In Autism Gesture Speaks Volumes
There are many forms of communication among people; verbal, facial expressions, written words, and gesture (body language). Each is generally used in conjunction with the others and we read all this information using our senses. Autistic children have a problem in communication and this affects their ability to socialize. Many autistic children do not speak, some do not write, and many do not read facial expressions very well. To compound the problem, some seem to have a heightened sensory input. This was Matt. When Matt was very young – between the ages of 2-5 years old – noise hurt, bright lights were avoided, certain smells and tastes were met with disgust. Matt didn’t speak, he didn’t write, and he avoided eye-contact. So how did we communicate?
I communicated with him first and I used every form of communication to convey each message. I smiled - a lot! Matt would glance at my face when I spoke. A quick glance would tell him if it was safe. I called this “checking out my mood”. A smile meant he needn’t flee or squirm to get away. I used a soft voice . . . a soothing tone just above a whisper. If he were in my lap I would use the closeness to whisper gently into his ear. More times than not, Matt would relax into my arms and listen. These were quiet forms of communication and he received them. Receiving doesn’t necessarily mean he understood, only that he allowed the communication to proceed. Matt was communicating with me also - I just didn't know it for awhile. A doctor once asked me, “How do you know when he’s thirsty, or hungry, or wants something?” My reply was, “I just know.” Of course, I look back on that now and can see I didn’t “just know”, in reality I was reading his gestures.
Matt would walk into the kitchen and look up at the cabinet. He wanted a glass of water. Matt would pick a video tape and hand it to me. He wanted to watch that particular video. Matt would place a toy in the cart in the toy department. He wanted me to buy it. It seems so simple. After all, all kids do it. But when the child’s major form of communication is gesture, the parents become experts in reading even subtle hints. If he stood in front of me, then he wanted my attention. Once he had my attention he would give a hint as to what my next move should be. Arms raised high above his head meant he needed me to put him on my shoulders. I would take him firmly under his arms and swing him in an arc upward as his legs flew apart to straddle both sides of my neck. Nothing could harm him up there (it must have also been a great viewpoint). Whenever he was tired of walking or needed to feel safe from what was at ground-level his hands would jut upward and his eyes would dart pleadingly at mine.
I could even read his mood by paying attention to the velocity of his hand-flapping. Fast flapping – scared or excited. Slow –contentment or interest in what he was doing. In a world void of words, body language was everything. I was excellent at reading him and he knew exactly which clues I understood. What a team!
Matt began to draw and to speak at age 5. Instead of dropping back on the body language he just added his new-found communications to his already impressive list of gestures. And although Matt now speaks quite well, can write wonderfully, draw magnificent pictures, and can look directly at a person’s face when talking to them, he still relies heavily on his gestures. He is 25 years old and I still have to force him to voice his thoughts each day.
He steps out to where I can see him and then steps on his empty pop carton. I look over – as required. I know this is his gesture for telling me he is out of pop. “Are you out of pop, or do you have some in your refrigerator?” I ask. “I am out of pop.” He states matter-of-factly. “You’ll need to write it on the grocery list, O.K?” Matt will then write it on the list.
Matt stands before me, hat on his head and hands in pockets jiggling his change. I know he wants to go shopping. “What’s up, Matt?” I ask. “Um,” he hesitates and the jingling gets louder and more intense. His eyes look to the door, then upward as if to show me he is wearing his hat. “Do you want to go somewhere?” I inquire. “Are we going to the store?” he asks. Asking is safer then demanding –Matt never demands anything.
I could just jump up and do what ever it is he wants me to do. I could take that route – it’s easy, I really know Matt very well. Instead, I keep in mind that Matt needs to communicate verbally as much as possible because that is how the majority of humans communicate. I won’t always be there to read his body language. He needs to use all the other forms of communication too.
A few weekends back we took Matt to Christiansburg for a day of shopping. Matt had birthday money and gift cards burning a hole in his pocket and needed to spend it. We had three specific stores on our destination list. “Which store do you want to go to first?” I asked. Matt took out his wallet and pulled out a gift card for Barnes and Nobel. He looked at me. It was obvious where he wanted to go first. Instead of acknowledging his gesture I listed the three places and asked him to pick. He looked at his gift card, back to me and then back to his card. I smiled and waited. The car was quiet. He looked a bit frustrated. Why did I not know? Wasn’t it obvious? “Where to, Matt?” I askedagain. Again his eyes shifted from his card to me and back to his card. After afew minutes of this game he held his card in his hand and told me, “Barnes and Nobel”, shifting his eyes back to his card then to me. Matt was trying to train me – I obviously must not understand that the card in his hand was for Barnes and Nobel - how stupid could I be? Instead of acting dumb and playing along I just came right out and told him that he needed to say it out loud. I let him know that, yes, I knew what store the card was for, and that I understood, but that daddy was the one driving and he couldn’t see what Matt was doing. Basically, Matt had to say it out loud so that daddy knew where he wanted to go. This seemed to be an acceptable explanation as he replied, “Oh, O.K.”
Matt knows how to train others to read him. He is very good at gesture - even people that don’t see him very often can usually understand his gestures. Matt and I will need to compromise. I want Matt to use his speech, Matt wants to rely on his art of gesture. Of course he does – it was the very first way we “spoke” to one another, the communication method we forged in the early years of hislife. It's difficult to give that up. So, it may be a bit of tug-o-war but I am hopeful that we will eventually meet in the middle and that Matt and I will eventually feel equally comfortable using both.