, not looking directly at their faces, but near their faces, using peripheral vision, being in motion while I talked to people, heightened interest in learning who they were since I am more interested in general these days in meeting autistic people rather than NT people.

    Someone also suggested that autistic people often have fewer facial changes while they talk so that I had less information to process when it comes to someone talking animatedly and their face changing shape. In addition there could have been body language that helped me, and the fact that my own body movements were helping me learn. I think that I somehow learn things better when I sort of “choreograph” (for lack of a better or more accurate word, although maybe that is what it is) my movements to correspond with what I am trying to learn. I can’t explain that, so won’t. I just know I am making a movement that corresponds to what I am trying to learn.

    Reason for remembering names along with faces are easy: everyone or almost everyone wore a name tag, at which I always looked, sometimes before even looking at or near their face. Also it was accepted that I could ask someone’s name, whereas if I ask names at my job after all this time it is going to seem a bit odd, so I mostly keep trying on my own to learn them.


  27. PDW, re, learning names:

    At my office, there’s an on-line directory where you can look up everyone who works there to check their name, office number, phone etc–and it includes a photo for each person (taken from the picture on their office idenfication card). Does your org have something similar? I’m not autistic and I’m not face-blind (I know there’s a word for that that I can never remember how to spell–prospragia or whatever) but it takes me a time and a LOT of exposure to a person’s face before I’m able to recognize them not only within context (say, at a location where I EXPECT to see a limited set of people) but out of context (in a large crowd, or in a place where I don’t expect to see them). So I find that looking at people’s photos on line can sometimes help,

    Of course this doesn’t help much if you know (or sort of know) the face but need to track down the name … but, does the place where you work have anything similar? (I’m guessing not or you would already have used it but …)

  28. For me, seeing the picture wouldn’t help at all. I’m reading the Ambler Warning right now, which has a character who had his face changed via surgery without his knowledge. The book talks about how he is freaked out whenever he sees himself in a mirror. I thought, “Oh, welcome to my life!” I also thought it was not nearly as big of a deal, but back on subject…

    I had a job for a bit where I was going to be expected to verify people were who they said they were by comparing them to their identification cards. I can’t do that, as if the person has the same color hair they look identical (by facial features) and if they shave a beard, they are completely different. Not good for that kind of work!

  29. (I know there’s a word for that that I can never remember how to spell–prospragia or whatever)

    Prosopagnosia. Jane Meyerding writes about it here: http://mjane.zolaweb.com/diff.html :)

    Joel: It mildly freaks me out that i even have a reflection in a mirror. I don’t think that, ordinarily and unless i’m reminded of it, i’m usually conscious of having physical existence…

    (I have speculations about how that particular autistic trait, if it is one, might have played a major role in the development of at least a couple of major religions… but that’s one of the things i’m going to have to wait until i’ve formulated it a lot better to blog about it…)

  30. shiva: Yeah, I get pissed too when somebody tells me to ‘calm down’. It *is* insulting as hell. Only problem is, getting pissed about that mostly serves to reinforce the idea that I’m *not* really calm . . .

  31. Evonne:

    I know what you mean. I can remember a few occasions when I was a young child when there was some particular concept I was trying to communicate. And it wasn’t getting through. So I was getting frustrated, simply because ANY mis communication is bound to be frustrating to some degree. I think that’s kind of inherent to the nature of mis-communication. But some of the adults around me automatically assumed that my frustration was a sign that the thing I wanted to say really meant a great deal to me. It did MATTER to me, but not nearly as much as they seemed to think it did, and certainly not enough to make 5, 8 or 10 more attempts trying to get across a concept I just didn’t have the linguistics skills at that point to really express well. So I tried to explain that my frustration was primarily with the failure to COMMUNICATE in general, not just the failure to get across that one concept. But they refused to believe me. Which made me more frustrated. Because, see, it can ALSO be really frustrating to say something and have it completely disregarded like that. Except, they didn’t seem to grasp that. So, instead, my increased frustration only reinforced their original belief that the thing I wanted to get across to them must “obviously” be really REALLY important to them. Which made them push me long beyond the point where I had wanted to simply drop the issue.

    Sorry to ramble on for so long. I guess my basic point is: Yeah, it’s a really nasty, very annoying cycle to get stuck in.

  32. andreashettle: My brother takes advantage of that phenomenon, for comic effect. He’ll randomly ask, “Why you trippin’?” when somebody’s saying something rather pedestrian and really not particularly riled up about anything — and then they’ll say, “I’m *not* trippin’!”, and because they’re so incredulous (and therefore overly insistent) when they say it, they come off like they really *are* “trippin'”. It’s obnoxious, but (I must admit, even though I’m probably most often the butt of it), when obviously executed in jest, still rather funny. ; )

  33. Thanks, Shiva …

    Of course now I’ll promptly forget the spelling again, but oh well :-)

    To Joel: Ah, okay. For me, pictures aren’t perfect either (I can get easily confused by things like beard vs no beard, different hair style, side profile vs full face profile etc) — the place where I work does seem to update everyone’s picture pretty regularly which helps but not completely.

    But when I’m working with a limited set of people it does at least help me narrow things down a little so I’m not as lost. eg, I can certainly recognize gender and guess at the possible race or nationality. Then again, I have the advantage of working in a place where employees come from more than 100 countries, so just those factors really do help a lot. Whereas if you’re in a more homogenous work place, I guess it wouldn’t as much.

  34. Dance is body language. Body decoration and hair are body language with political, cultural and religious significance.

    In 19th century Britain it was common for men to be bearded, but early last century beards became limited largely to men who were politically left-wing, as in the expression ‘bearded lefty’. The wearing of long hair by hippy males in the 1960s was seen as a rebellion against conformist values. The cultural and political meaning of male hair length has varied. Long hair has connotations of potency – when Delilah cut off Samson’s long hair he lost his strength, and of being uncivilised – Roman men wore their hair short, but barbarians inside and outside the Empire had long hair. But monks have their heads shaved to symbolise their leaving ‘the world’. In the 18th century upper and middle class men wore wigs. Most men have followed the prevailing custom among their peers in their hair length and being bearded or clean shaven.

    However long hair is the cultural norm for women. It is their ‘crowning glory’. A women with short hair is regarded as mannish, probably a lesbian.

    I don’t know if Sign Language is body language. Yesterday I did a key word search for ‘body language’ in my local university library catalogue. One of the books listed is ‘Language from the body: Iconicity and metaphor in American Sign Language’, by Sarah F. Taub.

    In an encylopedia of psychology there is no entry for ‘body language’, but there is one of several pages in an encyclopedia of language and linguistics.

  35. We were instantly like open books to each other, in a way so extreme as to be uncomfortable. Too many layers: What we are feeling, what we feel about that, what we want to be feeling, what we want to look like we’re feeling, all in a big jumble. As Joel said, it’s like being naked, and not always in a pleasant way.

    We used to be close to a person whom we had this sort of a relationship with. It is a lot like being naked; it’s *worse*, because at least when you’re naked you can preserve your own thoughts, whereas you can’t hide from someone when your communication and thinking styles mesh *so* well with theirs that you can immediately tell even the thoughts and feelings you’re trying to keep hidden from each other, and have to pretend you can’t see them, because you feel like you’re violating something that shouldn’t be intruded upon, but at the same time can’t help it.

    We had a lot of nonsense phrases we used to repeat back and forth to each other, with that person, and things that could be considered the equivalent of small talk. I think a lot of it was for obfuscating reasons– trying to push each other away and keep each other at arm’s length, because it was so uncomfortable to be in each other’s heads all the time. Even online and on the phone, there was and still is that feeling of excessive intimacy and discomfort. I would venture to say it actually went beyond most standard non-autistic “reading each other,” since we often used to be able to finish each other’s sentences or tell outsiders what the other wanted even when they hadn’t said anything to us.

    We’ve also definitely had the problem, on a few occasions, of being able to pass (and in this case I really do see ability to pass/cover as a problem) as “weird NT,” and people subsequently interpreting our actions, even over the Internet, to mean things that were entirely at right angles to what they actually meant. There were times when it was in some ways *better* for people to think we were just crazy and babbling nonsense than for them to try to interpret the communication we were actually engaging in.

  36. Someone mentioned NTs being able to easily mimic one another. I can mimic NTs but not understand what it is that I’m saying.

    Anyway I certainly know what you mean. Including the naked feeling. I get that with people than can read me really really well (few and far between). But in some ways it’s nice too. Someone mentioned the crossing the arms things which for me is a natural position having nothing to do with being defensive and everything to do with liking the pressure I exert on my own arms, even better is when I do it behind my back.

  37. Whole books have been written about body language using it as a tool to interpret emotion such as crossing your legs and arms supposedly implies not opening up or feeling guarded…In fact it is thought that by imitating the body language of an
    emotion you want to feel or portray you can in fact achieve this. I have used this myself being
    an introvert that for a while was in the job best held by an extrovert…I could imitate the look of
    a relaxed person wanting to convey knowlege when speaking in front of a group and pretty much accomplish this…The problem is when this is applied to someone who has another reason for the body language like an Autistic wanting to fold their arms for comfort..I raised two Autistic children and being a mother who wanted to make her children comfortable I learned not to look them in the eye but to hold things in front of them to discuss…I was told by a boss that my co-workers thought I was hiding something or possibly lying as I would not look them in the eye…By this time it was such a habit that I became uncomfortable trying to change it…So much for the general blindapplication of such a concept. I recently had a psychologist visiting me along with a mutual acquaintance…The psychologist was going over all the books in my library…slowly reading all the labels…I am sure she thought she was learning a lot about me by my selection of books…What she didn’t know was that the library is a composite of books from many people that were moving when I moved…These books are from my diverse adult children…books from my elderly parents..
    books from friends of my adult children…etc. They are not just “my books” and I have read but a fraction of them…Anyone basing who I am by what is in the library is going to not have an
    accurate view at all of who I am…I also know that handwriting is used as a tool to interpret what a person is like…and even the handbags women carry has been analyzed…I have often wondered if these things too can be used as tools in reverse and conscooisly to change how you feel about things…If you imitate the handwriting of a person with a positive trait will you then acieve having this trait? I have read that the set of your jaw can determine how aggessive you are and that physically changing a jawline can affect your personality…It is all so much to think about…
    and all easy to misinterpret….

  38. Reading NT body language was something I had to deliberately teach myself how to do. It’s still something where I have to intellectually think it through to see which feelings someone is showing. I found Desmond Morris’ books about body language to be most helpful. I am very easy for people to read, apparently, as I don’t put up a “front” — no poker face for me. I’m not autistic, but I am pretty sure that I have nonverbal learning disability. Plus being an “Introverted Thinking” personality type…figuring out how other people are feeling does not come easily or effortlessly.

  39. Pingback: Disability Blog Carnival #18… and a baby? Perhaps? « Retired Waif

  40. (Amanda, I’ve been doing a little lurking, and have alot I have felt at times I’d like to share/communicate with you, but I’ll just say “Hi. I deeply enjoy reading your perspectives (often because I relate in ways I never have before), and every time I do it makes me thankful that you *are* out there articulating your insights, when I feel overwhelmed with where to ever start ((let alone considering the difficulties of expressing them accurately and without being misconstrued..))..the whole thing seeming more time-consuming than I can afford to consider.. – You all the more appreciated.)

    About non-verbal connection and autistic interaction/presence together –

    Every expression comes from how someone feels internally. The perspective, the way emotion is felt, the way a thought is seen, how a person feels about what they are interacting with, etc. affect the coloring of our words, our subtleties of tone and facial expression (everyone, but the difference often with autism every other factor affecting how the person is feeling shows, too, or instead.) But this could be said about neurotypicality, too. Alot of what is said is true or isn’t true about autism or NT is really both about both. That’s part of my core thoughts about autistic social interaction. People that feel/see/think in similar ways/styles/wavelengths always best understand and are best understood by each other.

    I’ve noticed through life, the minority, rare minds – perspectives!- that I felt really *got* things in a way that I couldn’t understand why others didn’t, too. They say there is so much that is obvious that autistics don’t get(see – really-notice!), but whatever perspective or style of interaction just IS what it Is. Something can be and be all that it’s supposed to be without being either/or, more/less, better/best.

    When I have had one-on-one interactions with autistics the closest feeling has been “magic”.
    The space of those interactions, for me, was an unhurried pace, deeply seeing or feeling, and most commonly a sense of truly being present together. Like “we are both here now.” and complete understanding of the other and the moment being understood smoothly and fluidly and gently.

    Feeling common understanding and in-sync really comes from being with someone who you can relate to and who can relate to you. Which is why NT’s and autistics have trouble understanding each other, but both are valid within their own contexts. It’s a further stretch for some people to relate to others, but ultimately beneficial.

    But because of this lack of an outlet (like-minded or like-seeing) for this type of interaction, those spaces of Presence seemed rare and far between. From that perspective, it truly seemed like almost all people were incapable of being present (another way of seeing that all experiences are valid).

    With my younger brother, we would sit very still, and very quiet, examining toys, or who knows what we did. He the silent inventor. Once in a while, I would ask him a question of what he thought or liked (sometimes having to ask again). There was subtle wit, a tiny expression at the mouth and eye, and I would know what he thought, and why it amused him, and always there was the understanding of the ways of respecting the sanctity of our stillness and depth.

    A boy a few years older than myself in school, the other kids shunned, and I was vaguely aware of this, but I had no thoughts about why, but knew that he was *different* (today many things from the years fit together). One day after school (its funny, I don’t know if I was 7 or 10, if he was 10 or 14, that part was meaningless) I was waiting on the playground for some reason, and everyone was leaving, and he walked slowly, head down, and finally took a seat on a swing. In every subtle body movement I could feel his sensitivities, his boundaries (entirely different from how I perceive NTs) I approached nearer, respecting these invisible feedbacks, unhurried, and asked his permission to join him on the swing next to him. That was fine, and we swang low and lazy, feeling the momentums of both swings, gentle and soothing. I asked him if he liked or didn’t like something, and though we had no eye contact (he never really looked at me), I could feel his joy in the flashing moment of amusement and understanding it provoked us to share. We swang somewhat higher and felt the bliss of the curving momentum, gently flying, the air breezing by.. When I recalled this after beginning an indepth understanding of autism, it brought tears to my eyes, how deeply we shared that experience together, how different it was to what is capable with most, and the glimpse of the commonality of focus and consciousness that enables it.

    I’ve met a couple little boys with alot of autistic traits, who I see others don’t seem to see what I do.. I meet them and I’m bowled over – by their presence I can feel, by how perceptive I can feel them being! by how much is shared in a tiny facial expression or gesture, which is truly reverbating through them, but it goes unseen by most eyes. Instead others see that they’re so quiet, or don’t initiate ______, or have to be explicitly invited to eat their lunch. Yes, we All have our beauty.

  41. Nt’s tell me how I am feeling all the time and how I should change it……and they are almost always wrong in their perceptions of my feelings . I am either told that I am tired or angry and that I should “calm down” when I am discussing something . Therapist would tell me that I was not in touch with my feelings when I was laughing at some painful memory but seemed unable to grasp that I found the situation funny because of the absurdity of life . Some how that was perceived as denial because I wasn’t displaying the same emotions they would feel . In addition I suffer from ingratitude because I don’t jump up and down when given a gift but I am accused of being “too intense” when I like something. Not only do the read my emotions wrong….the emotions I have are evidently wrong . (I also over anylize and think to much”….such a long list of aspie crimes .

    . Part of the reason it is hard for me to believe that NT’s are actually good at reading NVC is how often I see them get it wrong in myself and the clients we are supposed to be serving . It’s really hard for me to know if they are unable to read when one of the clients are so obviously (to me) in distress or if they just don’t care .

  42. I’m married to an Aspie guy (8 years this June) and our arguments over this particular issue have often been fraught with tension – this issue strikes to the heart of the divide between NT’s and Auties, I think.

    I wouldn’t say that I’m typically NT – I have ADHD, Bipolar 2 and PMDD – so my body language tends to be LARGE. I am also unusually perceptive even for a NT – I often get chosen as a diplomatic envoy in groups I’m in because I tend to “grok” people really fast and I am good at translating ideas to others using metaphors. This ability has allowed me to have productive relationships with people who would traditionally be hard to relate to.

    I have instinctively intuited all along that the difficulty was not that Aspies don’t communicate, but that they use a language convention that deviates from the NT’s system to a degree that creates a state of confusion and distrust between the communities. If you just click into the right mindspace (something I call Scientist Neutral) Aspies make a hell of a lot more sense. Aspies are a lot more rational in their thinking and constrain their statements to the facts (as they believe them to be) rather than feelings. NT’s tend to worry more about how everyone in the group feels over what the facts of the matter are. Lets face it – if you could always with about 70% accuracy see what others were feeling on their faces, you’d be fairly sensitive to this kind of thing too. It is very distracting when you are trying to get stuff done!

    Unfortunately my usual ability to operate using “Scientist Neutral” language fails somewhat when I am feeling very emotional. I find it difficult being satisfied with how slow I am at using this form of communication – somehow I just cannot get as much of what I mean across when talking purely in words without bodylanguage. I imagine this is pretty much similar to “Second Language syndrome” – someone will naturally switch over to their mother tongue when excited, angry or miserable simply because their vocabulary of emotion was learned at an age before they knew their second language. To me, Aspie is a second language, and when I’m having a heated discussion or trying to express passion I find it difficult to do so without using my body language. I also find it difficult not to interpret incoming messages using that same language filter. Needless to say this causes a lot of problems!

    A lot of the resistance Aspies get from NT’s about this whole thing is actually similar to the kind of discrimination people face when they speak a foreign language in a English only country – NT’s are just so used to being the majority that they don’t appreciate that being different does not equate to being wrong.

    I’m lucky that my husband tries hard to meet me half way and we have learned a lot of ways to alert ourselves to the fact that we are essentially babbling at each other in alien languages though it feels like we are trying to communicate. Still, I wish sometimes I could just upgrade my brain!

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