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

I am a highly sensing person. I am a child of earth and water, I was born into a redwood forest and I left the forest but it never left me. I'm 34 as I wrote this. If I had an alignment like in role-playing games and MUDs, I'd be chaotic good all the way: I don't think it's possible to fill ethics into a moral code, the world is far too complex for that. I let the world be complex and chaotic and try to respond situation by situation from a small number of principles of right and wrong. My responses may seem to contradict each other, but that will be because either the situation has changed, or I have changed. I am a poet who is trying to practice more every day, hence the poetry blog. I am a cat lover and live with a wonderful elderly cat. I am a painter when I have the time, energy, and resources. I have multiple cognitive, physical, developmental, and psychiatric disabilities, and my health is not usually stable. Put all together, I'd be considered severely disabled. I get a lot of assistance throughout the day. I am a real living cyborg, part human part machine: I have a GJ feeding tube to feed me through one tube and drain my stomach through the other,, an InterStim implant for urinary retention, and a port (a permanent central IV line). I love life. I think Love (not the sentimental emotion, but the property of the world) is the most important thing that human beings can offer each other. Being near death enough times has taught me that, and has also taught me that I have no time for bullies or pettiness. I'm involved in disabilty rights and other causes that people these days would call 'social justice', but I don't consider myself part of the 'SJ community' or the 'anti-SJ community' because of that thing I said about pettiness -- they're more about one-upmanship than fixing the world. I wish they had not taken over the words 'social justice', which used to mean something else. I love talking to just ordinary people about fixing the world, they have far more realistic ideas and more likelihood of putting them into practice. I'm a Hufflepuff to the core, with some Gryffindor tendencies and even a little bit of Ravenclaw. I admire some Slytherins but I don't have much ambition or cunning at all. I still think the Slytherin common room is second best, with Hufflepuff coming first. My favorite color is brown, especially when combined with a bit of yellow or blue. My favorite music is country, and my favorite country artists are Kathy Mattea, Lacy J. Dalton, Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, Merle Haggard, and Loretta Lynn. I don't like most new country but i occasionally hear something on the radio I like. At an early age, my family listened to country almost exclusively to the point where I thought all the different types of country were all the different types of music! I couldn't put Lacy J. Dalton, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Dolly Parton, Merle Haggard, and Kris Kristofferson in the same category. Although now that I've grown up I can hear that they are all country, but as a kid my ear was trained more for minute differences in country styles, than for recognizing country from other types of music. Country isn't all I like. Some other bands and artists I like: The Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, Rasputina, Jefferson Airplane, The Beatles, Rich Mullins (I'm not Christian but some Christian music is amazing), ), The Raventones/T.R. Kelley, Planet P Project/Tony Carey, Sinead Lohan, Donna Williams, Suzanne Vega, Phideaux, and Jethro Tull, to name a few. I love the Cocteau Twins in particular because they are everything being sensing is about: Words are chosen for their sound, not their meaning, the voice becomes yet another instrument rather than a conveyor of words, raw emotion pours out of them, there are layers upon layers, and they were around for long enough there's lots of their music in a variety of different styles -- including their later stuff where the words have more meaning than just sounds. Each period in their music has its benefits and drawbacks but I love them all, or nearly so. Their music comes as close as any music can come to conveying how I experience the world, as what Donna Williams calls 'pattern, form, and feel'. And Elizabeth Fraser has a beautiful voice, I once had a teenage crush on her. As I type this, I have a cat sitting on my shoulder, cheek to cheek with me, peering around and occasionally rubbing me. My relationship to her goes back 15 years to when she was six months old, and we've rarely been parted since. It's been an honor to watch her grow into a wise but crotchety old lady cat. She knows she's technically older than me and tells me so sometimes, especially during arguments. She has trouble with the fact that there are parts of the human world I know better than she does. She sees me as her big, dumb kitten who needs protecting, and is beside herself with worry if I end up in the hospital (which seems to happen frequently these days). I don't experience myself as having a gender identity, I call it being genderless. You'll sometimes see the pronouns sie and hir in my work, they are gender-neutral pronouns pronounced 'see' and 'hear'. I was raised female, which gives me both disadvantages (outside the trans community) and advantages (inside the trans community). You don't have to remember my pronouns, lots of people have trouble with gender-neutral pronouns. I won't be upset with you. People make mistakes, and some people just can't get the hang of new words, and that's okay. I have vocabulary problems myself (mostly comprehension), I'm not going to penalize other people for having vocabulary problems of their own. Right now my father is dying of cancer that's metastatized so many places they can't figure out where it started, my mother has severe myasthenia gravis that can land her in the ICU (and she's my father's primary caretaker), my "second mother" (who took over when I grew up and my family didn't know how to prepare me for the world) has endometrial cancer, and my cat is getting old. All of this is bringing death to the forefront of my mind and my poetry. In fact I think I've been able to write more poetry because of all the feelings about so many people dying or with precarious health. It was easier to handle when it was me that was going to die (averted by diagnosis and treatment of severe adrenal insufficiency that'd been going on for years). It's harder when it's someone else, someone you love. My other hobby is crocheting, and a lot of the time if I'm not writing, it'll be hard to find me without a crochet hook or occasional knitting needles in my hands. I love to be able to make things. I have been making hats and scarves with spare yarn (which I have a lot of), and putting them in City Hall Park wrapped in plastic, with notes saying "If you're cold, take this." I know what it's like to be cold in the winter, and if anyone takes them and stays warm I'd be overjoyed. You may have noticed I'm long-winded. This is actually the result of a language disability that makes it difficult for me to leave out details, to see two almost-identical things as perhaps something that doesn't need repeating, and to summarize or condense down my writing. I know this is a flaw in my writing, and it even prevents me from reading it sometimes, but I've found no solutions. Sometimes on my longer posts I'll put a "TL;DR" ("too long; didn''t read") summary at the end in bold letters for people to skip down to.. But even those don't feel adequate, even when I can do theme, which is not always. I think I'm getting better though. Learning haiku and other short poetry forms helps me condense my words better. Anyway, I hope that gives you enough idea of who I am. At my most basic, I care about Love more than anything (whenever I come near enough to death, I feel like I get asked the question "Did you Love, and did you express that Love properly?"), but like everyone I get sidetracked into things that are much less important. I try to make my writing an expression of Love. Sometimes I succeed.

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.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s