Thursday, April 8, 2010

Asperger's and Pinnochio - Wooden Conversations

Did you know that approximately 93% of our communication is nonverbal?

How incredible!

And what bad news for those of us who make little use of paralinguistics - the gesturing, facial expressions, tone modulations and postures which help communicate our message's meaning.

Signs that you may not be infusing your communications with the oopmh! that keeps people interested: when you're speaking people may act bored, look distracted, talk over you, ignore you, or cut the conversation short so they can move on to other, more engaging conversation.

If you notice people reacting to you in these ways, take heart. You can modify how you communicate in ways that change how others perceive you. You can also become aware of signals you give out that can confuse others and cause them to disengage. So start troubleshooting now to avoid conversation that is stiff and wooden. After all, the only one who can get away with wooden conversation is Pinnochio.

How Gestures are Used

Gestures are generally used to either supplement language or to replace language. For instance, if I put my fingers to my lips because I want silence while I finish my phone call, I'm replacing language ("please be quiet") with a gesture. However, if I tell my teammate, "Great game!", and then slap my open, up-facing palm with his (also known as a "high-five"), I've used a gesture to add oomph! to my verbal message.

People use countless gestures to add meaning to their verbal messages in all kinds of settings. Think of the boss who asks where that report is, but pairs the question with a definitive frown: she's just let you know that she's not happy about something - and it probably has to do with the report.

Understanding how gestures play into communication takes practice. If you're speaking to a coworker, who begins tapping his feet and looking around, you'd be wise to understand that he's feeling impatient. Depending on the context, you may want to wrap it up, ask if another time to talk would work better, or remember that he may want a turn in the conversation. This "conversational multitasking" takes cognitive flexibility - and just like stiff muscles, flexibility increases with time and practice.

Posture is an important feature of communication. Many adults with AS struggle with core strength - feeling like Pinnochio with no strings can make it awfully difficult to sit or stand erect. However, slouching can communicate fatigue, boredom and disinterest....often the last messages one wants to send.

Eye contact is another form of communication which falls by the wayside for many with AS. Yet lack of eye contact can communicate disinterest, even disrespect! If you'd like your conversation partner to get the message that you value him or her, are listening and care, the importance of sporadic eye contact cannot be overstated.

Did you know that hygiene also can be considered a form of communication? We actually communicate a great deal to others via our daily cleaning and grooming habits. Ineffective or inconsistent hygiene says much to others about your self-esteem, confidence and intelligence. Hygiene can be considered the foundation for good communication - if it's not there, it's unlikely that the best repertoire of jokes and gestures will get you anywhere.

Avoiding the Wooden Conversation with Improved Paralinguistics

How can one go about increasing the effectiveness of his or her paralinguistics?

Start with the basics. The first thing others notice about us is usually our grooming. Daily showering and teeth brushing, deodorant use and clean, wrinkle-free clothing can do wonders for the impression we send to others. Of course this sounds pretty basic, but it's not for many adults with AS. Why? Often it comes down to sensory overload: the sensitive system can be overloaded by the cold blast of shower water or the pungent taste of peppermint toothpaste. There are so many products on the market to help the individual with sensory issues manage daily tasks which can produce overload: from soft, tagless washcloths to mild, bland toothpastes - why not invest in making hygiene as comfortable as possible? This is the time for action, not shame.

As discussed above, posture says a lot. Remember that posture often communicates mood, intent or attitude. Taking the time to practice and perfect this small aspect of communication is well worth the effort and time. You may catch yourself sagging against walls or shifting and slouching down in your seat. When you do, straighten up. Exercises designed to increase core strength can help immensely. For examples, see the Mayo Clinic's site:

If you struggle making eye contact, try looking at the small space between the eyes of the person you're speaking with. Intersperse this with real eye contact - it will lessen the burden on you while preserving the message that you want to send - that you are actively engaged in the conversation and want to connect with the person you are speaking with. Constant eye contact is not necessary...but intermittent eye contact really is. As with most things, practice helps the behavior become more natural, comfortable and automatic.

Lastly, the smile. So many adults with AS have a standing face that feels neutral to them - but looks angry or bored to others! Don't fall into the habit of the wooden, expressionless face. Smiling briefly takes practice but lets others know you're not just a puppet. People generally respond very well to being smiled at, and smiling can communicate friendliness and openness, which fosters connection.

You can change the way you communicate without changing what you say. Adults with AS often have vastly impressive stores of knowledge and incredibly unique perspectives to share. Don't let a Pinnochio-like presentation prevent friends and coworkers from benefiting from all the richness of what you have to say.