Yep autistic people DO read social cues. When not dealing with language.


Social Cues Used By Those With Autism Illuminated

To the surprise of the team, they found no significant increase in the time autistic individuals with language difficulties spent looking at the mouth region compared to those without this additional language problem. In addition, the amount of time both groups with autism spent looking at eyes did not differ from their non-autistic peers.

‘Our work suggests that individuals with autism, like their typically developing peers, can and do attend to important social cues such as the eyes when viewing familiar social scenes. The individuals with autism who had additional language impairments tended to spend less time looking at faces generally, but when they did look at the face, they spent significantly more time looking at eyes than mouths.’

I can’t look up the specific blog entries right now, but I’ve talked a lot in the past about how many social cues I can attend to when I am not trying my darndest to hang onto language comprehension. Looks like some researchers finally found something related to that too, that the tendency to stare at mouths rather than eyes in some autistic people was likely related to their attempts to use lipreading to augment hearing when processing language.

I can read a whole lot of body language — not always the standard parts but a whole lot of it — if I’m not engaged in language comprehension or production, both of which are very taxing on any other perceptions. Been saying this a long time. Been wondering when research would actually support it. Glad they’re finally at least stumbling on bits of this. (Sorry for not blogging eloquently on this, but I think I’ve already covered it in the past and I’m glad someone’s finally looking at this.)


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.

24 responses »

  1. “Looks like some researchers finally found something related to that too, that the tendency to stare at mouths rather than eyes in some autistic people was likely related to their attempts to use lipreading to augment hearing when processing language.”

    YES! It aids in auditory processing. If a person is spending a lot of energy decoding what’s being said, then there’s simply less processing ability or working memory to devote to all the other stuff, like nonverbal cues. Or even figuring out who the other person is.

  2. Interesting. I wonder if that explains why I tend to get a lot more out of TV shows when I watch them with subtitles — I am still processing language, only I’m processing it visually rather than trying to look and listen at the same time. The characters’ voices tend to just fade into the background, and I find it much easier to notice things like what the characters are looking at when I don’t need to process their speech, etc.

    I still don’t think I pick up on standard body language a lot of the time, though, regardless of circumstances — it just always seems like gestures and such are very context dependent, too much so for me to easily make on-the-fly assumptions about what they mean. But, at the same time, when I’ve been around autistic people, their nonverbal communication is a lot more comprehensible to me than that of nonautistic people. Maybe it’s because I can see how some of the things another autistic person is doing relate to other things in the environment (things that nonautistic people might not even notice). Hmm.

  3. I’ll give them half a clap. In my case, my father said ‘look at me when I’m talking to you’ so many times it could have itself been a confounding factor. I’d imagine many of the more verbal kids in this study have been through the same ‘programming’.

  4. I’ve said a few times in the past that people in this culture, at least, tend to forget that there is a huge amount of body language that does not involve the eyes or even the face. I get a lot out of looking at people’s overall patterns of movement, especially how those patterns change when they interact with me as opposed to interacting with a non-autistic person (i.e. I can read really, really clearly when someone is uncomfortable with me, or trying to skirt a subject, a lot of the time).

    And the patterns of the sound in their voice– how they hesitate, what words they use and which they avoid, how much “verbal static” they throw in (stuff like “um,” “er,” etc)– I can catch that without necessarily picking up on every word they’re saying. There is a huge amount of communication of intention and emotional state bound up in things which are not among the “standard recognized social cues.” Maybe that’s one of the reasons some people keep trying to do things like attribute great telepathic ability to non-speaking autistics– because they forget or don’t realize that “standard” verbal and nonverbal communications are not all there are, and so figure that if someone picks up on their moods and intentions despite not handling standard communications well, it can only ever be because they’re literally reading your mind.

  5. AnneC, your comment about subtitles reminded me that I had more trouble staying focused on the words during Amanda’s recent video (about the colors and tones) than I probably would have if I had been either just reading them or just listening to them, rather than both.

    Also, it surprised me at first that the autistic people in the study looked at the eyes as much as the non-autistic people did. Perhaps it’s because they were just shown images, rather than actual EYEBALL EYEBALL EYEBALL contact.

  6. I wonder where Asperger’s fits in? I spoke early and in full sentences; but I still have trouble filtering conversation from background noise, as well as the usual trouble with “I can listen to you or look at you, but not both”.

    I’m still questioning this study, though, because so many other studies have found there to be a significant difference between where autistics and non-autistics direct attention.

  7. The other studies used primarily heavy language users among autistic people. That’s the problem I’ve seen with a lot of them, not just in the attention-directing studies but the emotion-identifying studies.

  8. Amorpha, that’s all the sort of stuff I pick up on too. When I went to MIT I managed to get them interested in this stuff, because I keep saying, a big problem with studies of emotional recognition in autistic people is it’s usually done using language.

    I do think there are probably some people who may make a permanent shift into perceiving language and not nonverbal information. But there’s the capability that would have been there had that shift not happened, I suspect.

  9. When I read about these kinds of studies and then read the comments that Autistic people make about them I can’t help but think of how much further along researchers would be in actually understanding autism if they would just TALK with some Autistic people BEFORE deciding what to research and how to research it.

    When I read the study, I got the impression that the researchers had been assuming that their results might find that lack of eye contact in and of itself reduces one’s ability to pick up on social cues — or did I misread?

  10. So would you say that language use can be an impediment for the autistic person, in the area of detecting nonverbal communication? It seems to me like it might be, if it’s true that the more verbal an autistic person is, the more likely he is to ignore faces and gestures in favor of words.

    Where do people like you, who regressed and lost spoken language, fit in? How about people who understand spoken language, but use only written language, sign, pictures, etc.?

  11. Chaoticidealism’s comment and Ballastexistenz’s reply made me think – perhaps that’s one thing which the label of “Asperger’s”, in contrast to overall autism, could actually be meaningful to define – the “subset” of autistics who (like myself) are heavily weighted towards spoken and written language, to the almost complete exclusion of any other forms of communication…

    How it seems from my perspective is that i have an “instinctive” understanding of spoken/written language which is actually weighted towards the written, to the extent that i tend to speak in sentence structures more typical of written than spoken English (even including clauses in parentheses, like this one), whereas i have no “instinctive” understanding at all of non-verbal forms of communication (i have some *learned* understanding, but that’s an entirely different thing IMO – it’s like memorising, say, facial expressions in the same way that i would memorise things like the distinguishing characteristics of different species of animal).

    I kind of see there being a spectrum from the “most abstract” forms of communication (language coded in written forms), through spoken language and intentional gesture, to the “most instinctive” (facial expressions and such), with most neurotypical people’s understanding spread fairly evenly over the whole spectrum, but mine and other “stereotypical Aspie” types peaking massively right at the “abstract” end of the spectrum – people with other types of autism might have different distributions…

    Or maybe most people can understand the whole spectrum at once, but autistic people have less “capacity” and can only understand part of it at one time (like a radio only being able to pick up a certain number of wavelengths at any one time), and if the choice is made early enough and consistently enough to concentrate on a certain part of the spectrum, then that becomes ingrained enough to be (semi-)permanent…

    Any scientific assumption is likely to not be 100% true, anyway…

  12. I’d say that it’s broader than language/non-language, but extends to a lot of things.

    Which is why I wouldn’t find that split useful, it would then prioritize language as the most important aspect of subtyping autism.

    I also think there’s a big difference, that’s hard to articulate, between…

    Basically staying in a very language-oriented framework.


    Something more like using language but not staying in that framework the rest of the time.

    And I’m not sure any diagnostician could outwardly pick up on the difference between the two, because they can externally look very similar.

    And there’s a lot of complexity to this and I’m just not up to describing it which is irritating me.

  13. I have a question and I don’t really know where to put it so I decided to put it here. Sorry if it doesn’t fit the subject. I work for The Arc. That used to stand for Association for retarded citizens until we (the agency) decided it wasn’t proper to use the word Retarded. Now it is just the Arc. Anyway, there is a man who lives in one of our group homes and also attends our day program. He is non-verbal and autistic. He will often dart around the workshop and around his home. He runs very fast and runs head first into anything and anyone in his way.I assume he is doing this as an escape. Do you suppose I am correct? If this is why he does it, is there anything we can do so he doesn’t have to do this? He has injured himself (and others) so many times I worry about his (and others) safety. I also wonder if the way he feels when he feels the need to do this is uncomfortable. I would think it is a terribly uncomfortable feeling.
    Any answers or ideas would be greatly appreciated.

  14. An escape from what?

    That wouldn’t be my first thought, but I don’t know him, and it’s difficult to comment on people you don’t know, doing things that can be done for a whole lot of reasons.

    That’s the sort of thing I would do when extremely overloaded and my body just goes into a running-around autopilot mode. (Which can be severe enough if not stopped to launch me into an asthma attack that I then can’t treat because I’m running around.)

    But there’s a lot of reasons for running around.

    Some could be communicative.

    Some could be for other reasons.

    There’s just too many to say.

    I do know the Arc because I have talked to my local one before it disappeared, they helped me when I was in the process of starting services.

  15. That’s what I mean by escape. From overload. From too much noise, movement, or whatever it is that is overloading him.
    The problem comes in when he can’t seem to stop himself and we aren’t allowed to physically stop him because it would be considered a restraint.
    Thanks for your input.

  16. Right. While I don’t know him (so, again, can’t generalize), most times I’m doing something like that, it’s, as I said, autopilot, not necessarily about getting away from the thing, any more than freezing in place (another common response I have to overload) is. These are, in me, physiological responses to the state of overload, and may or may not have any bearing on practical responses to the stimulus that’s doing it.

  17. I wonder if my instinctive communication with cats might be based on reading feline body language? In your videos I see you interacting with cats “on their terms”… Do you read feline body language, too? I call it “speaking Cat” and it often amazes me how few NTs even know it can be done, much less are able to do it…

  18. Thank you for that bit of insight. It is very helpful.
    I love your site. It is very informative. It has changed the way I think about the people I work with.
    Thanks again.

  19. I speak cat too.
    Regarding the guy who runs around when overloaded, I’d need to know more. If I could see him running around, I might have an intuitive guess as to why, but as it is I’ll need to depend on descriptions.
    I dash off when I’m upset sometimes, basically in my case I feel this sudden, urgent need to *get out of there* and generally head towards outside. If he doesn’t seem to be heading towards something, however, it may be just automatic movements.

  20. Ok, I will try to describe the “running man”. Keep in mind that I don’t work directly with him. I supervise another team at the same day training site. I can’t tell you what starts the running. I only know what I have seen and what I have been told. He runs at a rather slow pace for running but with a definite purpose. In other words, he isn’t going to be stopped easily. He is running head first with his head slightly down. If anyone/anything gets in his way he head butts them/it. He has caused injury to himself and to others doing this. He doesn’t seem to be going anywhere or if he is he never seems to get there. A DSP runs with him and trys to direct him to safe areas. Eventually he will just sit down. He may be done at that point or he may resume running after a short “rest”. (I don’t know if he is really resting or exactly what he is doing)He does tend to have times where he is running more often then other times. He can go months were he is running every day and then have a period of time, generally short, when he doesn’t do it so much. I know at home, they let him outside into a fenced in yard and just let him run. When he is done he comes back in and goes about life. At day training they (the powers that be) wont let the DSPs/supervisor do that. They make them direct him back inside and preferably back into his DT room.
    If you need to know anything else just ask. I appreciate any input you can give. I would like to figure out what HE wants to happen when he runs. I don’t know if I can do that or not but I am trying.

  21. I am going to send a link to this page to the supervisor or this man’s team. She may have better ideas about him then I do.

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