Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind

Not knowing what you don’t know.


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.

Author: Barry

A post war baby boomer from Aotearoa New Zealand who has lived with migraines for as long as I can remember and discovered I am autistic at the age of sixty. I blog because in real life I'm somewhat backwards about coming forward with my opinions.

12 thoughts on “Not knowing what you don’t know.

  1. This is like reading something from a different planet. Non verbal ques or is it cues are things that for me come naturally. I don’t even have to think about it. Is it possible to read them wrong, most definitely just like speech can be misunderstood.

    • from a different planet” just about sums it up. It does feel that way at times. The problem is that the so called experts fail to recognise that autistics can communicate amongst themselves just as easily and just as fully and non-autistics can amongst themselves. The different communication styles of autistic and non-autistic people are the issue and are always described as “deficits” in Autistic people. The “solution” is to force autistic people to appear on the surface to be just like non-autistic people. It isn’t a solution, at least not as far as autistic people are concerned.

      A crude analogy might be to acknowledge that White Americans have better health outcomes than Black Americans. We know this for a fact. But concluding the poor outcome is due to the colour of their skin and then forcing them to bleach their skin or wear white makeup will not improve the outcome at all. That requires a paradigm shift in (White) America’s attitude to race and ethnicity.

  2. I can relate to not being able to focus on what someone is saying if you’re looking for non-verbal clues. Most of the time for me though it’s because I’m wondering I’m my own non-verbal behaviour is “correct” – am I making the right facial expressions in response to what they’re saying? My arms are folded because I’m cold, does this appear hostile? Etc.

    • A few years ago, I discovered I have alexithymia (emotional blindness) so most of the time I’m oblivious to what I’m feeling. Wondering about what I’m conveying would be mostly pointless. The other point I failed to mention specifically in the article as that even if I can recognise something as body language and have learnt what it is supposed to mean, I don’t have an inkling what that emotion feels like.

      • I have upset someone by apparently pulling the wrong face (I thought I was doing a look of concern but that’s not how they interpreted it), so now I’m hyper aware of it, although still probably not getting it right!

        • I’ve never considered trying to emulate emotions deliberately. Perhaps just as well. I’ve been told I display very little emotion and I’m impossible to read. I think I’ll keep it that way 🙂

          I’ve sported a beard for almost 50 years and I suppose that might hide facial expressions to some degree. I noticed a shift in the attitudes of strangers towards me shortly after I grew it – less hostility. I had assumed it was because in those days, people often associated beards with academics and professionals. In other words, smart, intelligent, upwardly mobile men. But perhaps the beard merely disguised some expression that otherwise caused offense.

  3. The sad thing is that many who supposedly should understand, use facial expressions and body language to suit their intent They can take a side glance into an eye roll into an insult.

    • I suppose those who fully understand how body language actually works can use it in manipulative ways. Perhaps I’m at an advantage under those situations, as being mostly blind to body language, it can’t be used to manipulate me 🙂

      • Yes, that may actually be an advantage. There have been times in the past when I would see the actions of others, that they didn’t realize I saw, and would have two choices, ignore or act upon them. Most often I chose to ignore and keep the peace. To be in a position where it has no effect would be a plus.

  4. It finally crossed my mind that I could always read animals better than people because there was only body language to interpret. When humans add words and the words the speak conflict with the body language , that’s where I get lost. “angry, I’m not angry” for example… when the body language says they are outraged. Nuances are lost on me, I take their words literally and miss all the cues with humans, and that always ends up a mess. keep posting!

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