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Reading Body Language

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Understanding nonverbal communication, which includes body language, facial expressions and tone of voice, is essential for navigating social interactions successfully. So much of what is communicated, especially the emotional content, is conveyed through our bodies and voices, rather than the spoken word. While most of us receive no instruction on how to read nonverbal clues, we recognize the clues that tell us the true meaning of what is being communicated.

However, individuals on the Autism Spectrum may struggle to understand this mysterious language, which leaves them misinterpreting what is actually being communicated. It’s the nonverbal clues that allow a listener to judge whether the speaker is being sincere, is joking or being sarcastic. Without recognizing the true message, the response is often inappropriate.

The ability to understand nonverbal communication can be improved through instruction, though when you try to break down what you need to teach, the complexity of the task becomes apparent.

Understanding Emotions

The first step in teaching any type of nonverbal communication is to make sure the learner understands the emotions behind the body language or expressions that you want to teach. In other words, before the individual is ready to learn to recognize body postures that indicate anger, he needs to understand what anger feels like and when it’s likely to occur.

Many individuals on the spectrum understand basic emotions (happy, sad, scared, angry, surprised, and disgusted), but may need help in understanding different intensity of feelings and more subtle emotions. As with teaching anything, first assess what your learner already understands, and work from there.

When it comes to teaching emotions, resources are abundant. You might want to begin with pictures of items or situations that elicit certain emotions, such as a scary monster or a birthday cake, discussing the feelings that arise. For younger children, there is a wealth of storybooks depicting emotions. Watching video clips can give practice in viewing emotions in quickly changing situations, and acting out short scenarios can help the learner internalize the feeling.

What Is Body Language?

Body language includes what we communicate through our posture, orientation, eye gaze, personal space, touching and gestures. Step-by-step teaching instructions cannot be provided in this short article, but below are the key areas to cover.

Posture. When observing posture, does the body look tense or relaxed? Is it open or closed (arms crossed) and/or slumped? Is the person leaning towards or away from the other person? Ask learners to use their own bodies to sense how these postures feel. Focus on postures that are critical to reading social situations, such as postures showing anger, interest or disgust.

Orientation and eye gaze. The most basic information to be read from orientation and eye gaze is what someone is interested in at the moment. Is your conversation partner showing interest in what you are saying by orienting towards you and looking at you, or is he gazing around, or turning his body away? Is the person looking at you too intently? This could signal aggression or flirting, in which case facial expressions need to be considered.

Personal space. Invading others’ personal space causes many awkward social interactions, but can be remedied through a little knowledge and lots of practice. Begin by explaining zones of comfort in terms the student can understand, such as arm’s length or a bubble the size of a hula-hoop. Then discuss what happens inside the personal zone, such as interactions with family, intimate friends, and medical personnel. Exceptions should also be noted, such as in a crowded elevator, or asking permission to step over someone in a crowded theater. Once the learner knows the basics, practice with role-plays and use cues and reminders in everyday situations.

Touch. Many misunderstandings arise from individuals not knowing the secret rules about touching. The main points that need to be covered are the following:

  • OK and not OK types of touching – a tap versus a punch
  • Where on the body you may touch someone
  • Recognizing when someone does not like being touched
  • Exceptions – doctors, lovers, spouses

It may be helpful to chart what is OK and not OK touching. Also, use a picture to mark where on the body you may touch someone in given situations, such as a pat on the back to congratulate.

Gestures are visible bodily actions that convey a message. They are not limited to hand motions and may be used with or without speech. There are hundreds of gestures, new ones are created everyday, and some vary by culture. So choosing which gestures to focus on is the first step.

The most common gestures are greetings and ones showing approval, such as thumbs-up. Most individuals understand these, and if not, they are fairly easy to teach. However, individuals with autism may not recognize more subtle gestures, such as those listed below, that are essential for successful interactions.

  • Eye roll – indicates annoyance, incredulity, frustration
  • Finger wag – reprimand
  • Finger poke – aggression
  • Stop – arm extended, palm out
  • Don’t do that – palm out, waving hand side to side. This can be confused with waving. Need to observe other clues, such as facial expression.
  • Shrugging – don’t know or don’t care

Whatever gestures you select, begin by demonstrating and explaining their meanings, and follow with lots of practice observing them in still pictures, and then in video and real life.

Teaching in Context

Learning to read body language is extremely complex. There are so many clues to interpret and it is not nearly as simple as seeing a specific posture or gesture, and remembering what it means. It may have different meanings in different situations. Body language needs to be considered along with facial expressions, tone of voice, and context. Plus it is fleeting and has to be processed quickly.

Before beginning, it’s important to decide what is most important for your student to learn, and whether you want to concentrate on receptive or expressive body language. Typically, emphasis is placed on reading and understanding facial expressions, posture, and gestures, while appropriate use is stressed with personal space and touching. Orientation and eye gaze are equally important to read and use properly.

It will be easier if you begin by identifying body language in still images, such as photos or realistic drawings. However, whenever possible, present images with some context, not simply a label, such as “angry.” For example, pictures of gestures could be matched with what the person is probably thinking, such as matching a picture of thumbs-down gesture with the thought, “I don’t like that.”

After the introductory stage, use images of body language that include facial expressions, so students learn to read these along with body language, as one overall expression.

Picture books and graphic novels are great resources for examining body language in context. Also, learners can draw pictures of different situations, showing how characters’ bodies and faces would look.

Next, work on identifying body language in video, pausing and replaying as needed. While it’s not necessary to watch an entire movie, make sure that enough is shown so that the learner understands what is happening in the scene and how the characters are probably feeling. You may want to start with familiar movies and ones depicting events and emotions that are easily understood.

Finally, try reading and using body language in short drama activities. These could be short role-plays or skits, using story lines and emotions that are easily understood. Record the activities, review, and note the body language.

And of course, real life is constantly providing examples of body language. Use your own body language as a teaching tool, exaggerating as needed to get the message across. However, you may need to set up rules about where and to whom body language is pointed out, to avoid negative reactions.

Since most of us understand and use nonverbal communication with little awareness, it is difficult to even know what to teach, let alone how to teach it. Yet, understanding nonverbal communication is an essential building block for successful social interactions. With careful observation of students’ personal interactions, we can determine where the holes exist, and with patient instruction and practice, help them build the understanding and skills they need.


Pat Crissey has worked as a teacher and autism specialist and is the author of numerous autism-related materials, including Body Talk: Teaching Students with Disabilities about Body Language (Woodbine House, 2013). Contact Pat at patcrissey@yahoo.com.

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