Body Language & Neurodiversity

Image is of a child with black hair wearing pink, chewing on a necklace. Text reads: “I look different when I listen / I may stare into space to focus on what I hear / Rocking or quietly fidgeting keeps me calm and focused / Sitting oddly may be more comfortable / A blank expression means I’m thinking / Biting a rubber toy is better than biting myself / If I disrupting others, please gently talk to me” All showing that neurodiverse body language can be different from neurotypical body language. Image from wikipedia, by Miss Luna Rose.

There’s this one youtube channel I watch called Observe. It’s a guy who is studying how to read body language, and he puts out videos where he analyzes body language of various people – sometimes it’s true crime, sometimes it’s other youtubers, sometimes it’s from “reality” TV; it’s a whole range of things. I happen to really like the guy – he is very honest about how interpreting body language is limited, it can never be perfectly accurate, etc. He explains those limitations in the beginning of all of his videos.

And in watching said videos, I have noticed that he seems to have a gap in his knowledge around how body language can be different in neurodivergent people. There have been multiple times where he’s made a comment about someone’s body language that really jumped out at me because I can see how his analysis is so different from my own lived experience and what I know from my friends who are also on the spectrum. So I wanted to talk some about that.

I do want to get some heavy disclaimers in here. First of all, none of this is meant to be criticism of Observe or his channel or his analyses of people. I think he’s great, I think his analyses are great, and I’m not inclined to say any of the videos he made that I will be commenting on are wrong – only that I can see how I (and possibly other neurodivergent people) are different from how he seems to think of things. Second of all – I am not a body language expert. I am not claiming to be at all. I am only an expert on myself and how I interact with the world. That is the direction I am coming from here.

ANYWAY. That’s enough preamble, let’s get to talking about some actual points.

He made a video about Mr. and Mrs. Philpott. I have no reason to believe the people in question are autistic or even neurodivergent, so I am not disagreeing with his analysis. I just want to talk about a point he made that really jumped out to me when I was watching the video. 

Mr. Observe says: “He starts off and he has a lot of halting, a very jilted timing to the flow of his words. He’s not speaking fluidly and he does have the ability to do that. This instance of having halt in your wording can be an indicator of psychological processing which could be an indicator of deceit. It would be considered a red flag in my book or according to the methodology of the university that I go to it would be called a point of interest.”

This downright jolted me. This is the first time in my life that I had EVER seen jilted timing of speech be tied to deceit. I can see now how that connection would be made, but it really startled me at the time. 

Here’s the thing – my speech can be incredibly jilted too. It isn’t always – I do have the ability to speak smoothly, but only if I already know what I’m going to say and have it all thought out and processed ahead of time. Otherwise? My speech is odd, my timing is jilted, there is no real flow to my words, etc. People I’m talking to have had, on a variety of occasions, difficulty telling when I’m done talking or when I’m just pausing. It does come from psychological processing, as Mr. Observe said. But for me, that psychological processing has nothing to do with deceit and everything to do with trying to translate what’s going on in my head into words, and then getting the words out of my mouth. Both of those things can be pretty challenging on their own, and when I’m trying to do it in real time, well, things get weird. But it does not, at all, mean that I’m lying.

I also talk in that weird cadence when I’m talking about anything emotionally fraught for me. Even if it is reasonably processed, it just never comes out smoothly. In order for me to talk smoothly when I’m having a lot of feelings in that moment I basically need to have it all scripted out ahead of time, and even then sometimes my cadence will be weird and my speech jilted. The point being – while the man in Mr. Observe’s video is known beyond all doubt to be lying, if I was actually for real in a situation in which a beloved family member was missing and/or dead, my speech would be just as jilted and strange as Mr. Philpott’s was. It’s scary to think that people may take me for a liar simply because my ability to speak smoothly comes and goes.

Again, just to reiterate this point yet again – I am not inclined to say that Mr. Observe was wrong in his analysis in this particular instance. Only that he drew a connection that is not at all safe to draw when, say, looking at a neurodivergent person. 

Onto another video by Mr. Observe! This one on Nikki Phillips & her husband Dan. (content warning if you’re following my links – this one talks about abuse of an animal and may be very hard to watch) Once again, he speaks of stilted body language and this time also about awkward body movements. He didn’t mention her baseline this time (a “baseline” being how a person’s body language normally looks, to compare against to see if anything odd pops up) so I can only assume he intended to say that those things were different from her typical body language.

Well, I’ve already gotten into stilted speech, so let’s talk about awkward body language. My body language can be pretty expletive awkward. I had to very consciously and deliberately learn how to express my body language in a way that neurotypicals understand. My facial expressions were (still are, though less so) things that I “put on” for other people to see. The emotion behind the expression was real, but the way I made it so that other people could see the emotion was very much not.

Doing that correctly is tough. For instance, Mr. Observe talks about facial expressions coming on suddenly, lasting too long, and then suddenly leaving, and how that’s a sign of deceit. Well, in the video in question I’m sure it was. For me, though, it’s quite different.

I can remember being a very young child and my mom explicitly teaching me how to grin, or do an open-mouth smile. Because I didn’t know how. Jumping ahead some 30 years – I can remember trying to figure out how to do facial expressions correctly, knowing that I was messing it up, but not knowing how to fix it. Once again talking about grinning – I would be in a social situation, and someone would say something funny. So I would laugh and put a grin on, because I knew that’s what you’re supposed to do. But… then what? Every time, the grin would last too long, I would realize that I probably shouldn’t be grinning anymore, so I would take it off. People generally gave me funny looks, but I genuinely didn’t know the correct way to do it. Eventually I learned that grins are supposed to be very short, but taper quickly off into a smaller smile that can itself taper off. LIGHT BULB MOMENT for me! Expressions taper! THAT’S why I didn’t look right! I was just putting them on and taking them off like a mask. No wonder people looked at me funny.

I have gotten much better at it now, but even so – my expression of emotions tends to be false, simply because my natural way of expressing myself is unsettling to neurotypicals. I flap, I make noises, I shake my head, I position my body in ways that NTs would (and do, when they see it) find weird. 

In this video, Mr. Observe also noted that when emotional displays are “off” people generally don’t feel an empathetic response. That was telling. If you’re autistic, you’ve probably had experiences of NTs really failing in having empathy for you (even while being told that you’re the one who lacks empathy, oh this is a touchy topic for me). Well, maybe this is why! We don’t “look right” and NTs don’t respond to that particularly well. 

Now, there was one part where Mr. Observe DID mention neurodivergent people, which I really appreciated. It involved one of the people being randomly distracted by a bird, and that may not be unusual in neurodivergent people but was unusual for that particular person. I really appreciate that nod to neurodiversity and how our behavior can be different from what’s “normal.” I only wish he did that more often.

Ok, one last video note before I get into some other things. In this one Mr. Observe was looking at clips from a reality TV show, this one centered on two people named Big Ed and Liz. At around 41:08 Mr. Observe notes that Big Eg was avoiding looking at Liz, and that this is an “indicator of possible shame.”

Interesting.

This is also connected to how autistic people tend to look away from people/avoid eye contact, and how that is seen as a sign of dishonesty. 

Well, personally I hate making eye contact and I am EXTREMELY uncomfortable looking directly at people. It is a thing I very much try to avoid if I can, but it has nothing to do with shame or dishonesty. In my case, it’s more about avoiding overload. SO MUCH of a person comes out of their face; it can be absolutely overwhelming. Also, and I’m not entirely sure why this is, looking directly at a person feels incredibly aggressive to me.

All this means that there are two instances in which I will look directly at a person. Most often it’s because I’m masking. Maybe I’m at a doctor’s office and I want to look as normal as possible – I will try very hard to make appropriate levels of eye contact and look directly at the person I’m talking to. The other typical instance is when I am actually feeling angry or aggressive. Based on how NTs react to this, it isn’t actually a glare in the way an NT might act. It’s just… looking at someone. But that, in and of itself, already feels incredibly aggressive to me, so why would I add anything to it? 

Now, in terms of Mr. Observe’s videos, all this probably doesn’t matter ALL that much, except for that he is trying to be an educational source and people are going to be watching his commentary without necessarily realizing how different things can be for neurodiverse people. And quite frankly, no one necessarily knows when they are interacting with an autistic or otherwise neurodivergent person. Not unless we tell them, or they already understand what they are looking at and what it means – which is not that many people. 

One place where this can REALLY start to matter is in interactions with police. Unfortunately, police can and do interpret autistic body language, mannerisms, and extra time needed for processing as being non-compliant or dishonest, and that puts autistic people at higher risk for police violence.

From the AELE Monthly Law Journal:

“Some autistic persons have difficulty making and maintaining eye contact with others. A police officer may mistakenly interpret this as “suspicious,” having something to hide, or defiance, when in reality it is not being able to or not knowing how to respond appropriately, or even fear from what, to many, would be a routine social encounter. The result has sometimes, unfortunately, been rapid escalation of the encounter, with ensuing injury or death.”

This is a very real thing for autistic people (and I feel the need to add in – black autistic people are at even greater risk, and that is absolutely horrible and tragic). The journal goes on to talk about a few specific instances of police violence towards autistic people, sometimes even after they had been informed that the individual in question is autistic. Sometimes even to the point of killing the person. 

While I cannot cite it – I also remember someone in an autism group I was in ages ago telling the group an interaction she had with police. While she might generally have been described as “high functioning” she is still autistic, and it can still show. She had an encounter with police where as she got more and more overloaded and struggled more and more to process what they wanted, the police responded with ever increasing aggression. It sounded terrifying. She was lucky, though. She was able to eventually blurt out “I’m autistic!” and apparently they had some training to know to back off and calm down. They then told her that she should have told them that she’s autistic right from the start. Which… I don’t know, maybe she should have? But also maybe she shouldn’t have to? Sometimes disclosing that we’re autistic to police can help, but sometimes it doesn’t. It can be hard to know what to do.

I am personally very afraid of having an encounter with police. I know I’ll need to act “normal,” and I also know that in that situation, I probably won’t be able to. While I rarely scream and cower in a corner with my hands over my ears anymore, I can’t definitively say that such behavior is entirely in my past. 

All of which is to say – while this can just be interesting observations while watching a youtube video about body language, it is also a very real thing that impacts the lives of autistic people, sometimes in incredibly dangerous or even deadly ways. We need better awareness that neurodivergent people do not necessarily act the way people think we “should” and that you can’t just assume someone is neurotypical until told otherwise. That’s how people get hurt. That’s why people sometimes respond very badly to autistic people and we don’t understand why or how to fix it. It’s why the job of fixing it has somehow been placed on the shoulders of autistic people, even as we’re just trying to live our lives. 

Anyway, just to say for one last time – I really do like Mr. Observe and I like his channel. I think he is genuinely trying to be thoughtful and realistic about what he’s doing. I just also think this is one area where maybe his education is falling a bit short.

6 Comments

Filed under issue, social skills

6 responses to “Body Language & Neurodiversity

  1. Adelaide Dupont

    Hi,

    Luna Rose did the “I look different when I listen” image.

    Yes – expressions tapering can be a lightbulb moment.

    • Andren

      Thank you so much for letting me know the source of the picture! I’ll include that info right away.

  2. Hi there! This is a great discussion of reading body language, with some good insights I hadn’t thought of. I also appreciate you mentioning and linking Observe, who I hadn’t heard of and now very much want to spend time watching.

    I also fear an encounter with the police. I’m fortunate that I’m white and present mostly female, so they’re not immediately inclined to decide I’m a danger… but the chance is always there. I occasionally advocate for creating separate mental health emergency services, because quite frankly the police aren’t and shouldn’t be trained for those situations.

    An example of this working is CAHOOTS in Eugene, Oregon. There’s a description and cost analysis here if you’re interested: https://whitebirdclinic.org/what-is-cahoots/

    • Andren

      Thank you, I’m really glad you like the post! And yeah, Observe is great, I definitely recommend.

      I checked out your link about CAHOOTS and that looks amazing. I would love to see more cities adopt something like that.

  3. “I just also think this is one area where maybe his education is falling a bit short.” Maybe? He does use could, can, tends to, points at the tendency, appears to. They’re known as weasel words, as in you’re not being firm in your statements. But in this case, they’re needed. I don’t know if it’s his education that is falling short, but that his assumptions/ expectations that everyone he’s reading body language of are NT.

    I hate looking people in the eyes. I have no idea what color anyone’s eyes are. None. I know B and P because it’s come up in conversation. Not because I’ve actually looked into their eyes.

  4. Oh, wanted to add – thank you for bringing up the part about the police. I hadn’t thought about it in terms of falling apart due to overload, just falling apart because that’s who I am (that probably didn’t make sense, but it’s like I’m still learning that “oh, I do that because I’m not NT! Oh, I didn’t realize that, I thought it was just a me thing that I struggled with.”)

    While I’ll probably still fall apart, at least now I (hopefully) can remember to say, “I’m neurodivergent!” if I feel that things are getting out of control. I don’t know if I would have thought to do that without reading this post.