Body language

INTERPRETING NONVERBAL CUES

Aspies often have problems picking up and accurately decoding body language, facial expressions and other non-verbal cues.

“As children, aspies lack the inborn ‘detective skills’ to automatically determine and integrate the ‘unwritten rules’ of personal conduct and body language (often including facial expressions). Parents do not have to actively teach their children to recognize these nonverbal cues, because the children have a built-in ability to learn them, and to incorporate them appropriately into their own code of conduct. Aspies never pick up on these things, so as adults, they still do not have the ability to recognize these nonverbal signals. Of course, this can cause confusion when NTs and aspies communicate. The NT may send signals that he is not interested in a particular topic, or that he has tired of talking to the other person completely.  The aspie will miss these signals, and the NT typically grows more and more angry as his signals, from his perspective (and at an unconscious level), are ignored.”

Frank Klein, Aspie, from What is Asperger’s Syndrome?

Difficulties interpreting body language and facial expressions can be a real deficiency (plain sucking at such things) or due to being temporarily overwhelmed, or simply not looking.

I’ve noticed that on TV, I can detect the most subtle facial expressions and interpret them accurately, but in real life I can easily miss even the most ‘obvious’ ones since I’m not as comfortable looking a people if there is a risk that they’ll stare back and try to make eye-contact. I also tend to get overstimulated and over excited in the company of others, and that too makes it a lot harder to notice and process things correctly, compared to when I’m sitting alone and relaxed in front of the TV.

Ing, site-author

Some Aspies may become excellent at picking up non-verbal cues, though some only from their family & close friends.

“Another paradox is that my daughter and I have a ‘private’ nonverbal language. [The psychologists] couldn’t understand it at all.”

Leif, father with Aspie traits from Sweden

Some of us are better at reading animal body language than human, possibly due to being geared for picking up subtler body language than what humans usually use, or from feeling more of an affinity with animals than with fellow humans.

“I am very sensitive to animal behaviors and what they are feeling. I can read their body language very well but simply cannot in one species and one species only: Homo Sapiens. I also find it somewhat difficult to read and understand the expressions of the great apes and any monkey that does not have fur on its face. I had come to the conclusion that I have a problem reading primate body language and behavior because, like humans, other primates (the great apes especially) exaggerate their facial expressions, and so you never know what’s real. The fur on other animals’ faces obscures such exaggeration, or else those animals don’t exaggerate their expressions.”

Tom, Aspie from USA

DISPLAYING NONVERBAL CUES

Many Aspies not only have difficulties interpreting the body language of others, but frequently get misinterpreted themselves. Common is to be accused of being in a bad mood even when one is actually not. Possibly due to being introverted, unaware of one’s appearance, and/or unable to adopt a fake facial expression for the benefit of others – especially not when lost in thought or hyper-focused on some special interest or other activity.

“I tend to look overly serious.  Even when I am happy, I tend to look very serious.  I don’t smile that much and find it difficult to smile on command, such as when people are taking pictures and they want me to smile.  If I force it, it looks really, really fakey.  When I do smile it tends to be a subtle smile.”

Ilah, HSP and probable Aspie from USA

“I find sometimes I have difficulty controlling my facial expression unless I concentrate on it (and then, of course, it looks fake). I could walk around all day with a smile, or a frown, or no expression at all and feel pretty much the same.”

– Kitty, adult Aspie from USA (?)

“Many times people have said I look angry or at least deep in thought, but whatever the case may be, unapproachable. Perhaps what it is simply the look of being intent and knowing what you are doing that puts people off. For example, when shopping, I pretty much know exactly what I want and want to get it and get out. Most others seem to like to browse and chat and so on.”

William, Aspie from USA

“When you look at pictures from earlier in my life it is striking that if I’m not directly told to “smile into the camera” I always look troubled. Frowning brow, worried look in my eyes… no wonder I’ve been asked “are you sad/angry/irritated” so many times. Even when I feel just normal I apparently look troubled.”

Lavender_Blue, Aspie from Sweden

So don’t assume that an Aspie is grumpy or angry just because they’re not smiling. They may be feeling just fine – until you start pestering them about looking sour! 😉

Smiling is something many Aspies find hard to impossible to do unless they happen to feel genuinely happy at that particular time. (Some find it hard to smile even if they feel happy; it just doesn’t show on the outside.) Others may smile or laugh out of sheer nervousness, or inability to control their facial expressions and display their true feelings.

“I write better than I talk and have difficulty verbalising sometimes and don’t always get the tone right, have a nervous smile and laugh. I’ve gotten in the habit of smiling all time so that people won’t be put off by me, but then that backfires.  I know another Aspie who smiles all the time and it does look a little strange so I’ve stopped doing that so much but will alternate between being too smiley and chipper and being too reserved and stoney faced. I realize that I’ll never get it quite right so I just try to relax and when I do it all works a little better.”

Carrie, Aspie from USA

“When I was trying to describe how horrid the delivery of my baby was, I had to make a conscious effort not to smile, because then the staff would think I’m just exaggerating a little, or wondering ‘if it was that bad, why are you smiling?’”

Emma, Aspie from Sweden

“I think I also have a nervous smile and laugh – that I suppose can come across as inappropriate – I think this was partly learned – as when I don’t smile people assume I am miserable and want to know what is wrong – I can actually sound quite happy when I am extremely down. It seems my outer self is not a true reflection of the inner me and yet I cannot seem to do anything to change it – as I am not always aware of how I am coming across.”

Julie, Aspie from England

“I noticed, people will sometimes think I’m upset, when I’m merely deep in thought, and angry when I’m feeling emphatic or intense, but having no anger at all.”

– Lisa, Aspie (from USA?)

EYE CONTACT

For a sensitive person, eye-contact can be a huge distraction. Sometimes just having someone face you and talk right at you can be overwhelming – especially if that person is very intense. Looking away at such times is not meant to be impolite; it is simply an instinctive act of self-protection. In some cases even a sign of respect, like in Japan.

“I believe that neurologically typical people need eye contact because it’s part of the communication process for them. When people look into each other’s eyes, they can see that the ideas that they are conveying are being understood, and they can also tell how the other person might be feeling about what they’ve said.

”But Aspies are more like animals. In the animal world, the only time animals will look directly at one another is during confrontation. The animal that looks away first becomes the submissive one, and that is how I perceive eye contact. Besides being an assault on my senses, I see it as rude. By not looking at someone when I am talking to them, I am showing them respect. It means that I am not challenging them to respond the way I want them to respond, but am allowing them to respond however they choose.”

”By forcing me to look at them, they are trying to provoke the desired response from me, and I cannot fake what they want. If I do not like what they say, I cannot look them in the eye and tell them that. And as an Aspie, I must say what’s on my mind, because I detest lying.

”Aside from that, trying to listen to anything you say to begin with is difficult enough. As an Aspie, I live in a bubble. So for me to REALLY pay attention to you with all of my resources, I need to pull myself out of my bubble and THINK about what you are saying. I cannot be distracted by your eyes.”

Tom, Aspie from USA

When anyone but a baby keeps looking into my eyes for more than a second or two, it feels like an invasion.

Ing, site-author

“Sometimes looking into someone’s eyes is more intimate than I want to get for any length of time with most people. Eyes being the window on the soul, and all. I have no trouble with eye contact with people that I do feel a connection with and a lot of non verbal communication occurs through eye contact. It just feels too personal to have prolonged eye contact with strangers or aquaintances.”

Joan, Aspie from USA(?)

“The eyes are very powerful.  I find myself almost repelled by people’s eyes! But then again, the eyes ARE the doorway to the soul for me.  Even a few glances at the eyes can tell me so much about a person when I first meet them.  My first impressions are usually correct, and it’s based on the eyes.”

Wendi, Aspie from USA

Ability to make eye-contact may vary depending on how well one knows the other person.

“For me it depends on the situation. If I feel quite safe and know the person I am talking to, I usually have a quite normal eye-contact. But when talking to people I don’t know so well, I feel rather awkward looking into the eyes. I never avoid it totally, but I can’t keep the eye-contact for more than a few seconds. When people look at me for a longer time (that is, long for me, normal for them) I often get embarrassed and then they ask me if I am nervous (which I am not).”

Maria, Aspie from Sweden

People with certain learning styles and dominant ear & brain hemispheres may need to look away, turn their dominant ear towards the person talking, perhaps even close their eyes, doodle or fiddle with something, in order to be able to really hear what the other person is saying and think up a reply. Many with AS, TS, SID and ADHD say the same thing; that they cannot both listen and have eye contact at the same time.

“I find it difficult to analyse and think on the spot [in conversation] while focusing my eyes on anything.  I seem to have to turn the vision off or at least down for my brain to function at its highest analytical level.  In a brainstorming type conversation my eye contact is more glances at the end of sentences or thoughts to see how the hearer is taking what I say, then back to unfocused eyes while the thought process continues.  If I had to stay focused on someone’s eyes while I spoke to them about what I was thinking it would be very difficult to be articulate about my thoughts.”

Joan, Aspie from USA (?)

“Eye contact when listening is no problem.  I probably stare too much, but when speaking, that is a different story, how do people manage to do eye contact while simultaneously thinking about what one is wanting to say? All I know, is… to look at someone right in the eyes (when I’m talking and they are looking at me) is next to impossible and uncomfortable, and I can’t keep focused on my thoughts. I always stop, look down or something.”

Lisa, Aspie from USA (?)

“With people I know well, I have trouble with eye contact if I want to understand what the person is saying…or if I’m trying to think about what to say, or talking.  The emotions in the eyes interfere and I can’t concentrate.”

Wendi, Aspie from USA

“At an old job, my supervisor scolded me for never being able to meet his gaze for long, he thought I was either being too shy, or that I did not like him, but the  problem was, I found his eye contact so intense, I had to always look away. He would also get mad at me for doodling at his unit meetings. I was not goofing off, I was actually able to concentrate better by doodling and avoiding having to meet his eyes.”

Joanie, person with SID from USA

Inability to focus on the person one is talking with could also be caused by visual focusing problems. Many autistics only use peripheral vision and look from the corner of their eyes.

“How do you encourage eye contact?  I am beginning to sound like a broken record. Continuously saying ‘look at my eyes..’ Now I just ask him with a giggle ‘Are you talking to the wall?’ or ‘Who are you talking to?’ Funny thing is I just recently realized he looks at everything out of the corner of his eyes.  Opthomologist doesn’t think anything is wrong.”

Nicol, mother of ASD child

Some may be staring intently at the other person’s mouth in order to get more cues as to what the person is saying – especially if one has poor hearing or auditory processing difficulties, or is a visual learner. This is perfectly appropriate.

“I’ve come to realise that I too focus on people’s mouth when they talk. Especially when I watch TV. If they keep their hand in front of their mouth, I have difficulty hearing what they’re saying.”

Berit, mother with Aspie traits from Sweden

I’ve read in an etiquette book that when you’re just having a conversation, it is more correct to look at the other person’s mouth rather than into their eyes. Only lovers – and perhaps parent & infant – can look into each others’ eyes for any prolonged period of time without it being awkward or intrusive. With all others, you can make quick eye contact now and then just to continually reconfirm your connection, but not keep having eye-contact throughout the conversation.

Unfortunately, most people see eye-contact as a sign of honesty and connection and suspect those who avoid eye-contact of being shifty, insecure or plain rude, when it can be an Aspie with above average honesty just suffering from sensory sensitivity.

Some Aspies may stare too much at others and not realize that it might be interpreted as impolite or improper.

“In many situations, I am also uncertain for how long time I should have eye-contact. I don’t really know what is normal, and I cannot really feel the difference between normal eye-contact and staring. A psychologist once told me I either look too little or too much.”

Maria, Aspie from Sweden

“I found out that I do look people in the eyes, but I forget to look away, so a friend told me that I frighten people or they feel strange about me looking them straight in the eyes all the time 🙂 “Now I am trying to change between the person I am talking to and the room for example, but that distracts me so much that I can not concentrate on the conversation. Will go on trying anyway :-)”

Lida, Aspie from the Netherlands

“Such complexities, I should get cool glasses and not have to worry about specific eye arrangements.”

Nathan, Aspie from USA

LINKS

On Understanding Body Language by Sondra Williams

1 Comment »

  1. Dagebo said,

    Great post! Now I finally understand some reasons as to why Aspies do what they do. This really gave me some insight into understanding Aspies as I am an NT with an Aspie girlfriend. Keep it up 🙂


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