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.


ADHD and Handwriting

UWindsor Blog Post by: Thomas A. Duda, M.A.

The diagnosis of Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) often conjures to mind an image of a child who doesn’t pay attention during school, is very talkative, acts without thinking, and appears to be constantly on the move as if powered by a motor. In addition to these cardinal features of ADHD, those with ADHD also tend to present with other differences compared to those without ADHD, including problems with motor control. In particular, the handwriting of those with ADHD is often described as illegible and less organized than those without ADHD. However, looking at what’s written down on paper isn’t the only way to think about handwriting. For example, other kinds of research has identified differences in the handwriting of those with ADHD at the actual movement level. Said another way, there are differences not only in what handwriting looks like, but also in the movements during handwriting. As one example, scientists in Australia found that how forcefully children with ADHD wrote was related to symptoms of hyperactivity and impulsivity. There are several different ways to conduct these kinds of studies, but scientists have most frequently used digitizing tablets (think “iPad”) to study handwriting motor movements.

Child with ADHDResearchers at the University of Windsor have been studying handwriting movements in children and adults with ADHD since about 2011. During this time, several interesting discoveries have been made. For example, parents and educators talk about children with ADHD as having a problem “doing what they know” rather than “knowing what to do.” They also show a lot of variability in performance such that the only thing that is consistent is their inconsistency! They may do really well on one assignment, but on the next one, although similar, do very poorly. They may complete chores satisfactorily sometimes, whereas on other occasions, these chores are completed haphazardly. This variability isn’t limited to these kinds of activities. Compared with adults without ADHD, Windsor researchers found that the handwriting movements of adults with ADHD were significantly more variable on average. Interestingly, this was only the case when learning a new symbol and it didn’t matter if they were on or off their medication for the treatment of ADHD. It was also shown that these adults with ADHD didn’t become as fluent in reproducing the new symbol as quickly as the adults without ADHD. This could mean that it takes more practice for adults with ADHD to become fluent when learning how to write.

Handwriting TabletThe next question might be, why is this important? Good question! First, these findings show that certain characteristics of ADHD (i.e., differences in handwriting motor movements) are not limited to childhood and continue into adulthood. In addition, the observation that adults with ADHD may take more time to become fluent at a motor task could have implications for accommodations. What’s more is that within the greater scope of psychology, researchers are trying to come up with new ways to identify and diagnose different kinds of psychological and neurodevelopmental disorders. Needed are more objective measures of functioning and this type of research can help with developing new methods to do this! Researchers at the University of Windsor are currently investigating if differences in variability and learning how to write that were observed in adults can also be found in children with ADHD, how different “thinking” abilities might be related to developing fluent handwriting in those with and without ADHD, and whether or not an objective measure of handwriting fluency development can successfully identify those who have ADHD.

Thomas A. Duda, M.A.
PhD Candidate
University of Windsor

What YOUR Post-Secondary Teachers Need to Know

Guest Blog Post by: Kathy Hansen, B.Sc., M.Ed.

College just aheadSeptember has come and gone and we are starting to feel the rhythm of school days again.  It takes a month or so every year for my family to get into the routines—routines that help us feel more organized, calmer and even safer.   Every year the transition back to school comes with its ups and downs, but some transitions are bigger than others.  The transition to college is one I am most familiar with.  Every year first year college students venture into a new chapter of their lives.  For students with learning disabilities (and their parents), the transition to college can be even more significant than it is for their peers without LD.  (See the previous post Smooth Moves)

I want to share some experiences and thoughts, based on my research, about community college faculty, students with learning disabilities, and best practices for success.  Students with learning disabilities make up a larger portion of post-secondary students than ever before – in both Canadian and US universities and community colleges.  In Ontario, a growing number of young adults with LD are attending university, but an even greater portion is attending community college.  Over 8000 students with learning disabilities attended Ontario’s 24 community colleges in 2009-2010 and the number continues to grow. Community colleges pride themselves on being accessible, hands-on learning institutions with teachers and professors that provide student-centred learning environments.  Student Services Office personnel provide support for students with learning and other disabilities when it comes to transitioning to college, accessing accommodations, and ongoing counseling support.  One major difference between high school and post-secondary education is that students must seek out support, disclose their disability, and advocate for themselves.  For many students, the process begins in high school with a supported transition; high school teachers, parents, the student and the post-secondary support team work together to facilitate the transition.

College StudentsMy research has focused on community college faculty attitudes toward and their preparedness for teaching students with learning disabilities.  Faculty attitudes and practices contribute to the success or failure of students with learning disabilities in postsecondary settings.  In my research, I developed a valid and reliable instrument called the Faculty Preparedness Questionnaire to measure preparedness for teaching students with LD.  Preparedness was defined as knowledge plus attitude.  The questionnaire addressed themes such as knowledge of disability legislation, knowledge about LD and use of resources, attitudes towards students with LD, and their potential for success at the college level. By asking community college teachers about their knowledge, attitude and practices, I wanted to understand more about their perceptions of their preparedness for teaching the growing number of students with LD in community college.  I found that community college faculty had generally positive attitudes towards, and self-rated knowledge about learning disabilities.   However, despite their positive attitudes, college instructors expressed many myths and misconceptions about LD.  The biggest gaps were in the understanding of the definition of learning disabilities and in best practices for supporting student needs.  Instructors lacked knowledge about what a learning disability is and what it is not (i.e. It is not due to poor teaching, low IQ or cultural differences).  Instructors were more knowledgeable about the legal requirement of providing the recommended accommodations, but not about what they could do in the classroom to help students with LD to be more successful.  Instructors also expressed concern about students with LD being able to perform work in the real job market.

College StudentsTherefore the task remains—to improve knowledge about LD— understanding the definition, the learning needs of students, and how individuals with LD can succeed in college level learning and in employment situations.  If you are a student with LD attending post-secondary school (or know someone that is), self-advocacy can be a major factor for success.  Don’t assume your instructors or professors know about your learning disability.  As there are different types, and accommodations and learning needs are different, you can play a big role in informing your teachers about LD.  Meet your instructors in person during their office hours and share information about your strengths and learning needs, and your motivation for success in your chosen academic and career paths.  Ask them if they would like more information and send them some information about LD, or share a link such as LDAO.  Don’t be afraid to use your accommodations. Remember that receiving accommodations is your right and do not give you and unfair advantage, but rather level the playing field.  Sometimes students with LD attempt post-secondary education without accommodations, but so often this does not work out and the student ends up not doing well in the courses.  Better to use your accommodations, discuss with your instructors and follow-up when you get your tests or assignments back.  Share your successes so that more people come to understand that a learning disability does not limit an individual.

Accessible education depends on educators having the knowledge and attitudes needed to reduce barriers and provide an inclusive learning environment.  The good news is that college educators in my research indicated positive attitudes toward students with LD; however, knowledge is an equally important contributor to understanding best practices for teaching students with LD.  If you have other ideas on how to disseminate information about LD and the successes of post-secondary students in their academic studies and careers please share them on this blog!

 

References

Hansen, K. (2013) College instructors’ preparedness to teach students with learning disabilities. University of Western Ontario – Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository  http://ir.lib.uwo.ca/etd/1244/

Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology (SSC SAST; 2011). Opening the door: Reducing Barriers to post-secondary education in Canadahttp://www.parl.gc.ca/Content/SEN/Committee/411/soci/rep/rep06dec11-e.pdf

 

Kathy Hansen, B.Sc., M.Ed.

Professor, Educational Support Program

St. Clair College of Applied Arts & Technology

Windsor, Ontario

khansen@stclaircollege.ca

http://www.stclaircollege.ca

Why Participating in Research is Important

UWindsor Blog Post by: Carlin J. Miller, Ph.D

ResearchAs a researcher, I often have trouble understanding why parents of kids with ADHD would not participate in helping us better understand this disorder. I’m passionate about the process because I know the difference what scientists have uncovered in the past 20 years makes. And, I know how much is still unknown or unclear.

As a parent, I get it. You have limited time and you don’t want to spend the little free time you have filling out forms and traveling to the university. You aren’t sure it will benefit your child. Consider this post an opportunity to find out what is happening in ADHD research at the University of Windsor as well as a chance to better understand the process.

First, let’s deal with the time commitment. We, as scientists, understand being busy. Those of us who are parents experience the same time crunch you have and we don’t want to waste anyone’s time. We try to ensure that every question we ask is pertinent. We try to administer measures that help us better understand ADHD but we are also trying to be helpful to you. Just the same, gathering information takes time.

MindfulnessI can use my own recent project as an example. Our group offered an 8-week program in mindfulness-based meditation to parents and teachers of ADHD last spring. Before they started the program, we had participants fill out forms about their current psychological state and what they knew about ADHD. We also kept track every week of how they were doing at incorporating meditation into their daily lives. At the end, we had another round of questions about their emotions and their ADHD knowledge. Because it was a pilot project with a very small group, the statistical data isn’t very useful, but the information provided by participants helped them track their own progress. I was also making sure that each participant was not in enough distress to need encouragement to see their family doctor. At the end, participants said the program was very helpful and they would recommend it to others. They also reported feeling less stressed, less anxious, and more competent around their parenting. If you are interested in hearing more about this project or participating in the next 8-week program for parents and teachers later this fall, call me at the University (519-253-3000, ext. 2226) or send me an email (cjmiller@uwindsor.ca). We are also in the process of developing similar programming for school-age kids and adolescents to be offered in the late fall and early in the winter.

The mindfulness program is not the only research project on ADHD or related issues at the University of Windsor. One of my undergraduate students is surveying local parents and teachers of preschoolers about the relations among preschooler temperament, parenting style, and risky play. We hope to find that a child’s personality predicts risky play and that parenting style may make a difference in play outcomes. Another student is in the process of developing an online intervention to promote on-task behaviour in university students. A student in another faculty member’s research group will begin a project in the winter to examine handwriting performance in 10-12 year olds who have ADHD and are taking stimulant differences. (You can reach that student, Tom Duda, at dudat@uwindsor.ca.)

Without ongoing research, treatment for ADHD will stay where it is today. By volunteering your time and/or your child’s time as a research participant, you are helping us improve life for many, perhaps even you.

Carlin J. Miller, Ph.D.

Associate Professor, Clinical Neuropsychology
Department of Psychology
University of Windsor
http://uwindsor.ca/cjmiller