body language

AAC does not replace nonverbal communication

This is a continuation of a series on why I think it’s a mistake to ignore nonverbal communication in an attempt to force someone to use AAC. (The short version: it’s disrespectful, it undermines someone’s ability to communicate, and it prevents people from developing a valuable skill.)

One reason nonverbal communication is important for AAC users is that you always have your body with you. That is not necessarily the case for AAC devices.

AAC best practices say that someone should have them available constantly. In practice, people don’t. This is for several reasons. One is that it’s not practical to take a device to some places (for instance, most people are not willing to take a high tech device to the beach, and low tech devices are a lot more limiting.) Another reason is that sometimes people forget, or vastly underestimate how close a device needs to be in order to be immediately available. Or any number of reasons, some innocent and some horrifying, and many a mixture of both.

Also, people take devices away from AAC users. They shouldn’t, but they do. Sometimes it’s accidental; sometimes it’s on purpose. It’s never ok, but people do it a lot. If you’re teaching a nonverbal child to communicate, you need to keep this in mind when you’re considering what to teach them. You can’t assume that people will always treat them appropriately, and you can’t assume that they will always have their device. If they are capable of communicating with their body, it is an important skill for them.

Whatever else happens, someone always has their body with them. People can do a lot more if they can use their body to communicate. Communicating in body language can make it possible to communicate in a swimming pool. It can make it possible to communicate with dirty hands. It can make it possible for someone to indicate that their device isn’t within reach and that they need it. It can make it possible to communicate about pain in medical situations. It can make it possible to communicate when someone else doesn’t want you to, and has taken your device away. It can make friendship possible that otherwise wouldn’t be. And any number of other things, all of which are important.

And in order to be able to communicate with body language, people need opportunities to practice and develop this skill. If you ignore someone’s nonverbal communication to encourage AAC use, you’re making it harder for them to develop comprehensible body language. That’s not a good idea, because comprehensible body language is important. People won’t always have access to their device. They will always have their body.

tl;dr Nonverbal communication is important for nonverbal people, but parents are often encouraged to pretend not to understand it in order to encourage AAC use. This makes it harder for people to develop body language that others can understand. One reason this is a problem is that people don’t always have access to their devices, but people *do* always have access to their bodies. Nonverbal people should have support in developing nonverbal communication, because it is an important skill.

A way people with disabilities are often wrongly percieved as angry

Sometimes disabled people are wrong perceived as angry or hostile when they move like disabled people. It works something like this:

  • The most efficient way to do things is often not the socially accepted way to do things
  • People with disabilities often have to do things in an efficient way to be able to do them
  • In order to be perceived as calm and polite, people are often expected to move in a slow, careful way without making sudden or loud motions
  • That’s easy for most people without disabilities, and can be difficult or impossible for people with disabilities
  • Sometimes people with disabilities don’t have the motor coordination or strength to move in expected ways. Sometimes pain or illness makes them too exhausted to have the energy to move in expected ways. Sometimes, they have to move efficiently to be able to move at all.
  • People with disabilities who have to move in loud, sudden, forceful, or jerky ways are often wrongfully perceived as expressing anger, frustration, or aggression.
  • When people make loud, jerky, or sudden motions, they tend to be perceived as rude, angry, or aggressive
  • People with disabilities don’t always have the coordination to make the movements in expected ways
  • Sometimes, they have to be efficient in order to do the thing.
  • This often gets perceived as angry when it isn’t
  • This can lead to people with disabilities who are just trying to live their lives being perceived as hostile and excluded
  • When a person with a disability is moving in a jerky, sudden, or loud way, it’s important to consider the possibility that it’s disability-related rather than angry

Some concrete examples:

Dropping things:

  • In most social contexts, it’s socially expected that people who need things to be on the ground put them there without making a sudden noise

  • This generally means using your arms to slowly lower the thing to the ground
  • People with disabilities often do not have the strength or motor coordination needed to lower things this way
  • Sometimes, people who can’t rely on muscles to lower things need to drop them and rely on gravity
  • (And some people have to rely on gravity some of the time, eg: when they’re tired, at the end of a long day, when they’re in a particularly draining environment, when they’ve already had to lift and drop the thing several times that day.)
  • Gravity only goes one speed, and dropped objects tend to make noise
  • Dropping a heavy object rather than lowering it slowly is usually perceived as a sign of anger (and for people without disabilities, it’s generally intended as one).
  • People with disabilities who drop things are often not intending it as an expression of anger.
  • Often, they drop things because they need them to be on the ground and have no other realistic way of getting them there.
  • If a person with a disability is dropping heavy things rather than lowering them, it’s important not to automatically assume that they are doing this out of a show of emotions
  • Consider seriously the possibility that they’re dropping things because they need to lower them, and due to disability are not able to do so in the socially expected way.

Another example: Plugging things in:

  • The socially expected way to plug things in is to slowly push the plug into the outlet using a steady pressure
  • That requires a particular kind of strength and muscle control
  • Some people with disabilities can’t do that
  • Some people with disabilities have to rely on momentum.
  • Relying on momentum involves one sudden forceful movement. 
  • That can look like punching, and can be perceived as excessive force
  • Most people without disabilities only plug things in with that kind of force when they are angry or frustrated
  • People with disabilities often plug things in that way because it’s the only way they can do it
  • If a person with a disability uses a lot of force to plug things in, don’t assume it’s a display of emotion.
  • Consider seriously the possibility that they’re doing it that way because that’s how their body works

In general:

  • Some socially expected movements are complicated and difficult
  • Sometimes people with disabilities can’t do it in the polite way
  • Sometimes, we have to do it in a way that’s more efficient
  • That’s often perceived as rude, inconsiderate, or threatening, when it’s really just limited ability to move in expected ways
  • No amount of social skills training or knowledge of socially expected behavior will make it physically possible to move in all expected ways
  • This can result in people with disabilities being perceived as angry or displaying rage when all they’re doing is moving
  • It’s important not to automatically assume that people with disabilities who move oddly are doing it to display anger. It might just be that that’s the only reasonable way for them to do something.
  • If you understand this, you’ll be much more able to relate to people with disabilities and include people
  • (People with disabilities, like everyone else, sometimes display anger and frustration in physical ways. But they are routinely wrongly perceived as doing so. It is possible, and important, to learn to tell the difference).

tl;dr People with disabilities are often perceived as displaying rage or aggression when they’re just moving. This is because socially expected ways of moving are often very inefficient in ways that aren’t too difficult for most nondisabled people, but can be difficult or impossible for people with disabilities. It’s important to learn to tell the difference between people with disabilities moving efficiently and people with disabilities displaying anger. Scroll up for details and examples.


A way you might be inadvertently sounding dismissive


Neutral-ish words like “Uh huh”, “ok”, and “sure” can sometimes sound like they mean “this is boring and I want you to stop talking about it”.

For example:

  • Matilda: My cat just had kittens! They are adorable!
  • Shira: Uh huh

This could sound to Matilda like Shira means “I’m annoyed that you’re…

sabrinix said:

a physical way to show that you’re interested is to lean towards the person you’re talking to slightly

tone helps, if you can do it. adding a exclamation point or question mark helps to show interest.

also some other neutral-ish words that can come off as bored/sarcastic

  • really?
  • cool
  • that’s nice

some phrases i often use in small talk (depends a lot on topic)

  • hadn’t heard about that
  • did they/he/she/ect ?
  • did not know that
  • that’s too bad
  • that’s glad/sad/happy/great/unfortunate/ect to hear!



Headphones can mean leave me alone


When people are in public places like a library, street, coffee shop,or subway, they often wear headphones as a way to create some private space.

People who wear headphones or earbuds in public usually do not want to be approached by strangers. If you know them well, it might be ok to ask, but…

lilyrosethedreamer said

I have noticed as well that people with only one earphone in are still wanting to be talked to. It’s a technique that I’ve employed as well actually: when I don’t want to talk, I’ll have both in and when I do, I’ll only use the one. Hope this helps too, might be different for others though.

iguanafish said:

eh. proceed with caution. i wear one earphone because i don’t feel it’s safe to be in a public environment (examples: crowded subway, near or on busy streets) and not be able to hear/be fully aware of my surroundings. doesn’t mean i want to talk to any strangers. i do not.


Headphones can mean leave me alone


When people are in public places like a library, street, coffee shop,or subway, they often wear headphones as a way to create some private space.

People who wear headphones or earbuds in public usually do not want to be approached by strangers. If you know them well, it might be ok to ask, but…

lilyrosethedreamer said

I have noticed as well that people with only one earphone in are still wanting to be talked to. It’s a technique that I’ve employed as well actually: when I don’t want to talk, I’ll have both in and when I do, I’ll only use the one. Hope this helps too, might be different for others though.

Headphones can mean leave me alone

When people are in public places like a library, street, coffee shop,or subway, they often wear headphones as a way to create some private space.

People who wear headphones or earbuds in public usually do not want to be approached by strangers. If you know them well, it might be ok to ask, but it’s probably better to err on the side of leaving them alone.

The flip side: if you wear headphones, most people will assume that you don’t want to be approached. If you’re wearing headphones for sensory reasons but you want to interact with people, you will likely have to initiate it yourself. It also might help to let your friends know that you welcome interaction even when you are wearing headphones.

people might not understand your body language

Body language that comes naturally to some autistic people can be completely invisible to most neurotypical people.

For example, many autistic people respond to questions by nodding their head very slightly. It can feel like a bigger movement than it actually is, and sometimes people don’t notice it. If you’re nodding and people are ignoring you, it might just be that they don’t understand your body language.

Similarly, neurotypical people don’t usually understand the range of things that flapping and various forms of stimming can mean. They tend to read it as distress or as annoying behavior. They don’t usually understand it as body language. Since they lack the skill to understand body language correctly, it can be worth telling them things explicitly.

For instance, if someone doesn’t understand the kind of flapping that means hello, it might be worth saying hello with your voice when you want to greet them.

Sometimes NTs intentionally ignore autistic body language, but sometimes they just don’t understand it.

is it common for autistic people to over-emote when talking? (i.e. making cartoon-like faces, moving hips a lot.) if not, is there a specific word for people who tend to do that?
realsocialskills said:
I do that, and I know other autistic people who do as well. I think it’s common.
I don’t think it’s over-emoting though. It’s just body language. The fact that neurotypical people usually move less doesn’t mean their amount of physical reacion is right and ours is excessive.
It’s just different.
I don’t know of a word for that kind of body language. Do any of y'all?

another response about pain

It seems like a lot of people mention being more snappish when they’re hurt. I’m the opposite. I’m usually kind of argumentative and disagreeable as my default setting but I become very sweet and easygoing when I’m sick or hurt because I lack the energy to be my usual self. I think any dramatic shift in personality is usually something to look out for.

some replies about atypical ways some people show pain

monsterquill replied to your post“A question about pain”
often i either make a face but stay completely silent, or say “ow” but my
face stays completely blank.
also when I was a little kid, my siblings were sick and my mom was taking care of them, but later it turned out i was the sickest of all and had to go to the hospital, and she hadn’t known bc unlike my siblings I hadn’t shown any sign of distress.

ipsticklizbienne replied to your post“A question about pain”

i honestly never thought about this and that’s weird i’ve always just added more pain (?) to my leg especially so when i chose to take it away the natural pain seemed less intense but i also just stop talking
aura218 replied to your post“A question about pain”
I don’t think I do show pain. My mother always said “you don’t act sick when you’re sick.” As an adult, I’ve had doctors blow off my symptoms b/c I don’t act sick or hurt.
kinthulou replied to your post“A question about pain”
Self-diagnoses autie with fibromyalgia here: I usually show pain by moving less. I’ll stop bouncing and swaying and doing a lot of things and move slower. I’ll also talk less, but usually remain cheery. People just think I’m less excitable or tired.
dohegotthebunty replied to your post“A question about pain”
i knew a little girl who was always pretty energetic and in-your-face so everyone assumed it would be really obvious if she was hurt but she clammed up when she broke her arm and no one realized for a couple hours
im-significant replied to your post“A question about pain”
I get very short-tempered and want to be left alone. I may react to light, sound, touch, etc by flinching, freezing, or sometimes lashing out. My verbal skills also get worse when I am in pain, so asking me what’s wrong/trying to help often makes it worse
chavisory replied to your post“A question about pain”
I can get really quiet, or really snappish and cranky.
ragingpeacock replied to your post“A question about pain”
I dunno if it is unusual, but I tend to get irritated/overemotional. i also hug myself. i feel like i show pain more obviously than most people. or maybe I’m just in pain more often. oh yeah just remembered sometimes I grab at my hair and clothing
skelletonclique replied to your post“A question about pain”
I’m not disabled, but a disabled friend of mine shows pain by covering their ears and/or freezing a lot of the time.


A question about pain



Some autistic or otherwise atypical people show pain differently than most nondisabled people do.

For instance, some people show pain by laughing, or by getting really quiet.

How do y’all show pain? What are some ways of showing pain that get…

wolfesbrain said:

I tend to either do nothing or try to hyperbolize my reactions because I have a high pain tolerance so sometimes I remember, “oh when I did this and didn’t react, people freaked out, so I need to react.” and then I end up overdoing it.



Hi! I love your blog. I don’t know how many blind people read your blog (I heard Tumblr is pretty inaccessible for reading programs) but my friend, who is blind, mentioned that she was taught, in whatever social skills education she received, that there is a “friendship look” that establishes a relationship between sighted people. I was shocked! There are lots of looks that people can give each other, but, in my experience, this is not one of them. I just wanted to alert anybody else who may have heard the same thing.

realsocialskills said:

I’m not sure. It might be that sometimes when friends are in a group, they look at each other kind of to check in. 

I haven’t ever heard anything called a “friendship look” though. Have any of y’all?

bessibels said:

I think this is oversimplified, but not total bullshit. There are definitely times when looking at someone in a particular context or way makes a significant contribution to the understanding of a friendship between them. I’m thinking of things like when you’re in class and the teacher says to pick groups, and your eyes meet with someone else’s in a questioning or knowing way.

I guess I would say that while there’s no single, conclusive “friendship look,” you can share a look with someone that establishes some kind of momentary bond (agreement, emotional support, decision to do something together), and if you share enough of those looks with someone, and also have other indicators of friendship, then you’d end up considering yourselves friends. I think this might be significant and common enough to make a difference between the way sighted and visually impaired people make friends.

Some nonverbal signals

In the US, raising one finger means “Give me a minute”. It can be very helpful if you’re processing slowly or need some time to find works.

However, shaking a finger means “You’re doing something I don’t like, and I’m expressing contempt by treating you like a naughty child”.

So, it’s a signal that doesn’t work well if you can’t easily tell the difference between raising your finger and shaking your finger.

Something about body language

It’s very common for atypical people to be told that they have no body language, whether or not this is actually true.

If you:

  • Have an atypical body, or:
  • Move in unusual ways, or:
  • Have an atypical face, or:
  • Speak oddly

Lots of people will tell you that:

  • You have no body language, or:
  • You have no tones of voice, or:
  • You’re impossible to read, or:
  • You have a flat affect, or:
  • You have no facial expressions

This can be for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with whether or not you have these things. For instance:

  • People who find your body uncomfortable, and try to avoid looking, tend not to pick up on body language
  • Likewise with faces - someone who isn’t looking at your face because they don’t want to see its odd shape, may well think you have no facial expressions because they aren’t seeing them
  • If you move unusually, you may have body language that many people aren’t familiar with. This doesn’t mean you don’t have any. It means their social skills are lacking.
  • For instance, they may not realize that rocking and hand flapping are often forms of expressive body language.
  • They may be assuming that people like you don’t have body language etc, and therefore actively ignoring yours because it doesn’t have a place in their worldview.

It may be true that you don’t have body language, tones of voice, facial expressions, or whatever. But it may not be, and it’s very common for people to get this wrong.

About rocking

Among other things: Rocking is body language. Rocking is emotions. 

There is a slow happy!rock. And an anxiety!rock. And anger. And affection. And any number of others. And they are not the same.

And it is possible to look and understand. It is possible to learn how to read rocking, to know what it’s showing.

This is body language. Meaning shown on a body.

They tell us that we do not have body language, that we have a flat affect. And then they try to make this true; they try to flatten us and stop us from moving and showing emotional body language.

But we aren’t flat. We have body language. And rocking is part of it. (And any number of other movements. Not just rocking. But rocking is on my mind.)

I can’t tell you how to read it. Not much. Not yet. I’m trying to figure out some of the words for that. It is hard to describe body language in words, even body language that is socially valued enough that a lot of people have tried. All the more so this.

What I can tell you is that autistic movement is meaningful. Not mysterious. Not ethereal. Not in-another-world. Meaningful, present, and possible to understand.

(Not simple. Communication between people is never simple, and never formulaic. Meaningful. Complicated.)

Keep that in mind. The first step to understanding is knowing that there is something to understand.