INTEGRATING VERBAL/NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION
Nonautistics organically and seamlessly synthesize and utilize their own verbal and nonverbal communication as they recognize, read, and respond to that of others. For autistics, this process is analog and deliberate. Incorporating what they are seeing (facial expressions, postural changes, gestures, etc.) and hearing (content, tone, cadence, emphasis) is a lot like mixing oil and water. Autistics have learned to rely on verbal content and supplement with one or two nonverbal communication modes.
“I realized as an adult that I read most body language as negative. I assumed that everyone was annoyed/bored/disappointed.“
Autistics compensate for their lack of organic understanding of nonverbal communication through “masking”, an exhausting internal process of monitoring and questioning one’s words, facial expressions, posture, and gestures. Masking is a tool used by autistics in response to negative feedback about their behaviors. Some autistics do not gather accurate information from nonverbal cues. For others, the intense mental and emotional energy of verbally interacting can disrupt autistics’ ability to act upon the information they garner from these cues.
“For me, monitoring posture, body language, facial expressions, volume, voice, and eye gaze is always something that is taking a small amount of conscious thought in the back of my mind: ‘Am I doing the right amount of eye contact?’ ‘Is my posture natural and not stiff?’ ‘What do I need to be doing with my hands?’ ‘Should I smile, nod, laugh?’
EYE CONTACT/BODY LANGUAGE/GESTURES
Similar to their feelings about small talk, autistic adults dislike eye contact. They are overwhelmed or confused by the data they receive. They are discomfited by the intimacy of the action. They have figured out “hacks” - looking between the eyes, looking toward someone’s forehead, finding a fixed point behind someone - to mimic and fool others into thinking eye contact is being reciprocated. But, it is not natural or comfortable, so they either use it too much or too little. Explaining to a diagnostician that eye contact has been “self-taught” and “forced” is very important.
“Eye contact feels incredibly personal to me; like a direct line from my soul to the other person’s. It’s electric and intense. I can manage when necessary, but it’s not natural or comfortable for me unless it’s with someone I know and trust.”
Gestures are often used for affective purposes, such as conveying concern, offering support, getting attention, and providing comfort. It is implied that these gestures involve physically touching another person, no matter how brief. Autistics are not comfortable with nor comforted by such gestures. Autistics may view affective gestures as an invasion, unnecessary, uncomfortable, or even painful. As such, they may stiffen or recoil when such gestures are offered to them and curtail or avoid their own use of these gestures.
“I know that most people touch someone on the arm or back, or offer a hug when comforting a friend, but I get so uncomfortable if someone I’m not close to does that to me that I just can’t bear to do it to someone else. I can sit with someone, say I’m sorry, listen, but I only hug close friends; and even then I ask if they want a hug because that’s what I would want someone to do for me.”
Body language acquires meaning based on a myriad of factors that involve sophisticated perspective taking. Like all humans, autistics use body language, but they may be unaware they are using it and of its meaning.
Further, autistics often describe gestures used by others as distracting at best, and confusing at worst. Gestures are yet another layer of communication added to a complicated mix of information through which autistics are forced to sort in order to communicate with other people.
“My high school speech coach told me that my body language and gestures were “aggressive”. It took a lot of practice to learn how to look “not aggressive” since I didn’t even know I was doing it in the first place.”
Autistics experience frustration with the use of facial expressions. Facial expressions are learned after years of criticism and practice in front of a mirror. Sometimes, their facial expressions do not match their emotions. Others may describe these facial expressions as awkward, strained, or not quite right. This poor reception to genuine attempts to use facial expressions often leads autistics to reduce the number of facial expressions they routinely use.
“When I smile, the world sees a blank face even though I know I am smiling. Most people think I look bored or mad all of the time. This means if I want people to know I am smiling or scowling, I have to contort my face into what they perceive as a smile or a scowl...a skillset I have honed after years of practicing in front of mirrors. Ironically, if anyone thought to ask me how I feel, I would tell them; it’s when my face and my emotions do not match that they become frustrated. This, in turn, frustrates me.”
Tone of voice is another area of nonverbal communication that often frustrates autistics. Changes in volume, especially increases in volume, occur with agitation or excitement. Changes in volume are also often accompanied by increases in environmental noises, both ambient and conversation. In addition to modulating volume, autistics have other tonal differences. They may use a tone that is “too direct”, while others may sound meek or childish. These tone of voice differences often create unintended outcomes.
“If I’ve heard “You’re too loud!” once, I’ve heard it a million times. I get excited, or slightly upset, or if the ambient noise gets loud, and I raise my voice. I don’t even notice I’m doing it, but everyone else does. And they waste no time telling me.”
The feelings autistics are experiencing and the feelings autistics are conveying do not always match. Autistics are known to have a flat (or expressionless) resting face, which is often misinterpreted as an angry, unapproachable face. Other times, the resting face may be interpreted as sad or upset, eliciting unwanted questions of “Are you okay?”, which are bewildering to autistics. It bears mentioning that autistics experience deep emotions, even if their faces do not convey as such.
“The number of times I’ve had to say “Uh, fine, why?” Is literally too many to count. Eventually I learned that apparently my resting/thinking face looks like I’m pissed off or in pain, so people tend to ask if I’m ok. Luckily people in my office are used to it, but if I go to offsite meetings I spend half my time consciously focusing on making my face look “normal” so that I don’t scare the folks that don’t know me. It’s exhausting.”