Children with autism and Asperger’s syndrome have a hard time understanding non-verbal communication. Tone of voice, eye-contact, voice inflection, facial expressions and gestures are often lost, instead, they hear only the literal interpretation of the words others say. Besides not understanding others non-verbal communication, they also don’t use non-verbal methods when talking to someone. Because most of the meaning of our communication is conveyed through non-verbal communication, children and teens with autism and AS are often lost or confused during conversations.
Although your child may not ever be completely comfortable with the non-verbal portions of a conversation, you can help them better use and understand non-verbal communication.
Play Charades - use short sentences or stories that convey emotion, such as “I saw the dog coming toward me and I was afraid.” You can add that you can use sounds and actions to act out the sentence or story but no words are allowed. This helps your child look at the body language and non-verbal cues to gain understanding about what is happening.
Watch videos - watch videos your child enjoys but doesn’t know by heart. Stop the video and talk about what the characters are doing and feeling. Discuss how the non-verbal communication helps you know what a person is feeling and guess what they will do next.
Use video monitoring - tape some social interactions between your child and other children. Watch the video and talk about different types of non-verbal communication, having your child pay attention to facial expressions, voice inflections and gestures. Discuss how paying attention to what the other person didn’t say can add different meanings to the words.
Create a facial expression book - for younger children, you can cut out pictures from magazines, showing different facial expressions and create a book with many different “looks.” For example, you might use “happy” and have several different faces showing how people show they are happy.
Matching emotions - cut out pictures of different emotions so that you have 2 pictures for each. Paste each picture on one side of an index card. Place all index cards face down. You and your child take turns turning over two cards and trying to make a match, such as two pictures denoting angry or two pictures showing someone who is scared or happy. If you find a match, you keep the cards, if the cards don’t match, you turn them back over and the next person takes a turn. If you are teaching your child words, you can create one card with the word and your child must find the matching picture.
Repeat phrases - use simple phrases, such as “I am on the swings” and use different voice inflections and facial expressions to show how that phrase can mean different things. For example, you might say it in an excited voice or a scared voice. Have your child practice saying statements in different ways.
Go people watching - take an afternoon and head to the mall. Pick a spot to sit where you can easily watch the people walking by. Discuss what you think they might be feeling, based on their gestures and facial expressions. Take turns, giving your child lots of opportunities to watch how people act and with one another.
Remember, practice and repetition will best help your child not only understand non-verbal communication but to be able to use it effectively.
“Developing Expressive Communication Skills for Non-verbal Children with Autism,” Date Unknown, Susan Stokes, writtenunder a contract with CESA 7 and funded by a discretionary grant from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
“Non-verbal Communication,” 2005, Sept, TE Editor, British Council
“Nonverbal Communication: Teaching Your Child the Skills of Social Success,” 2003, Cynthia Burggraf Torppa, Ph.D., Ohio State University
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.