What if everyone but you understood why people acted the way they do? What if everyone had a silent language that you just couldn't understand? The truth is, there is a silent language that most people speak but are hardly aware of it. For the average person it could be that only ten percent of their daily communication is verbal, the rest is eye contact and body language!
There are a number of conditions that cause people to have a hard time understanding nonverbal communication. These include, but are not limited to Asperger's Syndrome and High Functioning Autism. Beyond having difficulty communicating, it can lead to confusing social signals because some of this communication is signaling social status.
What if you didn't understand ninety percent of the conversation? What if your loved ones didn't know you were communicating ninety percent of the time?
It turns out that if a person with a Nonverbal Learning Disability (or NLD) can be greatly helped to learn to better communicate if those around them are aware of their disability
I wrote a book for my son who we suspect, like me, has mild High Functioning Autism. He has found it useful and his teacher read the book to his class last year. We have found it very helpful as a tool to explain both to our son and others what nonverbal communication is.
While this is intended as a children's book, there is a lot of meaning in the pages. I'll write some example questions to ask a child about some of the situations that will bring out some of the ideas.
This book is available on Lulu.com
Step 1: Bored!
The story will be told in the pictures, but I'll try to add some thoughts that are brought up in them here in the text. You may want to do a simple read through first just to get the feel.
The subject of the story, Bubs has feelings like any child this may not always be apparent, especially in teen years because NLD people may tend to have a "Poker Face" most of the time. Remember the lack of communication can go both ways, both in comprehending and expressing. While being bored isn't an emotion, it's subtle feelings that are most often not well expressed by people with NLD. If you're not sure what they're feeling, ask. Also don't be offended by a person with NLD who asks you how you're feeling.
Step 2: Can I Go Out?
Bubs' dad tries to express the pitfalls Bubs is about to face but doesn't express it in any detail which may indicate that he also has an issue with nonverbal communication. In this case here we see a generational issue where the parent may not be aware that there is a problem.
Step 3: So Many to Play With!
Step 4: Feathers?
Questions: What is Bubs going to do next?
What are these Little Guys doing?
Here we see a social circle. Each of the members are individuals and react in different ways. There is, in every social situation an hierarchy or pecking order even if it is a casual one. The nonverbal aspect of communication and it's ritual is exaggerated here by the lil' guys not breaking the ritual even for something unexpected (like a giant tree ship almost landing on top of them).
I purposely made the lil' guys small so that they would be less threatening in a group. I didn't want this to look like Bubs was going to get beat up, even if that is a possibility in real life.
Step 5: Hello!
Questions: Why did the Little Guys get angry?
What did Bubs do wrong? (He interrupted)
Do you think it's wrong to laugh at someone that makes a mistake?
There are two very different sides to this exchange. To Bubs, the lil' guys are simply standing around doing nothing. He recognizes that they are doing something by showing each other their feathers but it doesn't have any meaning to him so he instinctively disregards it.
To the lil' guys Bubs has just stomped all over a highly structured ritual. They may not even realize how structured their behavior is. They just know that Bubs is in this situation socially awkward. Some are offended thinking that he has purposely disrespected their social order.
Step 6: The Raceboard
Bubs is trying to compensate with what he does know how to do, in this case fix things. This could be a valid coping mechanism but in some situations it can be just another example of an awkward social interaction.
Step 7: It's Fixed!
Questions: What are these two Little Guys doing?
What are the Little Guys in the back thinking?
What mistake did Bubs make again?
There is a huge amount of emotional signaling in people's eye contact. Here the lil' guys have only white circles for eyes so it doesn't look like they could convey a lot of information with their eyes but here they're intently making eye contact. In fact it would seem that there may be a bit of tension between the fellows in the foreground. Bubs quickly becomes the focus of that tension because he doesn't perceive it.
Step 8: The Race
Bubs interprets this as a friendly challenge. Older people with NLD may be able to pick up that this wouldn't be a friendly social situation just from experiance but Bubs, especially being young does not.
Step 9: The Slip
This is more of a High Functioning Autism example. Bubs fine motor skills seem to be in order but his gross motor skills are lacking. Also he's not paying attention to how the lil' guy is using his board.
Step 10: Challenge
Questions: Why is this Little Guy acting like that?
Here the lil' guy is trying to hammer it home to Bubs that he's missing the point of the nonverbal signals. The thought going through his head is "How can this guy be so dumb?". He is being a bit of a bully. People with NLDs can be confusing because they can be very intelligent but cannot process social signals which most people handle easily. This is a seeming paradox to most people.
Step 11: Response
Questions: Do you think Bubs acted the right way?
Bubs is trying to mimic the lil' guys body language but comes off as awkward.
Step 12: Embarrassment
Questions: You wouldn't want people to laugh at you would you?
Do you think that's mean to laugh at someone?
The paradox of intelligence and NLD is a source of humor to the lil' guys. This makes a lot of sense under the Benign Violation Theory of humor but still is socially painful to Bubs.
Step 13: A Friend?
Question: Do you think you could be friendly to someone that's having a hard time?
Studies have found that having a social guide can go a long way to helping people with NLDs to learn to better interact socially. Many times this is a person who can bridge the gap of normal social interactions and the awkward interactions that Bubs has been displaying. Maybe this lil' guy has a lot of empathy or maybe (s)he can understand Bub's point of view because of some special insight.
Step 14: Having Fun
Here we have a healthy interaction. Bubs still isn't doing great but progress is being made.
Step 15: Healing
Self examination is important to developing coping skills. I didn't have Bubs reach any conclusions here but most children won't immediately either. The question may be one that his parents can answer or maybe his friend. Usually coping mechanisms end up a simple "if then" situation. If the lil' guys are showing their feathers, then wait until they're done might be the simplest but not necessarily the best because it will limit Bubs' expression.
Step 16: Happy Ending
Bubs' unusual social interaction may have been explained by his friend. Just having an awareness that someone's seemingly antisocial or awkward behavior is a misunderstanding is a start and can go a long way to reducing tension.
Step 17: To Parents
This story is a metaphor for what it's like to have a Nonverbal Learning Disability. The "Lil' Guys" as I have come to call them are very strange for a reason. They were drawn so that, on the first reading a parent or a child will have a hard time identifying with them. However they do have elements that are representative of most people. They are highly social, but rely on body language and nonverbal signs to communicate.
Some people are not equipped with social "feathers". They have a hard time understanding the give and take of "small talk". They try their best but usually come off awkward and often misunderstood. Bubs tries his best to interact with the lil' guys but he just doesn't understand the complex social interactions that he is interrupting.
People with NLD, Aspergers and Autism can be very talented individuals, just like our little Bubs is. To the reader it would seem apparent that he has far more ability than the lil' guys (they have no hands but Bubs has hands and tools) but that doesn't matter to most of them, they may not even understand why Bubs has so many limbs. The same is true for those that are gifted, many people find it difficult to relate to them. They may even find them intimidating to talk to since many with NLD are hyperverbal.
It is likely that our Bubs will learn more about how the lil' guys interact and may be able to fit in one day but it will be difficult since he is very different. It will take hard work on his part and often a bit of creativity. The same is true of those that find social interaction difficult, fitting in isn't impossible, but it won't ever be easy.
Finding a friend can be a struggle at times but there are those gems of people that can reach past the differences and what seem to be odd quirks to those on the outside and make very good friends. Those that do are often rewarded with honest and loyal companions.
Runner Up in the
Humana Health Challenge