Thursday, August 9, 2007

Autistic Non-Verbal Communication

Ballastexistenz brought up an interesting subject today - namely the abilities (and/or lack thereof) of people with autism spectrum disorders to receive and process non-verbal information.

If I understand her correctly, she seems to be saying that some parents of autistic children mention that the children can pick up tension in the household even though people with autism spectrum disorders are notorious for not picking up non-verbal clues.

Now, this is a topic that deserves some scrutiny.

In my dealings with the various people in my family who have been affected by Asperger's and similar "afflictions", I'd have to say they are quite aware of many non-verbal channels of communication - particularly when it comes to picking up on people or animals being in pain, and very particularly when that pain is being caused by an ignorant or evil neurotypical.

The very root of the word "autism" aludes to unusual self-involvment, but, if you pay attention to the theme of many of the writings and videos of Ballasexistenz there is certainly a very strong theme of healthy righteous indignation not just that SHE has been mistreated but that many others with various disabilities have been mistreated.

More specifically, the theme of her pieces is often not just that she and other disabled people have been physically mistreated, improperly confined and insulted in various ways but have often been THOUGHT OF AS SOMEHOW LESS THAN HUMAN.

Yes, I'd have to say this is a reasonably complex non-verbal communication that one can be instinctively aware of the distress that can be invoked in another person who is being subjected to dehumanizing treatment.

However, this of course isn't the type of non-verbal communication that the neurotypicals have in mind. Of course, the neurotypicals themselves have problems with this particular type of communication. Despite supposedly having perfectly normal "mirror neurons" they seem, for instance, to be able to quite blissfully lead their lives while watching tens of millions of people be dehumanized without health insurance because they can't bear to see their own taxes raised a little.

No, when the neurotypicals get frustrated with Autism spectrum people "not picking up non-verbal cues", they're talking about the little stuff. And generally we're not talking about this level of variaton from "standard" non-verbal communication. As a matter of fact, I have played that video to neurotypicals and had them very nearly go into shock. In fact, what I found fascinating is that the neurotypical reaction to In My Language is often not terribly dissimilar to the reaction of a person with autism to other forms of sensory overload.

What seems to be the difference between the austisic and the neurotypical is not a lack of awareness of non-verbal communication, but rather a deficiency, or perhaps simply a serious DIFFERNCE in the apparently innate responses to such non-verbal communication.

For instance, one area that I have been UTTERLY fascinated by is neurotypical workplace behavior. For instance, if someone comes to a particular job dressed "inappropriately", it can cause a level of chaos that can bring a 300-person office to a complete and utter halt within minutes. Very often I have asked neurotypicals why such reactions take place, and the closest thing to a coherent answer I ever got was from Mrs. Axinar who said something to the effect, "There are some things you just shouldn't have to explain."

Sounds to me as though this "inappropriate clothing" reaction is something that originates in such a primitive part of the brain in neurotypicals that they can't even articulate what they're experiencing. Sometimes I've seen people try - "Oh, that's unprofessional," or, "Oh, that's disrespectful," but I really wonder what the actual EMOTION is like.

For instance, say you have someone who has been working in the accounting department for the last 15 years, and, on a particularly hot day, for instance, the new receptionist comes in wearing spaghetti straps - what DOES go through the mind of the person in the accounting department in the moments before she starts maligning the new receptionist to the entire company? Does the accounting person experience a sensation of sensory overload an autistic person might feel upon accidentally wandering into a rock concert? Is the emotion, whatever it is, so utterly alien to anyone with even the tiniest dusting of autism that there really is no way to explain it?

And let's not EVEN get into why the neurotypicals seem to LIKE insincere smiles ...

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4 Comments:

At August 10, 2007 at 7:31 AM, Blogger The Dean of Cincinnati said...

Are you familiar with gender differences in the brain, as popularized by Dr. Leonard Sax?

Wonder how that might influence something like autism by gender.

 
At August 10, 2007 at 7:38 AM, Blogger Axinar said...

Actually there was a great article in last Sunday's New York Times about autism in girls ...

 
At August 15, 2007 at 5:02 PM, Blogger reform_normal said...

"In fact, what I found fascinating is that the neurotypical reaction to In My Language is often not terribly dissimilar to the reaction of a person with autism to other forms of sensory overload."

You know, that's fascinating...autistic mannerisms do seem to be difficult for some NTs to handle. Most people whom my boyfreind finds overwhelming also find him overwhelming. It's a two-way street.

"For instance, say you have someone who has been working in the accounting department for the last 15 years, and, on a particularly hot day, for instance, the new receptionist comes in wearing spaghetti straps - what DOES go through the mind of the person in the accounting department in the moments before she starts maligning the new receptionist to the entire company? Does the accounting person experience a sensation of sensory overload an autistic person might feel upon accidentally wandering into a rock concert? Is the emotion, whatever it is, so utterly alien to anyone with even the tiniest dusting of autism that there really is no way to explain it?

It's probably closest to what happens when an autistic's most important and comforting rituals are disturbed. Confusion, anger, fear, a gut feeling of "something's wrong," resulting in a mini-meltdown. (God that word's so melodramatic. If your overreactions are meltdowns, ours are too. If ours aren't, yours aren't.)

My theory is that both autistics and neurotypicals have the exact same basic human need for comforting sameness deep down, but what's perceived as "comfortable" or "sameness" is determined by their different perceptual systems. For us neurotypicals, this means that certain "irrelevants" are filtered out based on culture and context, but if anything that's not an "irrelevant" is out of place, we flip.

And in the "meltdown" that ensues, we vent our emotions and then try to fix what was out of place, often by putting pressure on the person who broke our comforting sameness to conform. Hence trying to cure autistic children.

Maybe that can help you understand.

 
At August 18, 2007 at 10:26 AM, Blogger Julia said...

On the "receptionist wearing spaghetti straps" thing --

1) My concern would be that she'd be cold. I wouldn't be warm enough sitting around in something that skimpy.

2) I once worked in a place whose dress code had basically 2 rules:

a) You need to have showered sometime in the 24 hours preceding your arrival to work;

b) If you're a guy, no one wants to see your underwear.

Spaghetti straps would have been fine, in fact, I think E. wore them now and again, and nobody cared in a negative way.

3) An attractive woman wearing something with spaghetti straps can be rather visually distracting, and this may be the reason behind a lot of dress codes, keeping people less visually distracting so that other people have an easier time doing their jobs. Maybe that's the reasoning behind it.

(I always dress for the temperature of where I'm going to be. So if there's over-airconditioning, I'm going to wear more than if the AC is broken, and if it's cold out, I'll wear several layers of clothing and shed as many as is appropriate when I get inside.)

 

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