Originally published by Autism Asperger's Digest Magazine (2008), Updated January 2015
"People think that if something feels easy to do, the mechanisms behind it must be simple." -Cosmides
Early on in childhood development, most individuals learn to coordinate their own body and mind, as well as interpret the words and actions of others to participate with increasing sophistication in the act of communication. It just comes to us. Yet these same skills don't develop intuitively for our students with social learning challenges, and we therefore step in to teach them to communicate. Most often, however, we sit students around a table in a therapy room, offering instruction and practice opportunities to rehearse what they should say to each other to be polite or "pro-social." Sometimes we overlook the obvious.
A case in point is Sophia, a middle school girl in one of my social thinking groups. One day Sophia said to me, "How do all those kids at school magically pop into a group when the bell rings?" We were so intent on conversation we overlooked teaching an important aspect of communication: getting access to the group. We stopped our lesson, shoved the therapy table into the corner and started investigating the synergistic dance of mind, body, eyes and language we call communication.
I asked Sophia and her three peers to give me a demonstration of how they enter groups. Two girls were asked to stand in the middle of the room, and talk to each other about shopping at the mall. Sophia went to one corner of the room and Heidi to the other. I pointed first to Sophia to join the group. She entered with her eyes and thus her entire face prominently looking at the ceiling, her fingers extending rigidly from each hand, her arms extended straight down at her sides, and her breasts prominently thrust out. Seeing this unique entry, I asked the group to "pause" and told Sophia we needed a rule for entering a group: "Boobs cannot enter first!" After the initial laughter (humor works well with this population) we talked about the messages our body and eyes send as we enter a communicative space. Next it was Heidi's turn to enter the group. Immediately Heidi started to talk about shopping at the mall as she walked from her corner into the group. While physically she established a causal presence, her words interrupted and dominated the scene. Once again I paused the group and voiced a second rule: "You have to enter as a no one to become a someone." We discussed that while words are important, they do not trump all other aspects of communication. They have to be melded into a set of movements and thoughts that make up "communication."
A key in teaching students to be increasingly effective communicators is to teach them to manage multiple systems at once: mind, body, eyes and language. And, not just their own, but simultaneously watching and interpreting those same systems in others as well. Every communicative act is a "social executive function" task. Simply put, executive function (EF) means "multi-tasking", and while many think of EF skills as only referring to organizational tasks, our EF skills are in strong demand during communication.
The Four Steps of Communication
The Four Steps of Communication are briefly reviewed below, and while they may be broken down into individual steps, they form a synergistic whole; all factors are to be considered at all times. Interestingly, these four steps do unfold in this linear sequence, however, in milliseconds of time and often without conscious thought about them.
Step 1: Think about other people's thoughts and feelings as well as your own.
To participate successfully in a communicative act we have to take the perspective(s) of our communicative partner. Effective communication requires all participants to be thinking (most of the time) about the same topic/idea and for the thoughts to stay connected (even if not mutually agreed upon) throughout the communicative exchange.
Step 2: Establish physical presence; enter with your body attuned to the group.
Effective communication typically requires people to not only stand about an arm's length of each other (physical proximity) but to also have a physical stance/posture that conveys emotional calm and willingness to participate. Many of our students have very rigid stances and unintentionally these students convey a sense of unfriendliness or discomfort when approaching other people. It's important that we teach not only about physical proximity but also about physical relaxation when communicating with others.
Step 3: Think with your eyes.
Teaching eye contact from a purely physical, functional perspective can hurt as much as help our students in social situations. Instead, we need to teach students to "think with their eyes" - meaning, to use their eyes enough to monitor how people are feeling and what they may be thinking (based on what they are looking at) during social encounters. Case in point: We generally do not pointedly stare at the person or group of people we are approaching. While we may initially look at where people are standing, as we move closer we often look at a variety of things and then once we physically enter the group our eyes slowly come up to look at everyone around us. Then we watch others' eyes to gauge conversation direction and flow and follow who is speaking to whom. Students who use eye-contact too rigidly in communication appear to be "stalking" others or being over-zealous; it makes others uncomfortable. Those who use it too little are considered evasive or disinterested.
This is precisely why eyes aren't part of a social communication until step 3 - other things happen first. Surprised?
Step 4: Use your words to relate to others.
Language is the way we share our thoughts with others. Just as in Step #1 we try to keep our thoughts connected while communicating together, we also must keep our language connected to whatever is being discussed. Those who don't keep their language "on topic" are considered self-centered, aloof, unfriendly and/or ineffective in their communicative attempts. We must teach students communication strategies such as asking questions, adding a thought, showing interest, etc. based on the conversation at hand and what they think other people are thinking about.
Traditionally, parents and educators spend so much time and attention teaching students to use better social language skills. However, it is fascinating to observe that by merely engaging in the first three steps of communication well, we can be considered effective communicators. However, if we only do the fourth step, in the absence of the first three, we are considered equally ineffective.
The take-home message is this: Communication is more than words. Let's move our students away from the therapy table and teach them to communicate using their whole bodies.
Here's a great video showing one of our conference attendees (Casey), who also happens to have autism, showing his insight into the importance of each of these steps when talking with Michelle. Click here to watch the video.
You can also check out another important teaching concept in our article: Social Behavior Starts with Social Thought: The Four Steps of Perspective Taking.