Dr. David Matsumoto led a study to examine the body language of winners and losers of a recent Olympic competition. He discovered that the individuals in each category summary responded with similar body language, gestures and facial expressions. Which isn’t all together terribly fascinating, except when you consider that some of his subjects were blind.
If these individuals cannot see, and never could, how is it possible that they are able to innately respond with the exact same physical movements for sadness and happiness as their seeing counterparts?
Without the ability to learn these behaviors through sight, spending a lifetime mimicking those around us; it is reasonable to conclude that many of the behaviors, gestures and expressions we use to covey our feelings are deeply imbedded in our distinctly human code.
Known as the 7 universal emotions, these are feelings common to all human beings, no matter their age, gender or culture. From early infancy to our dying day, we as people express these seven emotions in the same fashion; the facial expressions are the same from NYC to Timbuktu, and everywhere in between. These emotions are; anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, surprise and contempt.
They are easily recognizable in every culture, by every person. Even a very small baby can tell the difference between a smile and a scowl, a wrinkled brow or a scrunched up nose.
Though these emotions are ubiquitous, there are those among us for whom a smile is nothing more than an open mouth, a frown nothing to be concerned about, or a tear merely a drip of water. These expressions do not convey emotion – they convey nothing at all.
As Dr. Oz so eloquently stated on his recent show discussing what causes autism, “Autism robs the child of their emotional foundation. It’s a disorder that makes it impossible at times for the child to communicate. Even the smile is just too confusing.”
For those living with autism spectrum disorders (ASD’s), understanding emotion and basic human communication is often difficult or impossible. These individuals are unable to decipher the communication cues bombarding them; resulting in not only a diminished capacity to properly communicate their wants to others, but an inability to feel empathy or socially relate to those around them.
Recent research has suggested that the inability to interpret body language, facial expressions and gestures is directly related to the superior temporal sulcus, a part of the brain charged with controlling the processing of visual information.
A study conducted by researchers at the University of Durham in 2009 examined the ability of autistic individuals to identify movement and emotions based solely on body language. Participants were shown cartoon images of people moving to the left, to the right, or random, as well as illustrating gestures conducive to a variety of emotions; shaking first for anger, skipping for happiness and clapping for happiness. The figures had no faces, and did not speak. Participants had a tremendously difficult time reading the emotion and/or deciphering the direction of movement.
This inability is possibly linked to a genetic mutation on the gene for the oxytocin receptor – part of the brain system that mediates social behaviors, as concluded by scientists at Duke University and The University of Miami (2009, BMC Medicine).
Misunderstanding basic social cues and emotions are the hallmarks of ASD’s; a range of difficulties which The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates 1 out of every 150 8-year-olds is afflicted. A developmental disorder that affects the brain's ability to develop normal social behaviors, it is usually detected in the first 3 years of a child's life; about the time socialization and communication begin to appear stunted. It is 4 times more likely to affect boys than girls. Learning to live with ASD is a lifelong process for all involved.
Whether your child has only recently been diagnosed, or your family has been coping with ASD for some time, it is extremely important that you are well informed, and are able to successfully adapt any and all treatment tools available. This will ensure you are able to be the best parent and caregiver you can be.
ASD’s create social and communication barriers that make it difficult for your child to interact at school, at home or in the workplace. Early intervention (for them) and proper support (for you) is crucial to developing and maintaining a loving, supportive family environment. Learning to properly intercept vocal cues, gestures and body language and attach appropriate meaning is not impossible for those with autism; but it will be harder. However, learning to do so will enhance their experiences and interactions, lessen frustration and irritation and improve their ability to communicate with the world around them.
What if you were locked in a private world, with little to no ability to understand or recognize basic human emotions; in yourself or in others? Four hundred thousand people in the United States are living with autism. Why not implement a few strategies that could radically improve their lives?
Those charged with disseminating research, literature and training protocol for the ASD community are now explicitly emphasizing the importance of early intervention. The signs of ASD can be observed in very young children, in fact even in infants.
A great many teaching techniques are available to families dealing with ASD’s. Each should be tailored to the family’s goals, the age of the child and their interests. A successful program will be individually designed, include positive reinforcement and include the involvement of all caregivers.
One of the most important factors to consider is a routine. A child with autism will greatly benefit from a strict schedule that is adhered to daily. This encourages the brain to recognize and remember a pattern. When the pattern is disturbed they may become distressed or irritated. By constructing a daily routine, you will allow your child to prosper. As your child ages, it is helpful to use charts, flashcards or books to reiterate the daily march though the routine. Allowing your child to participate will also assist in the retention and understanding of daily life.
Developing language and communication skills will be difficult for those affected with ASD’s. However, there are many useful strategies you can employ. Though most of us are born with an innate ability to communicate our wants and needs, those with autism cannot.
One of the most successful ways to improve eye contact, build vocalization skills and improve upon the ability to understand the signs of emotion and body language is to use picture boards or flash cards. There are some tools available, but not enough comprehensive strategies exist in this arena. I for one, see a drastic need for improvement. It is my goal to develop what we are calling The A.N.G.U.S. system before the end of the year. My team and I are working on a series of cards that portray the 7 universal emotions, as well as additional nonverbal cues in an effort to provide a useful learning system for autistic children and their caregivers.
In the meantime, many families have had success with practicing non-verbal gestures and expressions. Use your own face as a mirror for your child’s, taking turns initiating and mimicking the expressions. Make it a game, one in which you gently repeat the information several times. This can help your child attach each expression to the proper emotion, and help them better understand the circumstances in which each is needed. This will likely reduce the frustrations in social interactions by allowing for proper self-expression.
A family friend of ours was recently struggling to help her son cope with the communication difficulties he experienced due to autism. One very successful tool she has implemented involves repurposing her full-length mirror. Instead of hanging on the back of her bedroom door to view her daily outfit selection, she hung low it in the living room so her son can see his face. This enables him to express different emotions and see how they appear on him. He is, essentially, trying them on for size.
These are but a few of the many strategies you will find to ease stress within your home, and help your child improve in their communicative endeavors. Remember, always be patient and understanding; this is not an easy disorder to understand or treat. What comes naturally to us is extremely difficult for those struggling with ASD’s. Don’t let their learning differences upset you, but embrace any and all ways to help them succeed.