Communication's Dance

Communication's Dance

If you have not had the opportunity to view this youtube video ( you must take 2 minutes and treat yourself to these delightful twin baby boys, practicing the 80% of communication we so often take for granted.  As these little guys babble with 'dadada', a script can be written based on the exchange.  Observe the level of engagement between the boys, their eye gaze, how they orient their bodies toward one another, use gesture, employ vocal inflection to enhance a message, the appropriate responses they appear to provide one another; all without an intelligible word. Nonverbal communication is the cornerstone of how we share our messages, whether it is 'good morning', 'you rock my world', or 'I'm bored (sad, angry, wondering)".  All of this is communicated elegantly through the most subtle or overt presentation of nonverbal communication.  Our joint attention, body orientation, facial expression, intonation of voice, and gesture all enhance or belie our spoken message. 

Most of us intuitively learn the basis of communication long before we learn to speak.  We begin our lives crying to get our needs met, express pain or loneliness.  Soon, mutual engagement begins, to share an experience through eye gaze, cooing, and touching.  Our nonverbal communication is reinforced through consistent responses and positive outcomes.  However, as we recognize National Autism Awareness month, we may pause to understand how this primary modality to share our thoughts and feelings is not always readily available to individuals on the autism spectrum.  Missing key  information contributes to communication breakdown, misinterpretation of messages, behaviors and the resulting consequences of a message poorly sent or poorly interpreted. 

In "be different:  Adventures of a Free-Range Aspergian", John Elder Robison shares his experiences related to the neurotypical ('nypicals', as he refers to those not on the spectrum) assumption about the role nonverbal communication plays in the life of an individual on the spectrum.  Robison writes, "Don't worry, he doesn't even notice" was a common refrain when people talked behind my back.  Well, let me assure you, I may not have been able to read from people's subtle clues their thoughts and feelings or their expectations of me, but I absolutely noticed when they rejected or disregarded me, and I still do.  I may seem robotic and mechanical sometimes, but there is nothing mechanical or cold about my internal feelings.  I am just as sensitive as anyone to snide remarks and criticism.  I cried inside fifty years ago, and I still do today" (page 86).  He goes on to explain, "The worst thing is when I completely miss something because I'm preoccupied and my senses -  such as they are - are almost turned off."  "...I think my life experience shows that I feel things at least as deeply as anyone else." "I know there is nothing at all wrong with my ability to feel joy or sadness or love or anger or anything else.  All that's missing is the trigger.  With a nypical person, one look from someone else can set those emotions roiling.  With me, it takes more than a glance.  But once my emotions get going, they are as strong as anyone's" (96-97). 

As we recognize Autism Awareness month in April, let us keep an open mind, embracing neurodiversity, as we seek to understand one another better, communicate our thoughts and ideas more succinctly, and recognize all of us can miss a beat here and there.  The goal is to pause and reflect, give one another benefit of the doubt, and commit to helping one another participate in the dance of all forms of communication and connectedness.

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