In my first post on this topic I spoke about how the ‘problem’ I experience with body language is that people often misinterpret my actions. In this post I wanted to talk a little bit more about what that actually looks like and how seriously damaging it can be to otherwise healthy relationships. And then, as a happy ending, I’ll tell you about the freedom I’ve felt in certain ‘autism-friendly’ spaces where all of these issues disappear completely.
So first off it’s worth mentioning that reading body language isn’t as clear cut as most people think. There are some postures and gestures which usually mean something. Crossing your arms might mean you’re feeling defensive. Looking out the window might mean you’re disinterested. Tapping your fingers might mean you’re impatient. But these are all just stereotypes. I personally cross my arms when my back is sore. I look out the window when I’m listening. I tap my fingers compulsively when I’m excited or I’m thinking or I have too much energy.
Pop Quiz: What does it mean when someone smiles? Correct! It means they’re anxious and want to get out of that situation as quickly as possible! You got that too right?
The bottom line is that by using stereotypes people get me wrong… very wrong… all the time… and this means that in public, I feel as though have to be constantly on my guard to make sure I don’t accidentally do something that is misinterpreted.
Let’s look at some simple examples. If I don’t remember to look at people who are talking to me, they think I’m not interested and stop talking to me. If I don’t remember to put on an artificially big smile, others don’t get the reinforcement they need to know I’m ok, and so they imagine I’m bored and stop talking to me. If I’m moving my body too much, shuffling my feet or moving around, they imagine that I must be distracted or have somewhere I’d rather be, so… you guessed it… they stop talking to me.
Are you noticing a pattern here? If I am myself, others don’t want to interact with me. They imagine I don’t want them to… so they don’t. Imagine me as a little kid. I get left alone. No-one wants to play with me and I don’t have the first clue as to why. Only now am I beginning to understand how my natural body language was interpreted as hostile (or at least closed and uninviting). This also meant that if I ever tried to initiate social contact I was already on the back foot before I began. “He doesn’t want to be friends… why is he talking to me?” This misinterpretation is so powerful that even psychologists went around saying that people with Aspergers didn’t want to make friends.
In adult relationships, especially intimate relationships, this kind of small misunderstanding can destroy trust and lead to a complete communication breakdown. In a previous relationship, when my partner told me some exciting news I’d say something like “Ah! Awesome!” But unfortunately my reaction was never big enough, and she would think that I didn’t care. I would notice her disappointment and immediately reassure her with words, telling her how excited I was for her. But there was a perceived disconnect between my words and my actions. They sounded ‘fake’ to her. “The initial reaction is the real one”, she explained to me. There was nothing I could say or do after that point to recover from the failure of that initial reaction.
Body language sends powerful unconscious messages and when conscious and unconscious messages conflict – it’s always the unconscious one that prevails. If I tell someone I’m excited, but they don’t see it (to their satisfaction) in my face, they won’t actually believe me. If someone ‘feels’ as though I’m being aggressive or antagonistic, then apologising and telling them that I’m just excited won’t make any difference. There is no way back. Trying to talk my way out of it will just give the impression that I’m also a liar. (See this Example of Misinterpreting Body Language from a few years back.)
So how do I ‘fix’ this problem? Well given that the problem isn’t really with me, the best thing I can do is help my friends, especially my close friends, to understand me. I thankfully have several people with whom I feel confident to speak about these things. Unfortunately, even recently I have lost people who I thought were close friends due to very simple communication problems. The torturous thing is that I’m hyper aware of it. I can see it happening but there isn’t anything I can do about it. Or more specifically, the more I try the worse it gets… so I know that the best thing I can do is stop trying (i.e. leave them alone for now and hope that one day they will ‘forgive me’ for the misunderstanding).
So what about these autism friendly spaces? Well the first one gets talked about a lot. Solitude. As Tony Attwood says:
“You cannot have a social deficit when you are alone. You cannot have a communication problem when you are alone. Your repetitive behavior does not annoy anyone when you are alone. All the diagnostic criteria dissolve in solitude.”
(Silberman, Steve. NeuroTribes: The legacy of autism and how to think smarter about people who think differently (Kindle Locations 6097-6099). . Kindle Edition.)
When I am alone I don’t ‘need’ to do anything. If I am happy I can smile as subtly as I like and it doesn’t matter whether or not anyone notices. If I am excited I can move in any way I choose without worrying how it will be interpreted. If I’m listening to an interesting pod cast or audio book I can close my eyes, or yawn, or stretch, or walk around my room, or make origami and no-one will accuse me of not paying attention. Such is the freedom that comes with solitude.
Other autism-friendly spaces I have experienced have been predominantly through my work with the I CAN Network. The first obvious one to mention is our teens camps. Let’s just say, it’s hard to stand out in a room full of autistic teenagers! Lol. Which is great, because it means no one has to worry about ‘fitting in’. There is no right and wrong. Even the concept of ‘typical’ is no longer valid.
Another more professional example though is our board meetings. If I want to get up and stretch my legs. I get up and stretch my legs. It’s not a problem if I pace around the room. If I want to close my eyes or put my head down on the desk, I just do. No one cares. I’m still listening and I’ll pipe up if I have something to contribute, or stop the conversation if there’s something I don’t understand. Contrast this with a previous employer where, in a team meeting, I shut my eyes for literally ONE full second. This is like a long extended blink. I was caught out by my manager who saw fit to single me out in front of the whole group for not paying attention. “Sleeping on the job, are we?” I was tired due to working too hard! What did she want me to do?
One reason finding these autism-friendly spaces has been so good for me is that I’ve slowly come to realise just how much I suppress my natural behaviour in public. Now that I am developing a greater awareness of my true nature, I can start finding ways to slowly become more and more free in public too.