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Take a look at the 12 ways we send signals about who we are and how we feel.


This list is my own personal observation list (copyright 2019) – not one provided by any one person or therapist.


As you read through them note not just how many you already use to convey meaning, but also how many you use to extract meaning from another person.

  • Touch (haptics)

  • Facial expression

  • Eye contact and gaze

  • Gestures

  • Paralinguistics

  • Writing

  • Art

  • Music

  • Body language

  • Proxemics

  • Personal Appearance

  • Speech 


Touch is vital –

“touch is an important modality through which infants and mothers communicate; it is also a vital means through which infants self-regulate and explore their surroundings”

Touch It decreases stress by down-regulating stress hormones. Without touch infants fail to thrive.


3 senses must be integrated correctly in order to perceive the world –





Haptic – a combination of touch with awareness of body position.


Tactile (touch)

Receptors bring in information from the outside world –

Skin – pain, temperature, itch, pressure, vibration, textures, etc


When something isn't working as it should the child may show certain characteristic behaviors -

Pulling away

Avoiding textures

Pain does not register correctly

Withdrawal behaviors – a protective behavior from environmental overload



Receptors in the inner ear detect rotational movement and changes in the head’s movement relative to gravity.


Characteristic Behaviors -

Twirling and spinning – retraining the brain to detect rotational movements.

Lining up toys

Spinning toys



Sense of the body’s position at any given time.

Receptors found in joints, muscles and tendons, relays information about bending and stretching, and allows for fine motor movements. Body position is held subconsciously and adjusted as needed.


Characteristic behaviors

Holding a pencil – from a weak to a strong grasp, and from chaotic lines to smooth deliberate lines.

May stand differently on occasion.

Facial Expression

The two types of expressions originate in different parts of the brain - .

1. Macroexpressions – voluntary

2. Microexpressions – involuntary, and thus harder to conceal

Early in development the child puts the various expressions into only 2 different categories – approval or disapproval.


´Macroexpressions – appear obvious and involve the entire face. Being able to recognize obvious expressions (Happiness, sadness, anger) happens much sooner than complicated expressions (disgust, surprise, fear).


´Microexpressions – concealed emotions that show only in the blink of an eye.

Eye Contact and Eye Gaze

The degree of eye contact can signal comfort level.

A lack of eye contact can suggest fear or apprehension.


Retraining the visual integration centers in the brain after the onset of autism can be slow but the lack of eye contact doesn’t always last as learning is taking place.

It’s not a problem with the eyes or eyesight, it’s more to limit the amount of visual stimuli streaming in all at once.


Gestures are movements of the limbs or body in a specific way in order to express thought.


Easier for the child to use their own forms of gestures but it's not easy for them to read them in another.


Non-verbal vocalizations and paralanguage.


Basically, it’s not what you say, but how you say it is what really matters.  

Laughing or crying is tied to thoughts – its not “for no reason”, and research has shown that sounds emanating from others are perceived differently than those for neurotypical children.


Researchers found that the participants were able to detect vocalizations of happiness more quickly than those conveying anger or sadness.


Angry speech produced ongoing brain activity that lasts longer – the brain pays special attention to anger sounds.


For the main care-giver, reading the child becomes almost intuitive. But remember that for the child, reading the message in return is much harder. 


List- making is easier than understanding sentence structure and in repetition of list-making enhances memory consolidation.


Making lists organizes thoughts.

The brain section involved is the cerebellum, which is required for cognition (acquiring knowledge, understanding through thought, experience, and the senses). – The cerebellum puts it all together, connecting muscle movement with detailed thoughts and feelings.


Research shows very few specialized neurons (Purkinje cells) but a greater neuro-inflammatory processes within the developing cerebellum of autistic children.


Writing and art go hand in hand, as art provides a visual representation of the word. Involvement of this brain area is suggested for behaviors such as hand-flapping, spinning, and the need to line up toys.


Art includes many forms of expression: drawing, painting, photography, even reading or making maps, schematics, and architecture. 

Art is a way to express what we see, what we feel and what we love. Much can be gained by examining art and using art as a way to communicate. Art adds depth to words that may be difficult to say verbally. It provides insight into what we think and dream about. Never take art for granted - it's so much more than just pictures.


Music is a conveyor of non-verbal communication, just like art. It’s a conversation between the one playing the music, and the one listening to music. Again, both are expressing emotion. But music has something that art does not – actual words and language. 

Unlike spoken language, however, the words sung are not blocked in the speech processing area - language is more readily understood.


According to Kimberly Sena Moore Ph.D., music therapy can be used,

. . . to elicit spontaneous speech, to work on specific articulation patterns, and to increase their respiratory strength. Singing and speech utilize distinct and shared neural pathways, which can make singing a tremendously beneficial therapeutic option for strengthening neural connections needed for speech production.“ (Moore, 2013).


Think of it this way - the information traveling along in side by side neural highways. The one for the spoken word is still under construction and there are detours and possibly dead-ends. But right next to it is the highway for the words being sung – and the entire highway from point A to point B is free and clear . . . all the way to the speech center. Words get in. Language is processed.


We all receive song in basically the same way, autistic and neurotypical. 

Body Language

Body language is an unconscious expression of emotion. Fidgeting, pacing, standing, or sitting can reveal anxiety or relaxation.

It’s not just unconsciously used, but also unconsciously perceived by the person watching. It therefore plays a role in how we feel the other person is feeling – an unconscious communication for both parties; giver and receiver. 

Body language can reveal either positive or negative emotions.


The hand movements and twirling, now referred to as stimming behaviors, are a body language expression of emotion – not self-stimulatory behaviors as most will tell you.

Body language is an unconscious expression of emotion – and stimming is a unique form of body language. They're not trying to self-regulate, they're trying to express a feeling that they have no other way of expressing...


So, while stimming is an all-encompassing term for the seemingly odd behaviors seen in early childhood autism, like the flapping of hands, it’s also highly inaccurate.


Those odd behaviors are saying something... there's a reason for them and that reason can be found in the unconscious expression of emotion.


Proxemics is the distance a person puts between themselves and another – their physical proximity.


We all have a personal space, but for an autistic child that distance is amplified. 

Invading one’s personal space results in an anxious, uncomfortable feeling.

For Matt, it was a signal of fearfulness - distance is safety. A purposeful distance had to be maintained in order to remove himself from an environment that was too stressful, or away from a person he was fearful of.


Proxemics was a conscious act – whereas body language is unconscious. The subtleties of body language provide clues to thoughts and feeling of the person being watched, but distance always meant the same thing – he either liked where he was, or he didn’t.

Personal Appearance

What a person wears, how they style their hair, growing a beard or shaving, wearing jewelry, choosing whether to have tattoos, deciding on clothing styles and colors, all are a part of our own personal appearance and depict the person we wish to display to the world. It’s that first impression we wish to project.  

Confidence is perceived by others by our attire.

In addition to the professional attire that may be required, we still tend to express our individualism through the accessories – the colors we pick, our body art in the form of tattoos and jewelry.


Our self-expression through our attire can take years to perfect. We don’t want to look like a simple droid for any specific company - we are more than that. So we personalize our attire to reflect the individual person that we are. As we grow older we evolve, and our own personal style evolves with us, reflecting our true self more and more.


The autistic child's need to express individualism is like anyone else. Allow them to choices in attire, in decorations, in colors and accessories. The choices made reflect their individualism.


´“. . . the presence of even one word, or some echolalic speech, appears to be a significant predictor for the acquisition of spoken language after five years of age.” (NIDCD, 2010).

Echolalia - speech practice. The repeating back what has been said. For example, “How do you feel today Matt?” for which Matt would reply, “How do you feel today?”


The non-verbal category encompasses a wide range of abilities – or disabilities.

In its own way, non-verbal is similar in some aspects to the spectrum. There are lots of variations, from mute, to difficulties in producing speech, to being able to speak - but choosing not to. Maybe it’s too overwhelming. Maybe it’s confusing.


´For Matt, language use is more confusing and in many cases incomprehensible. It’s why he looks to me to clarify when someone is asking him certain questions. Matt prefers to avoid speech when possible, because most of the time how a person says something does not match their body language or facial expression. It causes uncertainty in how to reply.


´Matt is also non-verbal. It’s a unique and mysterious combination. This is why when I speak of Matt’s difficulty I simply use the phrase, “mostly non-verbal”, as it reflects an ability to speak, but for whatever the reason, does not wish to speak, or uses very little speech for communication.


Outer monologue


Self-talk, talking to one's self out loud.

Many autistic individuals have this self-talk behavior and most are told to try and control it, as talking to oneself was thought once upon a time to be a sign of mental illness. It’s actually just the opposite.


Self-talk – talking aloud to yourself – is actually beneficial.

“. . . There’s a growing body of research to indicate that self-talk can help memory recall, confidence, focus and more” (Borzykowski, 2017).


Self-talk – the outer monologue – is actually a sign of high cognitive functioning.


“Our findings are just a small part of a much larger, ongoing stream of research on self-talk, which is proving to have far-reaching implications. “Not only does non-first-person self-talk help people perform better under stress and help them get control of their emotions, it also helps them reason more wisely.” (Borzykowski, 2017).

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