Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Autism and learning social skills


A wonderful question was posed to me recently from Lisa on Facebook who said:

"You mentioned that folks on the Autism Spectrum are affected by autistic blindness and do not necessarily do well at recognizing other folks' feelings and needs. Do you have some specific suggestions about how to be autistically un-blind?"

That got me thinking and I have a few ideas. Maybe some of you helpful readers could add your own in comments? Comments are moderated for being family friendly.

I've written on teaching out kids social skills, but I hadn't really thought about helping those of us who are adults today. We didn't have the same supports that are there for our kids today. It's a different world.


So what are some key and important things to know about socializing that help us recognize how others are feeling? As I go over these, the key is being able to add them together to get an accurate feel for the other persons attitude. This takes, practice, practice, practice. So try not to get discouraged. Also, click on images for larger view.


Facial expressions: While they are inconsistent in the autistic world, in a typical person they can tell you alot about how someone is feeling. Expression works best in the eyes (something that may be intense for you in the first place, I know). Other telling features are the eyebrows and mouth. Tightly shut mouth (pressing lips together hard) and furrowed (v shaped) brow suggests agitation or tension. Not necessarily anger, but could head that way. Raised eyebrows show interest. Tight lipped and avoiding eye contact (looking at the ground or off into the distance) could mean being emotionally upset. Smiles can be tricky. Usually they mean amusement or just having a good day. Maybe glad to see you? Sometimes it means they're nervous. Confused? This is where the next area comes in.


Body language: The positions people hold their bodies in as they interact are very telling of how they are feeling. When it comes to smiling, as above, this is particularly helpful. So lets break down body language.

Head: Tilted to one side is curiosity or interest. It can also be silliness if the person is acting out with wide gestures and strange facial expressions. Tilted forward (with eyes looking up at you) is a "get down to business" expression. It means they want you to get to the point of what you are talking about. Tilted back and looking down their nose at you is of interest but scrutinizing. This isn't necessarily unfriendly, but the person is likely reserved on what they are thinking. I should mention that the "down the nose" look is commonplace with street gangs. You can tell them by their clothing most times. It's more pronounced with them though. In average people it's more relaxed. You can google pics of expressions which I highly suggest for practice.

Shoulders: Drooping down means boredom (especially with the head tilt and a curved lip) or frustration. It also signifies depression or sadness. Generally it's not a positive thing. Held upward and level is a sign of confidence and alertness. These area extremes and mid ground is possible.


Arms: A big "tell" is crossed arms. This usually suggests that they don't want their personal space invaded. It's a matter of personal security and may signify discomfort. If they back away, draw clothing around them tighter, cross arms (the tighter the more you should give them space) then they are uncomfortable. Don't close in on this person. I'll get to personal space in a bit. Arms just hanging at the sides or in pockets is casual and relaxed. Movement of arms can tell a lot too. Wide sweeping gestures with raised voice and agitated expression may be something to stay back from. That person is likely upset.

Hand: Watch for clenched fists. This is the fastest way to tell if someone is agitated enough for you to steer clear. You don't have to run for the hills, but something is upsetting this person severely. They may be traumatized (watch for crying, shaking shoulders, and trembling in arms) or angry (watch for gritted teeth, v shaped brow with similar trembling). Hands that just tremble may be from a medical condition and not something alarming by itself depending on the person.


Legs: While sitting, crossed legs is very similar to crossed arms, though not as dependable because a lot of people sit this way. Both crossed legs and arms is almost definitely a security issue. They don't want you that close to them (or maybe anyone else either). While standing, shuffling feet around a lot could be a sign of agitation or just being antsy and having a hard time standing still. They may be in a rush to go do something else. Be careful not to stare at peoples legs, especially in the region of the waist line/torso. Guys, that is especially important for you. It makes people uncomfortable.

Note that there is no perfect way to recognize what people are feeling. With practice you can be right 7 or 8 times out of ten. Don't be discouraged if you don't see it all right away.

Now for some pointers on interaction.


When you approach someone, if they back away, do not close in. They are telling you how close they want you to be by backing away. Give them their space.

Be careful of staring too much at a person. If you are going to hold your eyes anywhere, look at their nose and cheeks (if not the eyes). Veer away casually from time to time as if just noting your surroundings.

If a person is nodding while listening to you, you are generally okay in your position. They are interested in what you are saying. Or they're just playing along, hard to tell sometimes. You may be able to tell by adding in other factors as above. Are they constantly looking away other places and shifting around? They may want to be somewhere else.


In closing tips, study facial expressions. Lots of pictures are here on the internet that you can find and look at faces. Same to be said for body language. The more you look and learn, the better you can interact. There is no perfect way, but remember to give people personal space and try to relax.


For personal space when facing someone, imagine the length of your arm, that is how far away you should stop (and don't approach fast, that startles people). Standing next to someone (unless in a crowded place) can be half that distance, but should be full length in most open areas.

Hopefully this information will help some of you out there in recognizing how others are feeling or reacting. Remember; practice, practice, practice. Never give up.

Good resources: Internet, or check out books on facial expressions for artists! Same for body language.

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