Autistic people really struggle to interpret other people’s facial expressions, body language and tone of voice. Cues such as eye rolling, looking away to express boredom, a furrowed brow etc may not be registered or interpreted correctly. This has implications for behaviour because an autistic person who has not worked out that you are upset with them might not stop what they are doing. They are not trying to be naughty, they just lack the inbuilt natural connection to other minds that non autistics are born with.
Non verbal connections with other minds can be thought of as being similar to an internet connection, invisible wi-fi or interbrain. These non verbal forms of communication are unwritten and form part of the hidden curriculum that kids are not overtly taught because it is assumed that they do not need to be taught. It is important to understand, though, that while older autistics can read about the cues in a book or via explicit teaching, this does not mean that they can make sense of the cues in different, fast placed, real life social situations, so there are limits to trying to teach the unwritten rules.
Eye contact can be very hard for autistic people. This could be because the eyes are visually overloading, which means the autistic person can’t concentrate on what you are saying if they have to look at the eyes at the same time. I find it much easier to concentrate if I am not expected to focus on making eye contact. It’s important not to try and make an autistic make eye contact if they find this aversive, but instead give them ways to advocate for themselves so that they can explain to people that they struggle to make eye contact (or even to look at the face), but that they are still listening. Conversely other autistics might over compensate by making a lot of eye contact because they have been told to do so, but in either case, there can be difficulty making the amount of eye contact that is often expected.
Just as autistics can struggle to read your non verbal cues, so you might struggle to read their non verbal cues. Autistic people can find it hard to express their feelings on their face or in their voice, and they can struggle to know what they are feeling because of emotional blindness or alexythymia. For example, when I was at school, I was very anxious and tense because of my germ OCD and all the sensory and social information I had to process. But I appeared calm, and often smiled and looked well adjusted. Therefore, teachers did not notice that I was struggling with my mental health, so I did not get the support I needed. My parents noticed my OCD because of my excessive hand washing and reassurance seeking, but I denied I had any problems because of my difficulty understanding what I was going through. So it’s important not to rely on outward expressions as a guide to what is going on beneath the surface.
Poor non verbal communication can also impact the making and maintaining of friendships because of poor awareness of personal space, as I will talk about soon.