I Can’t Hear What You’re Not Saying (Cracking the Non-Verbal Code)

Hand putting puzzle piece into place.

Making and maintaining solid social connections can be puzzling for kids who don’t understand non-verbal communication.

We communicate with one another in code. Somehow we’ve agreed that certain sounds and symbols in just the right sequence are going to represent specific things and ideas, and through the miracle of language we can share with each other what is in our minds.

But there’s much more to communication than just language. It has been estimated that anywhere from 60 to 90% of our daily communication is non-verbal. Think about that for a second; less than half of our communication comes from the words we use, while the rest comes from how those words are delivered. Now, imagine that you were never able to learn the secret code of non-verbal communication. Imagine that you are unable to receive any of the visual and non-verbal messages that are transmitted in a conversation, relying only on the words delivered in a robotic monotone with no inflection or emotion. Not only would you be missing most of the meaning behind attempts to communicate with you, but you would be severely limited in your attempts to express yourself to others. And if you can imagine that at all, then you have some sense of what social interactions might like for someone with a non-verbal learning disability (or any other condition that involves impaired non-verbal and social communication). You have imagined what it might be like to be Sheldon Cooper.

Black and white image of Dr. Shelson Cooper form the televsion show The Big Bang Theory.

Dr. Sheldon Cooper’s obvious social awkwardness is due in large part his inability to understand non-verbal communication.

Fans of The Big Bang Theory will know that it’s probably a lot of work to be friends with the Asperger-ish Sheldon Cooper. He has extremely poor social skills, tends not to understand jokes or sarcasm, is very concrete in his communication, and is constantly misinterpreting the social behaviours that are happening around him. He seems not to be very good at the non-verbal communication that lubricates our social interactions and conversations. And although this can make for a funny and entertaining half-hour of television, the challenge of living with this kind of impairment in the real world is daunting to consider.

In another blog article (“The Loneliest Kid on the Bus”) we talked about kids with social skills deficits, and how that often involves difficulty with non-verbal communication. But what is non-verbal communication, exactly, and what are we actually doing (often without realizing it) to communicate with each other non-verbally?  Well, it’s much more than just ‘body language’, and it involves things like:

  • our facial expressions (which can express emotion without our needing to say a word)
  • our eye contact (the length and intensity of which can express interest, boredom, hostility, affection, and which can be important for maintaining conversational flow)
  • our body movements and posture (the ways in which we walk, stand, sit, move, tilt our heads all say something about our mood and intentions)
  • our gestures (conversational hand gestures when we speak, symbolic gestures like a fist-bump or thumbs-up, and fidgeting or manipulating objects all convey information to our conversational partner)
  • our use of touch (a pat on the back, a touch of the arm, a strong/weak handshake, all contribute valuable information to a conversation)
  • our appropriate use of physical space (understanding the difference between public space, social space, personal space, and intimate space)
  • how we use our voice (including our use of volume, tone, inflection, timing, pace, pauses, and even our use of non-speech sounds to convey meaning)
  • our choice of words and phrases, and our understanding of the social context for using language
  • meta-communication (the use of any of the above to send a message about our message. For example, we might soften a sarcastic comment by smiling or winking)

So it’s not difficult to see how someone who constantly misunderstands or misinterprets this kind of information, and who may be missing more than half of the content that is being communicated, will be seen as having poor social skills. This might manifest in behaviours that can include:

  • a tendency to think and communicate literally and concretely (and therefore, a related tendency to misunderstand jokes, metaphors, idioms, sarcasm)
  • physical and social awkwardness
  • a tendency to miss or misunderstand social cues
  • a seeming ‘obliviousness’ to people’s reactions or feelings
  • a misunderstanding of appropriate social space (standing too close to people, making them uncomfortable)
  • a seeming inability to see the big picture, often getting lost in the details
  • poor conversational skills, changing the subject abruptly, or not using appropriate turn-taking in conversation
  • difficulty making friends

We all sit somewhere on the spectrum of non-verbal abilities, ranging from people with exceptional skills at understanding and using it in their interactions, to people who are completely unable to recognize or interpret this critical aspect of communication. There are a number of reasons why this might be. For someone on the autism spectrum, or with social/pragmatic communication disorder, or with a non-verbal learning disability, it may be that their brains are just not hardwired to learn these skills as readily as the rest of us. For someone with other kinds of learning disabilities or with ADHD, it may be that they are not able to consistently apply the non-verbal skills they may have learned, or that they lack the awareness and self-control to apply good social judgement. Whatever the case, there are strategies that can be learned and scripts that can be taught to help kids improve their skill set in this area.

It’s been suggested that the most important part of communication is hearing what isn’t said, and the research bears this out. Our words carry only part of the message, and understanding the non-verbal messages that support and augment language can go a long way toward enhancing our social/communication skills, and ultimately our relationships.


Representation of the sender-receiver model of communication.

Click on this image to learn more about non-verbal communication

The Learning Disabilities Association of Windsor-Essex County (LDAWE) offers programs designed to build effective communication techniques for everyday situations (including sessions on social communication and understanding body language).  They also offer recreation and support groups where people can practice the skills they are learning in comfortable ‘real-world’ settings.  Contact the LDAWE for more information.


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