Body language is the second form of communication that humans use to express their wants and emotions.
For typical adults, body language is easy to understand. If you want someone to come closer to you, you wave them over. If you want them to know you’re angry, you’ll probably have a scowl on your face. If you’re sad, you’re more likely to be facing away from people with your arms and legs crossed or close to your body. If you’re happy, you’re probably smiling outwardly and your body is open and flexible.
Makes sense, right?
Well, for someone with autism, body language is not so easy to understand. Due to a limited biological capacity to understand those wants and emotions, autism causes a blurred interpretation of social cues. That’s why many people find their peers with autism to be socially awkward and it’s why people with autism tend to have few or no friends. That’s also why we try to teach our A4A buddies how to read body language during play sessions… We want to change that! You can read more about how to teach your buddy to read body language here.
In the meantime, though, you can use your innate ability to read “typical” body language to your advantage as an A4A volunteer when you work with your buddy on the spectrum.
Of course, “autism body language” is somewhat of a misnomer—every person with autism is unique, so it is difficult to make generalizations about people on the spectrum as a whole. But, understanding common patterns and misconceptions between “typical” and “autism” body language will help you to maximize your buddy’s A4A experience. And isn’t that what we’re all here for? 🙂
Autism body language might differ from typical body language in a few ways:
- Lack of eye contact from a person with autism probably does not mean inattention.
Here’s why: Your buddy could be trying to concentrate on your words, and the easier way to do that is to focus on something(s) inanimate: like your shirt or the floor. Just because their eyes are aren’t focused on yours doesn’t mean that their brain is unfocused.
If you feel like you haven’t made a confirming connection in a few minutes during a play session, and think your buddy may be zoning out, just say his/her name and ask a question like “how does that sound?”
- Weird faces and flapping arms does not mean that a person with autism is dangerous.
Here’s why: Movements that seem jerky, clumsy, forceful, or “angry” may not mean anger—it may be dyspraxia, cerebral palsy, sensory processing disorder, or other disabilities that can affect ease of movement.
If your buddy moves this way often, attribute it to their natural physical challenges, and be wary of misreading them as upset when they’re just trying to do something their normal way.
- Stimming is not a form of rudeness.
Here’s why: Stimming can help with self-calming, focus, and feeling good in general. It actually shows your buddy is comfortable enough around you to be completely themselves.
If a person who has autism is stimming while talking to you, assume that it enhances rather than detracts from their focus. That’s a good thing! There are different kinds of stimming, and each person’s stimming is different, so be sure to ask them or their guardian what their unique variations mean.
- Blank expressions are just as good as smiling ones.
Here’s why: When people on the spectrum try to focus, many relax their facial muscles. Take a blank expression as a sign of thoughtfulness, not emptiness! They can still hear you, even when they’re not nodding along the entire time.
- Understand that it’s okay to not understand.
Here’s why: There’s a saying in the autism community that “if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” It means that each person brings their own individuality to the relationship, and passing judgment on one person with autism based on one different interaction with another, would be totally unfair.
So, if you’re confused, just ask! Parents are more than happy to share all that they’ve learned about communicating with their special son or daughter, and welcoming someone into their autism team is always a happy occasion. Celebrate each and every one of your milestones!