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Teaching Nonverbal Communication Skills to Kids on the Autism Spectrum

"How can parents teach nonverbal communication and body language to a child who can read neither?"

Most children communicate naturally and instinctively. However, communication is a highly complex process that requires the spontaneous organization of several different functions. For example:
  • Emotional controls: to be comfortable socially requires that a child learns how to control his emotions and use them in a way appropriate to the circumstance
  • Listening skills: for a child to understand what she is hearing requires that what she hears is automatically turned into understood thoughts
  • Reading body language: reading body language accurately requires that the child learns the meaning of non-verbal cues (e.g. smiling, frowning, etc.)
  • Verbal communication: to speak naturally requires that the cerebellum has hard wired the process of turning thoughts into speech

With Asperger's (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA), one or more of these skills are not fully developed, so children on the autism spectrum ‘overload’ their working memory and don’t take into account all of the various information required for natural social interaction.

Good communication is the foundation of any successful relationship – and nonverbal communication speaks the loudest (e.g., facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, posture, tone of voice, etc.). The ability to understand and use nonverbal communication is a powerful tool that can help children connect with others, express what they really mean, and build better relationships.

Since nonverbal communication does not come naturally to AS and HFA children, it must be taught. Below is some vital information that parents (and teachers) can share with their “special needs” child to help him or her begin to develop the ability to read nonverbal cues. Change the wording as needed so your child will understand. And don’t be surprised if, at times, you child feels as though you are speaking a foreign language, because nonverbal communication is indeed foreign to AS and HFA kids. Pick one point at a time to discuss (perhaps one point a day over the course of 12 days), and try to give examples of each point that your child can relate to directly.

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

Point #1: Discuss body movements and posture. Consider how our perceptions of people are affected by the way they hold their head, sit, walk, or stand up. The way we move and carry ourselves communicates a wealth of information to others. This type of nonverbal communication includes stance, posture, bearing, and subtle movements.

Point #2: Discuss eye contact. Since the visual sense is dominant for many people, eye contact is an especially important type of nonverbal communication. The way we look at someone can communicate many things (e.g., attraction, interest, affection, hostility, etc.). Eye contact is also important in maintaining the flow of conversation and for evaluating the other person’s response.

Point #3: Discuss facial expressions. The human face is extremely expressive and able to convey numerous emotions without saying a word. And unlike some forms of nonverbal communication, facial expressions are universal. The facial expressions for anger, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise, and disgust are the same across cultures.

Point #4: Discuss gestures. Gestures include waving, pointing, using your hands when you are arguing or speaking animatedly. We often use gestures without thinking about it.

Point #5: Discuss space. Has anyone ever told you that they felt uncomfortable during a conversation because you were standing too close and invading their space? Everyone has a need for physical space, although that need differs depending on the person, the situation, and the closeness of the relationship. We can use physical space to communicate many different nonverbal messages (e.g., signals of affection, aggression, submissiveness, dominance, etc.).

Point #6: Discuss touch. You communicate a great deal through touch. Think about the nonverbal messages given by the following acts: a controlling grip on your arm, a patronizing pat on the head, a reassuring pat on the back, a timid tap on the shoulder, a warm bear hug, or a weak handshake.

Point #7: Discuss voice. It’s not just what we say, it’s “how” we say it. When you speak, the other person “reads” your voice in addition to listening to your words. Things the other person may pay attention to include how loud you speak, sounds that convey understanding (e.g., ahh” and “uh-huh”), your timing and pace, and your tone and inflection. Think about how someone's tone of voice can indicate anger, sarcasm, affection, or confidence.

Point #8: Oftentimes, what comes out of your mouth and what you communicate through your body language are two totally different things. When faced with these mixed signals, the person that is listening to you has to choose whether to believe your verbal or nonverbal message. And in most cases, the other person is going to choose the nonverbal, because it's a natural, unconscious language that broadcasts your true feelings and intentions in any given moment.

Point #9: Pay attention to contradictions. Nonverbal communication should support what is being said. Is your friend saying one thing, but his body language saying something else (e.g., is he telling you “yes” while shaking his head no)? Don’t dismiss your gut feelings. If you get the sense that someone isn’t being honest, you may be picking up on a mismatch between verbal and nonverbal cues.

Point #10: The way we listen, move, look, and react tells the other person whether or not we care, if we are being truthful, and how well we are listening. When our nonverbal signals match up with the words we are saying, it increases trust and rapport. When our nonverbal signals don’t match up, it generates mistrust and confusion.

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

Point #11: When you interact with your friends and classmates, you continuously give and receive wordless signals. All of your nonverbal behaviors send strong messages (e.g., how close you stand to someone, how fast or how loud you talk, how much eye contact you make, the gestures you make, the way you sit, etc.). These messages don't stop when we stop speaking either. Even when we are silent, we are still communicating nonverbally.

Point #12: Lastly, along with your child, watch and discuss the video below on “reading facial cues”:

As your AS or HFA child continues to pay attention to the nonverbal cues he sends and receives, his ability to communicate will improve. By using the points listed above, parents can help their child gain the skills needed to communicate nonverbally, which is often the most important component of communication.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

The DON'Ts After the Diagnosis of Asperger's

For some moms and dads, a diagnosis of Asperger's may feel like a kick to the groin. You feel overwhelmed, and your world has been turned upside down. 

Part 11: Teaching Strategies for Students with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism – Academic Difficulties

Kids with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA):
  • frequently have an excellent rote memory, but it is mechanical in nature (i.e., the youngster may respond like a video that plays in set sequence)
  • have a pedantic speaking style and impressive vocabularies that give the false impression that they understand what they are talking about, when in reality they are merely parroting what they have heard or read
  • have poor problem-solving skills 
  • tend to be very literal (i.e., their images are concrete, and abstraction is poor)
  • usually have average to above-average intelligence – especially in the verbal sphere – but lack high level thinking and comprehension skills

Programming Suggestions for Teachers:

1. The writing assignments of students with AS and HFA are often repetitious, flit from one subject to the next, and contain incorrect word connotations. These kids frequently do not know the difference between general knowledge and personal ideas, and therefore assume the teacher will understand their sometimes obscure expressions.

2. Provide a highly individualized academic program engineered to offer consistent successes. The youngster with AS or HFA needs great motivation to not follow his own impulses. Learning must be rewarding and not anxiety-provoking.

3. Offer added explanation, and try to simplify when lesson concepts are abstract.

4. Kids with AS and HFA often have excellent reading recognition skills, but language comprehension is weak. Do not assume they understand what they so fluently read.

5. Multiple levels of meaning, emotional nuances, and relationship issues as presented in novels will often not be understood.

6. Do not assume that kids with AS and HFA understand something just because they parrot back what they have heard.

7. Capitalize on these students’ exceptional memory. Retaining factual information is frequently their forte.

8. Academic work may be of poor quality because the youngster with AS or HFA is not motivated to exert effort in areas in which she is not interested. Very firm expectations must be set for the quality of work produced. Work executed within timed periods must be not only complete, but done carefully. The “special needs” youngster should be expected to correct poorly executed classwork during recess or during the time she usually pursues her own interests.

Teaching Students with Aspergers and HFA

Kids on the Autism Spectrum and Problems with Disruption of Routine

"Our daughter (autistic) has trouble managing her mood and behavior when changes in her daily routine occur. How should we handle this?"

Children with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) tend to crave sameness, despise change, become upset when there is a break in routine, or experience a “meltdown” when it is time to transition from one activity to another.

Among these “special needs” children, there is a propensity for doing - or thinking about - the same things over and over, because doing so brings great comfort (e.g., repeatedly lining up toys in a certain order). Unlike “typical” children who may, for example, experiment with lining up train cars in a variety of ways, and move them along the track once they have decided on an order, a youngster with AS or HFA might have only one acceptable order – and have a temper tantrum if a single car is moved out of place.

Many children on the autism spectrum have deep-seated “rituals" where certain things MUST be done in an exact way every time. For example, (1) “Dad must hand me the green towel with the frog on it,” (2) “I must step out of the tub onto a dry towel lying on the floor,” (3) “Dad must pull the bathtub plug,” and (4) “He must dry me off starting with my feet first.” Heaven help dad if he pulls the plug out of sequence or if the frog towel is in the dirty laundry. In this happens, the AS or HFA youngster can fall to pieces, insisting that the tub be refilled and the entire sequence be done again, this time in the correct order.
==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

One expert on Asperger’s, Tony Atwood, describes how these rituals can become more and more agonizing:

"The bedtime routine may have started with only lining up three toys, but becomes an elaborate ritual where dozens of toys have to be placed according to strict rules of order and symmetry. When a journey to a destination has followed the same route several times, there is the expectation that this must be the only route and no deviation is tolerated."

What drives this incessant desire for routine? Maybe it’s a form of control, or a way to cope in an unpredictable and frightening world. In any event, the insistence on sameness is unmistakably there.

The strong need to avoid the disruption of routine can make a child with AS or HFA look very rigid to the outside world. Parents – and even siblings – can feel held hostage to certain routines or rituals, dreading the meltdown that will ensue if they interfere with them.

This inflexibility can have other social implications, too. For example, the AS or HFA child may become extremely rigid regarding rules, and want to help enforce them to the dismay of their friends and classmates. The youngster may try to “script” the play of other children so that some pretend scenario is acted out exactly as he or she pictured it. This resembles the “lining up toys” behavior, only now it is peers and their behavior that the youngster is trying to put in order. If the other children are noncompliant, this may lead to a tantrum or meltdown. The give-and-take necessary to play or interact with peers in more complex, mature ways is hindered by the AS or HFA child’s strong need for sameness.

Researchers have demonstrated that the tendency to have rigid routines, the propensity for having a “special topic," and repetitive sensory and motor behaviors (e.g., stimming) often occur together. Whether these various ways of being “rigid” are necessarily connected in some way (neurologically speaking) is still being debated.

The good news about the AS or HFA youngster’s strong desire to avoid disruption of routine is that it can be relatively easy for parents to respond to. The vast majority of children of all ages function better with structure, routine, and predictability in their life. Kids on the autism spectrum simply take it to the extreme and have difficulty adjusting to change.

If your youngster has trouble managing his mood and behavior when changes in his daily routine occur, try to provide him with as much predictability as possible. This can be accomplished by creating a highly structured environment where daily tasks take place in a certain order and things are physically in order. For example:
  • Bulletin boards with individual cards for each task that you can move around with pins, calendars you make on your computer, or dry-erase boards will make it easy for you to post the changes without having to recreate the list every time there is a change.
  • Lists, charts and calendars on the wall help your youngster see what will happen each day. 
  • Warning your child ahead of time of upcoming changes can help prevent upset, or minimize it.

Is there ever a time when you should step in and stop your AS or HFA child from engaging in his or her repetitive routines?

The answer is often that these behaviors are a problem for parents and teachers rather than the youngster herself, who is very content to be preoccupied in these ways. Thus, it is unlikely that your youngster will want to change her behavior. The rules of thumb when making decisions about whether or not to intervene or change routines and rituals are to ask yourself the following:
  • How much of a problem is it – and who for?
  • Does the behavior endanger my youngster or others? 
  • Does the behavior increase the likelihood of social rejection or isolation?
  • Does the behavior interfere with other enjoyable activities or school work?
  • Will the behavior be acceptable in 5 years from now?

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism


An effective treatment program for rigidity and insistence on sameness actively engages the youngster’s attention in highly structured activities, builds on his interests, offers a predictable schedule, provides regular reinforcement of behavior, and teaches tasks as a series of simple steps. This type of program generally includes the following:
  • cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of “talk” therapy that can help the more explosive or anxious kids on the spectrum to manage their emotions better and cut back on obsessive interests and repetitive routines
  • medication for co-existing conditions (e.g., depression and anxiety)
  • occupational or physical therapy for kids with sensory integration problems or poor motor coordination
  • parent-training and support to teach moms and dads behavioral techniques to use at home
  • social skills training, a form of group therapy that teaches AS and HFA kids the skills they need to interact more successfully with their peers
  • specialized speech/language therapy to help kids who have trouble with the pragmatics of speech (i.e., the give-and-take of normal conversation)

Because change causes anxiety in young people with AS and HFA, they will want to live by rigid rules that they construct for themselves. One of their main rules goes something like this:  

“My routine must NOT be disrupted, and involves X, Y and Z. Each time I can do X, Y and Z – in that order – my life has some predictability. When I don’t have this predictability, I feel anxious, which is a very painful emotion that needs to be avoided at all costs.”

My child has been rejected by his peers, ridiculed and bullied !!!

Social rejection has devastating effects in many areas of functioning. Because the ASD child tends to internalize how others treat him, rejection damages self-esteem and often causes anxiety and depression. As the child feels worse about himself and becomes more anxious and depressed – he performs worse, socially and intellectually.

Click here to read the full article…

How to Prevent Meltdowns in Children on the Spectrum

Meltdowns are not a pretty sight. They are somewhat like overblown temper tantrums, but unlike tantrums, meltdowns can last anywhere from ten minutes to over an hour. When it starts, the Asperger's or HFA child is totally out-of-control. When it ends, both you and your child are totally exhausted. But... don’t breathe a sigh of relief yet. At the least provocation, for the remainder of that day -- and sometimes into the next - the meltdown can return in full force.

Click here for the full article...

Parenting Defiant Teens on the Spectrum

Although Aspergers [high-functioning autism] is at the milder end of the autism spectrum, the challenges parents face when disciplining a teenager on the spectrum are more difficult than they would be with an average teen. Complicated by defiant behavior, the teen is at risk for even greater difficulties on multiple levels – unless the parents’ disciplinary techniques are tailored to their child's special needs.

Click here to read the full article…

Older Teens and Young Adult Children with ASD Still Living At Home

Your older teenager or young “adult child” isn’t sure what to do, and he is asking you for money every few days. How do you cut the purse strings and teach him to be independent? Parents of teens with ASD face many problems that other parents do not. Time is running out for teaching their adolescent how to become an independent adult. As one mother put it, "There's so little time, yet so much left to do."

Click here to read the full article…

Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism

Two traits often found in kids with High-Functioning Autism are “mind-blindness” (i.e., the inability to predict the beliefs and intentions of others) and “alexithymia” (i.e., the inability to identify and interpret emotional signals in others). These two traits reduce the youngster’s ability to empathize with peers. As a result, he or she may be perceived by adults and other children as selfish, insensitive and uncaring.

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to read the full article...

Highly Effective Research-Based Parenting Strategies for Children with Asperger's and HFA

Become an expert in helping your child cope with his or her “out-of-control” emotions, inability to make and keep friends, stress, anger, thinking errors, and resistance to change.

Click here for the full article...