Communication Series: Body Language and Gestures

Body Language and Gestures

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For many people, if a person were to walk up to them and make the gesture shown in the image above, they would know that that person wants to shake their hand. More specifically, that person is most likely greeting them and introducing themselves. People use gestures and use body language all the time to get their point across, or even as a means of communication. People point, shrug, wave, pull faces, nod and shake their heads, roll their eyes and purse their lips.

Now imagine you don’t understand or even pick up on gestures and body language, or that when you do pick them up you misinterpret them, and think about how difficult that makes communicating.

Gestures and body language can be very difficult components of communication for many autistic people to learn. It took me years to learn that someone’s facial expression (or tone of voice) might suggest that they don’t actually mean what they are saying and even now I have great difficulty with it. A lack of peer or adult imitation might mean that some autistic people will not automatically learn to point, or nod and shake their heads in response to questions through simply growing up. Using and understanding gestures, body language and facial expression may need to be broken down and taught like any other skill.

Whilst it might seem like a small topic area, when you start to break down the kinds of interactions and communications involved it can quickly become quite over-whelming when you realise that you might have to teach each of these gestures seperately. Just to give you some examples of the kinds of things you might be looking at teaching (expressively, receptively, or both) within this topic:

Gestures:

  • Pointing
  • Tapping on the arm to get attention
  • Shaking head yes or no in response to a question
  • Beckoning someone to approach you
  • Waving someone away
  • Greetings and farewells
  • Social gestures such as high-fives, fist bumps, pats on the back.
  • Thumbs up or thumbs down

Body Language/Tone of Voice/Facial Expression:

  • Help determine if someone is approachable
  • To help work out if someone is happy/sad/angry/etc.
  • To make yourself more or less approachable
  • To help determine if someone is serious, joking, being sarcastic, or teasing
  • To work out if people are enjoying your topic of conversation, or if you are boring or angering them

Whilst the gestures may be more immediately helpful for some people communicate, the second category can be invaluable for helping people avoid being bullied or used because of their difficulties detecting intent. Many autistic teenagers have found that whilst they can get on just fine academically in school and can hold conversations with people, they can become targets for malicious behaviour due to the fact they cannot determine if someone is being malicious or friendly. Whilst this malicious behaviour is of course the fault of the people perpetuating it, if we can help to teach autistic people to recognise and avoid situations then it can prevent harmful situations arising.

In the next related post I will give some suggestions for methods of teaching expressively and receptive pointing, so until then, leave any comments you have and I hope you enjoyed this introduction.


Disclaimer: The opinions and information provided in this post are my own, and based on personal, educational, and work-based experience. They do not reflect the opinions of any of the authors of the content referenced in this post. I am not affiliated or supported by any organisation, and this is meant to be an educational series of posts. The information posted here is not a substitute for advice and information provided by your own GP, speech and language therapist, occupational therapist or other professional in the field of autism, and should not be taken as such.

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