Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A New Way of Thinking About Nonverbal Communication/Gestures and Autism

"Have I ever told you how the actions of others stop me from talking? It is as if their hand movements, their eyes or their tone of voice stops me from talking. I find myself focusing on their behaviors and forgetting what I should say in response. It is as if their behaviors become more important than their words. For example, when my mother raises her eyebrows at the same time she raises her voice, I find I cannot move or talk. It feels like her behaviors are a sign for me to stop and I can't go beyond that. I see my sister yell back at my mother at times like that, but I can't. I see that my sister gets into trouble for responding back. Maybe my way isn't so bad, but I wonder what makes me stop and not have the ability to respond? I feel like my body just won't let me respond. At other times, when my mother is in a good mood, I see happy behaviors - her eyes twinkle, her tone of voice is mellow and soft. At times like this, I say to myself I need to capture this moment and try to fit in all my words. Don't they say ---it's all in the timing?"

What is this autistic boy telling us? He seems to be entrapped by others' nonverbal gestures. He can see that this does not stop his sister from talking back to their mother. He wonders why it stops him. He also realizes that if his mother is in a good mood he has more of a chance in using 'words' (if he has them).

Let's take a moment to focus on this area of nonverbal communication. It seems that our autistic boy has no choice but to focus on the nonverbal gestures of others and in turn feels manipulated by their nonverbal gestures. The behaviors of others stop or propel him to talk. From the perspective of an Incomplete Attachment, we can possibly make sense of what is going on here. Let's take a step back and think about nonverbal communication and nonverbal gestures. From my point of view, the definition of nonverbal communication is the body's way of unconsciously communicating feelings and emotions. Sometimes a typical person may not have access to his emotions so that person may not be consciously in touch with a specific feeling and thus cannot verbally express a particular feeling. Fortunately, our bodies always are in touch with our emotions and those feelings come out through our nonverbal gestures/communications. The autistic person (low functioning) does not have access to words, but his body retains the memory of his emotions. Thus the unconscious (low functioning) autistic child is tuned into nonverbal communication much more than he is tuned into verbal communication. That is why our autistic boy focuses on the nonverbal gestures of others. Typical individuals are simultaneously unconsciously and consciously aware of what others (this will depend on the individual and their level of consciousness of nonverbal gestures) are saying nonverbally. If we think of the autistic individual as unconscious, he would by definition be more attuned to nonverbal communication versus verbal communication.

Another point to remember here is that not only is our autistic boy more attuned to nonverbal communication as compared to the typical person, but he also has no way to access his feelings and subsequently communicate those feelings (lacks self-agency). Thus he is left to only focus on the nonverbal communication and feel manipulated by others' gestures.

Finally, as this autistic boy develops, gains an attachment, has access to his feelings, develops self-agency and is less dissociated he will not only be able to read others nonverbal gestures, but also will be able to verbally express his feelings like all 'typical' people do. Thus as the autistic person develops, we see a change in his ability to function in the world. Autism is seen on a continuum from low functioning to high functioning to Asperger's. I think there is a good reason to look at autism in this way. The child does develop. The child can actually move off of this continuum and become as typical as others.

Because the person with autism has never experienced a completed attachment, his attachment process will be slow. Without an attachment, the outside world feels unsafe and confusing. Thus the first step for the caregiver/therapist is to go within the child's world. By doing this, you are demonstrating that you are willing to share his space. As he can trust you in his world, he will begin to slowly merge into your "world. He will gain the confidence that mobilizes his self-agency and as this occurs he will be able to access his emotions and use words in relationship to others.

A key element to remember as you help the child complete the attachment process is to maintain the belief and faith that your child can develop.

Karen Savlov is a psychoanalyst and Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in West Los Angeles, California. My specialty is Autism Spectrum Disorders, anger, dissociation, depression, anxiety and relationships. For new and creative ways to think about autism read and follow my blog at I can also be followed on Twitter at Autism Thoughts.

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