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  • Writer's pictureJackson McMahan

How Autistic Individuals Can Improve Their Nonverbal Communication Skills

By guest writer Jackson McMahan


Communication is a fundamental part of our lives, serving as the bedrock of connection and understanding with those around us. It includes various nonverbal forms of conveyance that don’t include words, like facial expressions, body language, gestures, and tone of voice, which are just as powerful in conveying emotions, intentions, and information.

One young adult communicating through nonverbal language with her hand up and body facing away from another adult, indicating that she does not want to talk.

This silent language often speaks louder than words to provide a richer, more nuanced layer to human interaction. That said, learning the art of nonverbal communication does not come easily for everyone. For many autistic individuals, interpreting and expressing nonverbal cues can be challenging and can often lead to misunderstandings and feelings of isolation in social settings.


While a neurotypical person can often instinctively understand subtle nonverbal signals, autistic individuals may struggle to recognize them. This challenge can make it hard for them to respond appropriately during interactions and affects their ability to form and maintain relationships with peers. Additionally, they might struggle to use their body language and facial expressions to communicate with others, which matters when trying to make a good impression and bond with others.


Because of these factors, autistic individuals who want to connect with others may wish to overcome their struggles with nonverbal communication. Mastering these silent cues can enhance their social interactions and relationships while providing a foundation for greater self-confidence and self-expression. Furthermore, honing nonverbal communication skills can be a valuable asset in professional environments that aids in successful job interviews and collaborative workplace dynamics.


Understanding Nonverbal Communication


Definition and Types of Nonverbal Communication

Nonverbal communication refers to the transmission of messages without using words. It's a silent language that speaks volumes and plays a key role in how we convey meaning and emotions to others. Nonverbal communication can be categorized into several types.


  • Facial Expressions: The face is a powerful communicator that can express a wide range of emotions without saying a single word.

  • Body Language: How we use our body movements or gestures projects feelings or intentions.

  • Tone of Voice: The way words are spoken can change the meaning they convey, with variations in pitch, speed, and volume expressing different emotions.

  • Posture and Space: How we sit, stand, and position ourselves, as well as the distance we maintain from others, also communicates messages nonverbally.


The Role of Nonverbal Cues in Daily Interactions

One woman listening intently to another woman as she speaks.

In everyday interactions, nonverbal cues often complement, reinforce, or even contradict verbal messages. Secret: where there is conflict, always go with the nonverbal cues, NOT the words someone is using. Nonverbal clues provide context to words to make communication clearer and more effective. For example, a smile can enhance a compliment while a frown may signal disagreement or confusion, even if words are not explicitly expressing discontent.


Challenges for Autistic Individuals

Autistic individuals often face challenges in both interpreting and expressing nonverbal cues. This can happen in several ways:


  • Struggling with Recognizing Facial Expressions: Subtle expressions may be hard to decipher, which can result in misunderstandings.

  • Misinterpreting Body Language: Gestures and postures that seem obvious to neurotypical people might be confusing or meaningless to autistic individuals.

  • Having Difficulty with Eye Contact: Engaging in or maintaining eye contact can be uncomfortable or challenging for autistic individuals, which leaves them missing out on important communication clues.

  • Missing Nuances in Tone of Voice: Variations in pitch, intonation, and emphasis, including sarcasm, impact the meaning of spoken words, and may not be easily perceived by autistic individuals.


Why Put in the Effort?

Ideally, you have built a life where you can be your unmasked, authentic self most of the time, but the reality is that in order to achieve your goals, you may need to interact with people who have certain expectations about how communication works. It's essential to achieve a balance if you want to optimize your quality of life.


Improving nonverbal communication skills can enhance the quality of social interactions for autistic individuals with many people they might need to interact with. Mastering these skills can lead to:


  • Better Social Integration: Improved ability to form and maintain relationships with peers, which can lead to less loneliness.

  • Increased Self-Esteem: Confidence in social settings enhances self-esteem and overall well-being.

  • Enhanced Expressiveness: Ability to convey thoughts and emotions more effectively without relying solely on words will help those around them understand what they are experiencing.


Recognizing and Interpreting Nonverbal Cues


Strategies for Identifying and Understanding Nonverbal Cues

For autistic individuals, deciphering these nonverbal signals may not always be intuitive. However, with deliberate effort and practice, it is definitely possible to improve in this area. Here are some strategies to consider.


An autistic man looking for nonverbal clues from his female conversation partner.
  • Study and Practice: Learn about common facial expressions and body language cues and practice identifying them in various contexts. You can use flashcards, apps, or online resources to aid in this process.

  • Observation: Spend time observing interactions around you (preferably with people you know), paying close attention to the nonverbal cues exchanged. Watching movies or shows with a focus on body language and facial expressions can also help.

  • Ask for Feedback: Ask trusted friends or family members to provide feedback on your interpretation of nonverbal signals. This feedback can offer valuable insights and help you improve over time. The more you can fill your database with accurate examples, the easier it will get for you.


Practice Exercises and Real-Life Examples

Practical exercises can enhance your ability to recognize and understand nonverbal cues. Here are some activities to try.


  • Facial Expression Matching: Use flashcards or apps that display different facial expressions and match them with the corresponding emotions.

  • Body Language Scenarios: Practice interpreting body language in various scenarios, either through role-playing with others or using online platforms that offer interactive exercises.

  • Tone of Voice Recognition: Engage in listening exercises where you identify the emotions conveyed through different tones of voice. You can find audio clips online or ask someone to read sentences with varying intonations.

  • Modulating Voice Pitch and Volume: Practice speaking with varied pitch and volume to express different emotions and intentions. Pay attention to how others use their voice and try to incorporate similar variations.


Real-Life Application

Incorporate these exercises into your daily routine, and consciously apply the skills learned to real-life interactions. With consistent practice, you’ll likely notice your ability to interpret nonverbal cues accurately has improved.


Expressing Nonverbal Cues


Techniques for Improving Body Language and Facial Expressions

Effective nonverbal communication is not only about understanding others but also about expressing oneself clearly and confidently. With autistic individuals, they may need to consciously work on using body language and facial expressions that align with their verbal messages. Here are some techniques to consider.


Sixteen images of the same man in a blue shirt and tie making different facial expressions.
  • Mirror Practice: Stand in front of a mirror and practice making different facial expressions and body postures. Pay attention to how each expression looks and feels, and practice until it becomes more natural.

  • Video Recording: Record yourself while speaking or reacting to different scenarios. Playback and observe your nonverbal cues so you can identify what areas must be improved.

  • Role-Playing: Engage in role-playing exercises with someone you trust. Practice different social scenarios and receive feedback on your nonverbal communication.

  • Focus on the Speaker: When someone else is speaking, practice giving them your full attention. Neurotypical people expect that you will be facing them with the three T’s: your top, torso, and toes. In addition, avoid interrupting them while they speak and respond only after they've finished speaking.


Eye Contact and How to Practice It

Eye contact can be a challenging form of nonverbal communication for many autistic individuals. However, it’s an important part of building connection with many people and demonstrating attentiveness in some contexts, so it’s helpful to have this tool available just in case you need it. Here are steps to gradually improve eye contact.


  • Start Small: If direct eye contact is uncomfortable, start by looking at a spot close to the person’s eyes, like the bridge of their nose, but make sure to look away after several seconds or they will think you are staring, which is uncomfortable for most people.

  • Practice with Photos or Videos: Before engaging in real-life practice, use photographs or videos of faces to simulate eye contact in a low-pressure environment.

  • Use Timers: Practice making eye contact for short periods. As you become more comfortable, gradually increase the duration.


The reality, though, is that eye contact may be one of those things that requires so much of your cognitive bandwidth that it will always detract from your ability to actually comprehend what the other person is saying.


In this case, it's best to acknowledge what is expected and self-advocate by educating them because ultimately it will lead to better communication for you. And who knows! You might even develop an ally who understands you better and is happy to accommodate you. You can say something like, "I know that eye contact is expected here, but I can actually listen better if I'm glancing off to the side. I hope you don't mind." Then just do it!


Using Gestures and Posture to Convey Messages Effectively

Gestures and posture also play an important role in nonverbal communication. Here’s how to use them effectively.


  • Learn Common Gestures: Familiarize yourself with gestures that are commonly used in your culture and practice using them appropriately in conversations.

  • Maintain Open Posture: Practice maintaining a posture that is open and inviting. Avoid crossing your arms or slouching as these postures can be perceived as disinterest or defensiveness.

  • Respect Personal Space: Be aware of how important personal space is and practice maintaining a comfortable distance from others during interactions.

  • Give Feedback Through Nods or Short Verbal Affirmations: Use nods or brief verbal cues like “uh-huh” to show that you are engaged and following the conversation.

  • Use Emojis, Pictures, or Flashcards: Visual aids can be powerful tools for understanding and expressing emotions. Consider using emojis, pictures, or flashcards to help identify and communicate feelings and reactions.


Practice Consistently

Improving nonverbal communication skills takes time and consistent practice. Dedicate time each day to practice these techniques, and don’t be discouraged by initial challenges. With commitment and patience, expressing nonverbal cues will become a more intuitive and natural part of your communication style.


Seeking Professional Help


When and Why to Consider Professional Assistance

Although self-help strategies and support are invaluable, there may be situations where professional assistance is needed to further improve nonverbal communication skills. Consider seeking help if:


  • Progress is Stagnant: If you find that despite consistent practice, there’s little to no improvement, a professional can provide expert guidance and strategies.

  • Social Anxiety Increases: If anxiety in social situations is escalating instead of diminishing, professional intervention can offer coping mechanisms and targeted support.

  • It is Necessary to Navigate Complex Social Situations: Professionals can provide tailored training to manage intricate social scenarios that may be challenging to handle independently.


Types of Therapists and Coaches Specializing in Nonverbal Communication

A group of coaches giving feedback to their autistic students.

Various professionals specialize in helping autistic individuals enhance their nonverbal communication skills.


  • Speech and Language Therapists: They can assist in improving not only verbal but also nonverbal communication, focusing on understanding and using body language, facial expressions, and tone of voice effectively.

  • Occupational Therapists: These therapists can help improve motor skills and coordination, which can, in turn, enhance body language and gestures.

  • Autism Life Coaches: Specialized autism life coaches like some of the team members at Thrive Autism Coaching can offer personalized strategies and support to improve social and communication skills, providing tools and techniques that are practical and easily applicable in daily life.


Conclusion

Nonverbal communication holds immense power in shaping our connections, understanding, and experiences with the world around us. For autistic individuals, attempting this form of communication can present unique challenges, but with the right tools, strategies, and support, these challenges can be transformed into opportunities for growth and enrichment.


As you strive to improve your nonverbal communication skills, remember that every individual's journey is unique, and there's no one-size-fits-all approach. The key lies in consistent practice and knowing when to seek out additional feedback and support. As with any skill, mastery comes with time, patience, and perseverance.


It's critical to figure out what your goals in life are so you can determine how important it is for you to learn these skills. If your quality of life is where you want it, then there is no problem that needs solving. If you need to interact with people who communicate differently in order to achieve your goals, then improving your nonverbal communication skills might be a really powerful piece of the puzzle. It can open the door to more meaningful, fulfilling, and successful social interactions that positively contribute to your personal, academic, and professional life.


With determination, patience, and the right approach, autistic individuals can not only overcome challenges but also harness their unique strengths to communicate confidently and effectively in various social environments. The trip to mastering nonverbal communication may be challenging, but it is also rewarding, empowering, and likely to result in a future full of enriched social connections and opportunities.

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