Because my previous columns have so far been about more abstract concepts, I thought I would share some practical advice on an area in which many autistics struggle: interpreting body language and facial expressions. Obviously this is a topic that could take up an entire book, or an entire library. This will be but a brief introduction to interpreting the musculature dances neurotypicals use to communicate.
The first, and in my opinion the most important, type of nonverbal communication is facial expression. Something that helped me personally in this area as a teenager was the fact that I loved to draw, and drawing is all about learning how to see. In fact, online tutorials made with the intention of teaching artists to draw accurate facial expressions are some of the easiest and most accessible tools for learning to interpret said expressions. One of the best for this purpose is the tutorial by “tracyjb” on the website DeviantART and I recommend it for artists and non-artists alike.
Being a student of physiology and anatomical sciences gives me a benefit when it comes to reading body language and facial expression, simply because it is easier to understand why people make the motor movements they do in response to certain stimuli. Reading body language doesn’t have to mean learning to read the code that neurotypicals naturally speak, it just means learning to interpret the signals the body gives off. Dilated pupils can be an indication of fear, anger, or sexual arousal, for example, because all these things require letting more light into the retina to see better. But cultural elements are very important; an eye-roll isn’t quite a natural process, it’s a learned social response likely developed from the fact that looking away indicates disinterest. Learning both innate physical responses (like flared nostrils, rising color, and smiles that don’t flex the eyes) and learned cultural responses (like eye-rolls, shrugs, and that special eyes-wide-forced-smile at the third person in the group to indicate that the first person is a total weirdo) is essential to building a full picture of facial expression. With time and understanding, I would argue that an autistic can become indeed more proficient than a neurotypical at reading people. Critical analysis beats innate I-don’t-know-why-I-just-know understanding every time.
Body language is easier in some ways and harder in others. Body language is usually more consistent from person to person (within a specific culture) but body language isn’t always as black-and-white and straightforward as its more complicated yet more telling cousin, facial expression. For example, an indication of romantic interest is self-grooming (running fingers through the hair for short hair, twirling or playing with the hair for long hair, etc.) yet self-grooming can also be an indication of nervousness and anxiety. Context is very important with body language. None of these signals are displayed on their own. If a man is running his hand through his hair over and over while breathing heavily with dilated pupils, maybe he’s not being so flirtatious as much as nervous. But if he runs his hand through his hair in a slower, more relaxed way, breathing deeply with dilated pupils, he might just be flirting after all. Crossing the arms or hands in front of the body is typically a defensive, anti-social gesture (little did I know this is why people found me stand-offish) but again, not always. A girl who is crossing her arms in front of herself with her head down while wringing her hands is probably nervous or upset, but a girl who is crossing her arms in front of her while smiling and giggling might be shy and flirtatious.
When one first starts on this nonverbal journey, body language may seem daunting. It can feel like it’s just too complicated, there’s too much to learn, you’ll never be able to master it all. But remember, verbal language is just as complicated. “I once knew a woman with a large white hat with depression,” doesn’t mean that her hat was the one who was depressed. We know these things because of context, the same way we must interpret body language. The human brain has a practically unlimited capacity for learning and understanding. Like anything else, interpreting nonverbal cues takes effort and practice. Cold readers do this for a living, be it as psychics or interrogators. The art of reading people is a skill. Remember, just because this stuff doesn’t come naturally to us doesn’t mean that autistics can’t learn.