People with Asperger’s have difficulty socializing. A large part of this difficulty is caused by our struggle to read body language. Being able to read and interpret the signals people send out through their body language is a crucial social skill. Failing to notice the cues and signals people communicate through their body language can lead to misunderstandings and can cause people to perceive us as being disinterested, insensitive or rude. The good news is that it is possible to learn how to read body language through practice, attention to detail and role-play.
What Is body language?
Body language is a form of non-verbal communication where feelings, thoughts or intentions are expressed by physical movements. It encompasses the following:
Body Posture – how we position our bodies
Eye Movement – looking at people when speaking to them
Touch – how our bodies connect with other people.
Facial Expressions – how we move our facial muscles (for example, smile, grimace and frown).
Gestures – the movement of our hands, face or head.
Personal Space – giving people some personal space (for example, not standing too close to them so as to make them feel uncomfortable).
How Important Is Body Language As A Form of Communication?
According to studies conducted by Professor Mehrabian, only 7% of communication is verbal. The remaining 93% of communication is non-verbal communication (of which 55% is made up of body language and 38% is made up of tone of voice). In other words, understanding non-verbal communication (which includes body language, facial expressions and tone of voice) is essential if we are to navigate social interactions successfully. Since most of what is communicated is conveyed through our bodies and voices, rather than the spoken word, being unable to read the nuances of body language places us at a significant social disadvantage.
Most people are not formally taught how to read non-verbal clues. Most people are naturally able to recognize the clues that tell us the true meaning of what is being communicated. However, people with Asperger’s tend to struggle to understand and decipher this mysterious language. We are frequently left misinterpreting what is actually being communicated. It’s the non-verbal clues that allow a listener to judge whether the speaker is being sincere, is joking or being sarcastic. Without recognizing the true message, our responses can often be inappropriate. This can lead to misunderstandings and social isolation.
What Can You Do To Improve Your Ability to Read Body Language?
The ability to understand non-verbal communication can be learned and can be significantly improved if you make a concerted effort to observe, study and imitate people’s body language.
Improve Understanding of Emotions – The first step in understanding any type of non-verbal communication is to make sure that you understand the emotions behind the body language or expressions that you want to learn. In other words, before you are ready to learn to recognize body postures that indicate anger, you must first understand what anger feels like and when you are likely to feel angry.
People with Asperger’s understand basic emotions. For example, we know when we are feeling happy, sad, scared, angry, surprised or disgusted. However, we may need help in understanding the different intensities of feelings and more subtle emotions. For example, recognizing whether someone is bored, pensive or distracted.
Below is a feelings wheel that sets out our basic emotions and the myriad of micro emotions within our basic emotions.
HOW TO READ BODY LANGUAGE
Study and Learn to Read Body Language – Whereas most people learn to read body language naturally, most people with Asperger's will need to study and learn to read body language through observation and imitation. Below are some tips on how to improve your ability to read body language:
Step 1 – Begin by looking at pictures in magazines and books of various objects that elicit certain emotions. For example, looking at a picture of a puppy may elicit a feeling of happiness, whereas looking at a picture of a rabid dog foaming from the mouth may elicit a feeling of fear and disgust. This exercise will help you to recognize different types of emotion.
Step 2 – Look at photos of people in different situations that elicit certain emotions. For example, for surprise, look at a photo of someone getting engaged or for frustration, look at a photo of an Olympian that has just lost a race. Teach yourself to recognize a wide range of different expressions.
Step 3 – Watch lots of TV shows and films. Select a character and try to identify the emotions he/she is feeling by observing his/her body language, including facial expressions, tone of voice, gestures and posture.
Step 4 – Watch a TV show or film without the volume. Pick a character and try to decipher how the character is feeling and what the character is communicating through his/her body language. Watch the TV show or film again, this time with volume, to see if you were correct in your interpretation of body language.
Step 5 – Practice imitating and acting out emotions on the feelings wheel through your body language. Practice in front of a mirror or record yourself so that you can replay your movements and analyze how to improve them. Ask you parents to guess what emotion you are trying to communicate.
Interpreting Body Language in the Context of the Situation
Learning to read body language is extremely complex, especially since it is fleeting and has to be processed very quickly. There are so many clues to interpret and it is not nearly as simple as seeing a specific posture or gesture and remembering what it means. Body language has different meanings in different situations. It needs to be considered in context as well as along with facial expressions and tone of voice.
What should I Focus On When Observing Body Language?
Body Posture – When observing body posture, does the body look tense or relaxed? Is it open or closed (arms crossed) and/or slumped? Is the person leaning towards or away from the other person? Use your own body to imitate these postures and to get a sense of how these postures feel. Focus on postures that are critical to reading social situations, such as postures showing anger, interest or disgust.
Below are some examples of messages communicated through our body posture:
Standing straight, with shoulders back – This posture shows that one is feeling confident.
Walking, hands in pocket, hunched shoulders – This posture can mean that the person is feeling dejected.
One-sided head tilt – Tilting the head suggests that one is listening with interest to what others are saying.
Crossed arms – Crossed arms can indicate that a person is feel defensive, self-protective or closed-off.
Eye Movement – The most basic information gained from eye movement is whether someone is interested and giving you their unidvided attention. Is the person you are talking to showing interest in what you are saying by orienting towards you and looking at you or is the person gazing around and turning away from you?
Below are some examples of messages communicated through our eye movement:
If a person’s eyes seem focused far away, that usually indicates that he/she is in deep thought or not listening.
Lowered eyebrows and squinted eyes can mean that the person is trying to understanding what is being said or going on.
If a person looks to the sides a lot he/she could be nervous, lying or distracted.
Someone that looks down at the floor a lot is probably shy or timid. People also tend to look down when they are upset or trying to hide something emotional.
Touch – Many people with Asperger’s are sensitive to touch. As a result, we are much more likely to process and interpret social touch very differently than people that do not have Asperger’s. Unfortunately, touch is an important form of communication. Giving someone a hug to comfort them, returning a high five or touching someone on the shoulder to get their attention are examples of how touch is used to communicate a message. If you do not like to be touched, let people know so that they know not to expect physical contact from you.
Facial Expressions – Many people with Asperger’s have limited facial expressions, sometimes referred to as a “flat affect” (a term used to describe a lack of emotional reaction). Our facial expressions can be fixed and appear artificial, instead of naturally animated. Since our expressive gestures are limited, our faces do not express emotions that usually evoke strong facial expressions in others. For example, shock, surprise and anger. However, just because we have flat facial expressions does not mean that we do not have feelings or emotions. It is just that our internal feelings are not reflected on our faces.
However, since facial expressions are an important form of non-verbal social communication that is essential for interpersonal relationships, it is important that we to practice making facial expressions and practice reading facial expressions in others. Being unable to express our selves through facial expressions and struggling to read others facial expressions, makes connecting and engaging with people very difficult. It also increases the risk that we will be excluded and isolated from our peers because of our robotic appearance.
Gestures – Gestures are visible bodily actions that convey a message. They are not limited to hand motions and head movements. There are hundreds of gestures. As if understanding gestures weren’t complicated enough, new ones are created everyday and some vary from culture to culture.
The most common gestures are greetings and ones showing approval, such as a nod or thumbs-up. Most people with Asperger’s understand the most common gestures but struggle to recognize the more subtle gestures. it is essential that we also learn to recognize subtle gestures if we are to succeed in our social interactions.
Examples of subtle gestures, include (but are not limited to):
Eye roll – this indicates annoyance, incredulity and/or frustration.
Finger wag – this means you are being reprimanded.
Finger poke – this is a sign of aggression.
Shrugging – this means I don’t know or don’t care.
Leaning in – when someone leans in they are expressing a desire to be close.
Leaning out – when someone leans away they are expressing a desire to disengage or avoid contact.
Personal Space – Invading other people’s personal space can cause many awkward social situations and can cause people to avoid you. However, respecting people's personal space can be accomplished through a little knowledge and lots of practice. In order to ensure you do not invade someone’s personal space, imagine that there is an invisible bubble that surrounds you, a bubble the size of a hula-hoop. When socializing, try to keep the invisible bubble in mind so that you avoid encroaching on other people’s personal space. Since people with Asperger's tend to be a bit clumsy, this will also ensure that you don’t stumble or bump into the person you are speaking to.
The Importance of the Tone of Our Voice
The intonation of our voice is extremely important in conveying our emotions. Unfortunately, some people with Asperger’s tend to talk in a flat, monotone manner. The tone of our voice can bridge the gap between what we say and what we mean. It can convey whether we are enthusiastic or are being sarcastic and whether we mean something seriously or just as a joke.
When talking about something awesome and exciting, try to make yourself sound excited too. Talking in a monotone manner can make it sound as if you are depressed. I tend to speak in a monotone manner, which can sometimes confuse people. For example, when I told my friends that I was going to a Coldplay concert, I told them in a flat manner that did not convey the excitement I actually felt.
It is also important to remember not to speak too loudly or too quietly. This will depend on the particular circumstances, for example on the distance between you and the other person and how noisy the room is. Be particularly conscious of when you are trying to be discreet or when a bit of secrecy is required. Sometimes we think we are whispering when we are in fact speaking at our normal volume.