Lyric Holmans has released a Youtube clip explaining why she finds people overwhelming. You can view the clip and read a transcription on her blog. Like her, I find people can be overwhelming, and the reasons are similar – non-vocal communications.
While humans may be the only species to have developed a language, all vertebrates and many invertebrates communicate in various ways with their own species, and to a lesser extent other species. And while non-vocal communication may take second place to spoken (or written) communication in humans, it remains an important factor in our everyday communications.
For the first 60 years of my life, I was totally unaware that language (spoken or written) was complemented by other forms of communication, namely body language and facial expressions. I’m not alone. Many people don’t realise that body language exists, but nevertheless, they use it and read it every day. It’s instinctive to them. For many autistics, including myself, its not. Hence the title of this article.
During those first 60 years, I was able to read body language in domestic pets – better than most people in fact – in babies and to a lesser extent, toddlers. But apart from the way lips form with a smile or laughter I was unaware that the face, especially the eyes, can convey a whole raft of emotions and ideas. Even so, I was unable to distinguish between a grin and a grimace. I was completely unaware that humans also used posture, movement of body and hands, even vocal pitch and volume to supplement the words they use.
Now that I do know that a significant part of human communication is non-vocal, I’m able to look for it, and that in itself can be overwhelming. In the first place, making a conscious effort to look for non-vocal communication requires effort, so much so, that sometimes I forget to listen to the actual words being spoken. And then I’m always asking myself whether or not a particular facial or body movement is indeed intended (intentionally or not) to communicate something. And if it is intended to communicate something, what exactly?
I managed to survive the first sixty years of my life, more or less intact, not knowing that body language and facial expressions play a vital role in interpersonal communications. I’m yet to be persuaded that knowing it exits at all, let alone its importance, makes my communication with others, as individuals or groups, any less overwhelming. In my case it might actually make it more so. Group dynamics is another mystery to me (Lyric touches on it in the post linked to above), but that’s a topic for another day.