As an autistic person growing up in the 1970’s, I was acutely aware of my differences to the majority of my peers and society. My passion has always been for the great outdoors and I immerse myself in nature whenever I have the opportunity. I enjoy experiencing the changes of the seasons, and observing the tracks, signs, calls and behavior of wild animals as they go about their lives. Each of us follow our own ‘rules’ and live our different lives, but those animals do it with far more predictability than the humans I live with!
How do humans behave? Are we just “Naked Apes”?
It was not surprising that I was intrigued when I came across the book by Desmond Morris: “The Naked Ape”. Not only did it have a chimpanzee on the cover, its strapline was “A zoologist’s study of the human animal”. Perhaps I would finally be able to work out what all these unpredictable humans were up to! This book started my exploration of how people function and why they do the various things they do.
I very much saw myself as an outsider and not one of those humans I was reading about. Exactly in the same way as I studied books on hedgehog behavior or butterfly life cycles, I immersed myself in this knowledge and used it to become a better and more informed observer of humans. Perhaps I could use some of my newfound skills to get up close with this intriguing species! Maybe I could even fit in, and possibly, actually be accepted – just like Jane Goodall or David Attenborough when they communicated with apes who accepted them into their troops.
I read a great deal about humans and human behavior, including body language. I became highly skilled at using my abilities at pattern recognition to interpret, understand and predict what these puzzling creatures were up to. Interestingly, I did not use my empathizing skills to work people out.
What does empathy have to do with body language?
Autistic empathy may work differently to non-autistic empathy. This may be because most autistic people’s sensory processing systems work differently to those of the non-autistic majority. Not just how we hear, see or taste things – these differences can be quite obvious and are beginning to be more understood. But how we feel things too. Autistic people are also likely to have had very different life experiences to non-autistic people. We are more likely to have experienced adverse childhood experiences (ACE’s), discrimination at school or work, and often have different types of social skills.
We also use our bodies differently. Most humans use their bodies to regulate how they feel – to calm down or hype themselves up; to help themselves concentrate and focus; to let off steam or express emotions. Think bouncing on the spot to wake yourself up; chewing a pen when you’re concentrating hard; jiggling your knee in anticipation, or punching the air with delight. Autistic people use repetitive movements or actions throughout the day, for all the same reasons – and many more. Often we need to use these stims regularly and repeatedly. We frequently experience the world differently, and stimming provides regulating sensory input, a sense of predictability and control, and as an expression of how we are feeling.
My different sensory, social and physical experiences don’t prevent me from empathizing. In fact I am skilled at building rapport, seeing things from different perspectives, and connecting with people. But I have learned that I cannot base my personal use of empathy on the traditional “what does it feel like for me?” or “why would I do that?” type scenarios so often expressed when discussing empathy. I need to go for “why would they do that?” instead.
And I certainly can’t use my experience of how I use my body to communicate, to interpret other people’s communication. And when non-autistic people interpret my autistic body language based on their personal use of non-verbal communication, they frequently misinterpret me. But when we learn to read other people’s stims accurately, we see they are a form of communication, just like all other body language.
Learning about body language
Many autistic people who were diagnosed in adulthood have expressed how they too studied body language, psychology, and social sciences to work out how other people act. Many of us took our studies to such an advanced level that we could mask our autism so that we were able to seamlessly fit in with our peers – well, just enough to get bullied a bit less, but we were never totally convincing!
We didn’t convince ourselves either, and frequently autistic adults feel a loss of our sense of identity, and a negative impact on our mental health and wellbeing.
Learning about body language and other social communication has enabled me to understand people better, to mimic better, to adapt to different contexts and situations more effectively, and to ultimately fit in more easily. On the whole, it has been beneficial. I sincerely wish that non-autistic people would have as much curiosity and dedication towards understanding me as I have towards understanding them.
What does autistic body language look like?
In the same way that we cannot make generalizations about non-autistic body language, we cannot generalize about autistic body language either. There is no guide book that translates autistic body language into non-autistic communication! Each human is unique, and whilst there are some similar ways of using non-verbal communication, there are many variations – and even some major differences. A “thumbs up” in most Western cultures means approval, whereas in some countries it can be insulting, for example.
Even within the same culture there are gender, age, ethnicity, and individual differences in communication. Each speaking person has their own unique tone, accent, delivery and voice. Each autistic person will use their body to communicate different things in different ways, sometimes as an interactive form of communication, and sometimes purely expressive.
Guidelines for understanding autistic body language
The best guideline is to be non-judgmental, open-minded and get to know each person individually – regardless of their neurology or background. But most of all, remember just how much additional processing autistic people may be doing. Here are some examples of autistic body language and how it might be interpreted:
- A blank facial expression may not mean the person is miserable, upset, lacking in cognitive skills, or anything else at all. It could mean they are focusing intently on something else and haven’t any energy left for working out and putting on the “correct” facial expression.
- Using non-autistic body language effectively may use large amounts of energy and requires coordination and motor skills. An autistic person may have processing differences that affect how they coordinate their limbs – perhaps they are dyspraxic?
- A lack of use of gestures or body language should not be interpreted as the person being disinterested or shut off. Nor should it be viewed as the person “not understanding” gestures or body language.
- Processing differences can mean that a person may wish or intend to use gestures or body language, but the actions are out of synch with their speech – which may also be out of synch with their felt emotions – which may be out of synch with the speed they are processing information.
- Sensory processing differences may mean the autistic person is processing information that others aren’t even aware of – the sound of talking in the next room; the glare of the fluorescent lights; the feel of the label in the back of their jacket. All these distractions impact on the natural flow of spontaneous body language.
- Autistic people may suppress their need to regulate their senses (because of stigma, and because we frequently experience sensory input that others aren’t aware of). Stimming may help us regulate, but we may suppress our stims so that we are not discriminated against. This means we may remain dysregulated. Communication is always more effective when communication partners are regulated.
- If a person is stimming while interacting with you, it is likely they are doing it in order to make their communication skills more effective. It may regulate them, or help them to think, or help them manage their anxiety.
- If you are concerned that a person is stimming because your interaction is distressing for them, ask them. Check that it is not the environment giving them additional processing demands.
- If someone is choosing to interact with you whilst stimming, it is likely that they feel safe and comfortable enough to be able to stim in your company – view it as a compliment. It is not always necessary to understand why they are doing it, accepting that they do it is fine.
- Get to know individuals so that you understand what their body language means for them.
- Eye contact. Some autistic people like it, some don’t. Some find it painful. Let the autistic person take the lead and don’t interpret their lack of eye contact as a lack of interest. If it is painful for them but not for you, shouldn’t it be YOU adapting your behaviour to accommodate them, and not the other way round? Consider how most of us look away when thinking deeply about something – and remember all that extra processing the autistic person may be doing.
- Autistic people may have a muted sense of proprioception which means they are not receiving signals that tell them where parts of their body are. This may make using gestures and body language more difficult.
- Proprioceptive differences may also mean a person uses more or less force than needed to complete an action (have you ever picked up an almost empty cup of coffee thinking it is full and used enough force to throw it all over yourself? Yep, that’s me every day!). This may give the appearance of a person being angry or even aggressive when they are not, simply because of how they use their limbs when communicating.
- Enjoy the interaction for what it is. We don’t need to understand everything to enjoy it. I have missed out on lots of positive interactions ‘because I am so focused on “getting it right”, that I don’t enjoy just being there. My son and I used to lay on the bed next to each other when he was younger and “talk silly”. We’d enjoy all the back and forth of conversation. But words, sentences, topics, tone, body language, eye contact, were completely irrelevant. We’d just make noises or talk about our favorite things with no inhibitions or need to follow conventions – the pleasure was the communication.
Understanding each person’s behavior and preferences is the most important guideline
These are great examples, but they are also meant to point out the larger pattern of autistic individuality. Thinking about these and similar interactions should provide a steppingstone to greater understanding between different communities of people.