‘I cannot be a teacher without exposing who I am.’
Paulo Freire, Brazilian Educator/Author
Where are your hands right now?
Actually, I don’t want to know. Where should they be, however? Thank you.
Body language is fascinating. Originally, I had to learn what these gestures and stances meant. To do so, as a late teenager, still selectively mute and acutely confused; I would go to the gym in the city centre to wear myself out. Afterwards for weeks, I sat and watched the crowds go by from the viewpoint of a city centre bench.
Observing for months, the occasionally elaborate, but generally mundane gesticulations, facial contortions and how people walked and stood, chatting, complaining and laughing. The stares I got in particular would unsettle me, paranoia would descend.
What do we do when we interact? We use our body to communicate our intentions and our feelings. The gestures, facial expressions, body postures we make are social signals, ways of communicating with one another. Mirror neurons are the only brain cells we know of that seem specialized to code the actions of other people and also our own actions.
Quoted from: Neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni, The Mirror Neuron Revolution: Explaining What Makes Humans Social in the Scientific American, 2008.
The return expressions I received from others, were actually a reflection of my own – the magic of mirror neurons. Depressed, anxious and quite unsmiling, these looks were well grounded in my own misery.
In teaching and helping others like me, it is important to consider that body language can be an utter mystery, some enigmatic wizardry that conveys information in a split second. Proximity to others, both in comfort for yourself and them is a mad balancing act.
With autistic people, it is generally best to approach us from the side, without startling us. Face to face demands eye contact which can be difficult or painful to achieve. Touch shouldn’t happen unless a very strong trust is built and even then, it is better to avoid. The sensory sensations of touch and eye contact for me personally, can be compared to a painful pricking sensation in a lot of situations. It’s an acquired taste, clearly.
Another anecdote. Apologies in advance for facial damage from a very well deserved facepalming:
When at secondary school, around the age of 15, one of the prettiest girls in school approached me at Christmas time. I was sat there, nonchalantly silent, feeling acutely out of place and generally embarrassed to be around people, over she walked to me and placed her face right into mine.
I sat there, completely nonplussed.
She stayed frozen in place for what felt like a lifetime, before giving me an odd look and turning on her heels to rejoin her friends. Later, a friend of hers came and asked me with a fantastically perplexed expression:
“Did you not want a kiss from X?”
And I did, by the way.
The key to understanding body language is as complex as the spoken word, yet can achieve far more. A look, a thumbs up, a smile, standing in a relaxed pose with your hands in your pockets – these convey positivity, calmness and that you are no threat. For those in high states of anxiety, everything can be a threat. Try not to be one.
Body language provides another stream of highly contradictory information to process. When pitch and tone jar, it is noticeable and the same occurs with speaking and non-verbal communication. It needs to be clear, obvious and understandable. Communicating non-verbally can be highly effective but is also a secret language; only spoken by those in the know.
A flat palm can mean many things; held vertically, facing someone can mean stop. It can also mean slow down. The nuances are endless and hence, confusion reigns. Remember what you do can and is often reflected back upon you, reflected in the mirror neurons.
Processing those nuances can be an obstacle for people with autism. For those who are higher functioning; potential reflection on what you are showing others might help for better communication, to be more accurate and precise, with tact and diplomacy.
With students, we sit and discuss reactions, expressions, tones of voice. As much as I learn who they are, they also learn who I am complete with my “incredible list of idiosyncrasies” (Quote: An amused autistic student).