“Autistic body language” is somewhat of a misnomer—every autistic person is unique, so it is difficult to make generalizations about autistic people as a whole. This article discusses common patterns and misconceptions. When applying this information, be sure to consider your autistic loved one as an individual, and remember that each step won’t apply to each person.
- Remember that different is not deficient. Autistic people communicate differently, but that does not make their communication inferior. Every person (including non-autistic people) has unique mannerisms, and there is no right or wrong in personal expression.
- Don’t come with expectations about how they should act. You may have a fairly narrow view of what each specific behavior means. (For example, if you assume that lack of eye contact means inattention, you may think an autistic person is ignoring you when they’re actually paying close attention.) Work on being open-minded and getting to know the individual.
- Welcome difference, and don’t be afraid of body language you don’t understand. This may be new to you, and that’s okay. Weird faces and flapping arms may seem unpredictable to you, but that does not mean the autistic person is dangerous, or that they’re going to hurt you. Take a deep breath and relax.
- Look for context. Because body language is complicated, and autistic people are diverse, there is no easy list or flowchart of body language logic. Look for contextual clues (environment, what is said, facial expressions) and use your judgment.
- When in doubt, ask. It’s okay to ask for clarifications about someone else’s feelings, and it’s certainly better than getting frustrated or confused. (Autistic people can understand the feeling of needing clarifications about feelings. As long as you’re polite and respectful, it’s perfectly okay.)
- “I noticed you’ve been fidgeting a lot while we’re talking. Is something up, or is this a normal part of listening for you?”
- “I noticed that you haven’t been looking at me while we’re talking. Is this a part of your listening body language?”
EditUnderstanding Autistic Differences
These are general tips to help you understand your loved one better. An individual autistic person’s body language may match many of these steps, but not necessarily all of them.
- Recognize that stimming can have many meanings. If an autistic person stims around you, it often means that they trust you to let them be themselves. It also has meaning depending on the situation. It may be an expression of emotion, a way to reduce stress or overload, a focusing aid, or something else. Here are ways to get hints.
- Facial expressions—Stimming while smiling usually means something different from stimming while frowning.
- Words and sounds—What they say, or the sounds they make (crying, giggling, etc.) can give clues towards their feelings.
- Context—A woman who waves her arms when shown a puppy is probably excited, while if she is waving her arms and whining while working on a difficult project, she may be frustrated or in need of a break.
- Sometimes stimming has no emotional meaning, similar to how standing up and stretching is not an indicator of your mood.
- Recognize that looking elsewhere is often part of autistic listening body language. Eye contact can be distracting or painful for autistic people, so they may look at your shirt, your hands, the space next to you, their hands, et cetera. Their eyes may be unfocused during this time. This is usually because their brain is focusing on your words.
- If you think they may be zoning out, try saying their name, verbally getting their attention, or gently waving your hand in front of their eyes (if nothing else works).
- Interpret a blank expression as a thoughtful one, not as an empty one. Many autistic people relax their facial features when their mind is busy. This may include a faraway gaze, a slightly open mouth, and a general lack of expression.
- Some autistic people assume this expression by default when they are focusing on listening to someone.
- If an autistic person is staring into space by themselves, assume they are deep in thought. They can still hear you (but get their attention first if you want them to listen).
- Expect stimming as part of regular body language. Stimming can help with self-calming, focus, and feeling good in general. If an autistic person is stimming while talking to you, assume that it enhances rather than detracts from their focus.
- Don’t automatically interpret wild, random facial expressions as anger or frustration. Some autistic people will make odd faces. Usually this means that they are comfortable enough around you not to censor themselves, which is a very good sign! Here are some potential meanings…
- Happiness—Their unique way of smiling and having fun.
- Stimming—They need to get their facial muscles moving, similar to how you might play with a zipper or toss around a baseball if you haven’t had enough activity.
- Being silly—They want to make you smile.
- Natural expression—Some disabled people’s normal expressions look different from non-disabled people’s expressions.
- Frustration or pain—Look for contextual clues to see if this matches.
- Be aware of any movement disabilities. Movements that seem jerky, clumsy, forceful, or “angry” may not mean anger—it may be dyspraxia, cerebral palsy, sensory processing disorder, or other disabilities that can affect ease of movement. If they often move this way, attribute it to their natural physical challenges, and be wary of misreading them as upset when they’re just trying to do something.
- Look out for agitation. Autistic people are at high risk for anxiety, and may experience sensory issues that cause discomfort or pain. Unusually agitated movements (including stims) paired with a blank or upset facial expression may mean that the autistic person needs a break.
- This can be useful for meltdown and shutdown prevention.
- Understand that it’s okay not to understand. Autistic people can do all sorts of different things, from calling “Beep! Beep! Beep!” in tandem with the microwave timer to smiling and going limp when hugged. Don’t worry about it. Recognize the value in their differences, and appreciate them for who they are.
- The autistic community has plenty of resources and personal essays that may be useful to you.
- Some people’s facial expressions don’t show how they are feeling inside. For example, a child who never smiles still feels happiness; it just isn’t as clear on their face.
- Never use coercion, plans, or physical force to make an autistic person conform to social norms. If they want to try to fit in, that is their choice, and they have the right to make that decision.
- Read Body Language
- Fight Ableism as a Nondisabled Person
- Read Your Partner’s Body Language
- Experience Autistic Culture
- Understand Body Language
- Support an Autistic Person
- Talk to an Autistic Person
EditSources and Citations
This article was started by an autistic woman.