Tag Archives: Autism spectrum

Non-Verbal Communication and the Expression of Theater

Words mean a lot to me. Especially dialog. When I’m working on a novel, just plowing forward to get the story down “on paper,” my scenes are often little more than dialog between characters, to be fleshed out later.

Why? As a novelist, you’d think I’d be more hung up on description and detail. Then I realized a lot of my training as writer actually came from exposure to the theater.

Dialog is an important part of a novel, but only a part. The novelist has many different tools for telling a story, and should use all of them to the best of their ability.

In the theater, though, dialog is almost everything. I live near the world-class American Player’s Theatre, and have been a volunteer usher and a loyal patron for many years. I’ve seen dozens of different productions, experienced the brilliance of playwrights from Shakespeare to Shaw, and gradually got to the point where I hear my characters telling their stories when I write.

So how does non-verbal communication figure into it? While APT has expanded their repertoire to include more modern plays each year, they still focus on Shakespeare, and few do it as well as they do. I’ve often said Shakespeare needs to be seen, not read, to be understood, but I didn’t realize why until recently.

When you perform Shakespeare, especially to a group of middle school students exposed to it for the first time, it’s a lot like communicating with people who have Asperger’s Syndrome or high functioning autism!

Autism is a communication disorder, and people with high functioning autism often miss out on non-verbal cues. A group of school kids going to see a Shakespeare play are going to be similar, yet opposite. They will be blind to the language – part of the communication process is going to be missing. And yet, APT successfully performs for hundreds of students every year, and the kids not only understand the shows, they have a great time as well!

How do they do it? With a combination of actors who truly understand the words and know how to use strong non-verbal communication. The actors at APT are masters at accentuating the significant words, and also using tone of voice and body language to convey the meaning of those words with power, all the way to the back row.

This past summer they did “Hamlet,” a play everyone – except 12 year olds – is familiar with. So how do you handle the famous “To be or not to be” speech?

The actor playing Hamlet steps forward to a quiet corner of the stage. Most of the other lights go down, tuning out distractions. Good for autistic folk as well as distractible pre-teens: focus here. “To be, or not to be, that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” he speaks in a low, melancholy voice. He has his dagger in his hand, playing with it, drawing the blade gently up and down his wrist… “Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing” – his hand stiffens the blade, as if to slash his wrist, “end them.”

For a kid who has no idea what suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune means, he can read the language of the dagger, the sound of Hamlet’s voice, and gain his or her first understanding of one of the greatest speeches in English literature. He’s sad. He could kill himself. Should he?

I realized, looking back, that I learned a lot of non-verbal communication from these shows. I’d go the first time to figure out the characters and basic plot, then, the second time to understand the whole thing a little better. Actors have to project their characters to the entire audience so their actions are very clear and obvious. When you become familiar with the obvious actions, the more subtle day-to-day gestures between ordinary people become clearer, too.

With modern movie fare becoming little more than loud, flashy assaults on the senses, it’s worth taking the time to pursue the art of theater, and the combination of verbal and exaggerated non-verbal language can be especially helpful to someone with an autistic spectrum condition trying to learn how to understand others better.

Asperger’s and Honesty

Can people with Asperger’s lie? It would be nice to say no, but the truth is most people figure out that saying certain things get them into trouble, and once in a while everyone lies, usually to protect themselves.

It is true that people with Asperger’s lack some of the skills needed to tell a good lie – body language, either consciously or subconsciously, may give it away. Or the tone of voice, or an inability to create a plausible story. I do admit to using the “Aspies Don’t Lie” concept in Asperger Sunset as a plot device, but it is pretty idealistic.

People with Asperger’s do, however, have a strong desire to follow rules. Anxiety and emotion create a chaotic world and rules sort things out. Children with Asperger’s often play meticulous games with their toys, lining them up and grouping them, keeping everything in order. Following the rules is rewarded with a reduction in chaos.

This ties into lying. One of the rules is “Be Honest.” Honesty is a personal trait of mine that I follow with almost obsessive precision. Over the years I’ve learned honesty that can hurt someone’s feelings often should not be shared, and I can be silent about something, but if faced with a direct conflict, I cannot lie.

This past weekend I ran into an odd situation regarding honesty. My family had gone out to dinner. As the children are now teens, their appetites are adult-sized and restaurant bills have gotten higher, so dining out is a treat for us, not a regular occurrence. We went to a brew-pub style restaurant, enjoyed our time together, and then got the bill.

My spouse started tallying the tip. My eldest, who is very budget-conscious, glanced at it and said, “that’s a really good deal.” My husband agreed. Just forty dollars, he said.

Forty dollars? No. For four of us, each having a dinner plus drinks plus an appetizer in a state with seven percent sales tax, that didn’t make sense! I asked to see the receipt. I spotted the problem immediately. Our harried waitress had forgotten to add our drinks!

I felt an overwhelming need to correct the problem. The place was very busy. Our waitress, thinking she was done with us, had moved on. The hostess couldn’t help us, so she sent us to the bartender. He was surprised that we not only had noticed the error but wanted to correct it.

Was it the right thing to do? Most people pay little attention to numbers – they wouldn’t have noticed the error in the first place. Others would say, “oh, cool, free drinks,” and gone home. For some reason I had to correct the problem. I had to pay for those drinks. It was being honest. And “Be Honest” is a rule that must be followed.

What about the fallout? The waitress may have gotten in trouble for ringing up the bill wrong. Or she may have seen the total and gotten angry because she thought we stiffed her on her tip, since we only tipped on the original charge. Or do they think we were total idiots for paying for something we weren’t asked to pay for in the first place?

I know restaurants make a huge profit on drinks. I also know most small, family-owned businesses continue to struggle in this economy. I could have left things as they were, pretended I didn’t notice the mistake and moved on, but something in me could not let it go. Maybe I made a deposit with the Bank of Karma – will the universe reward me in the future? I was embarrassed to be doing something almost no one else would do, but I followed the rule. It lessened the chaos. I cannot lie.

My mystery novel, Asperger Sunset, features a pretty honest fellow caught up in a murder. It’s available in paperback or kindle or can be ordered through your favorite local bookstore!

Theory of Mind: Why It’s A Two Way Street

In my novel, Asperger Sunset, Russ prepares a nice homemade meal for his sister, Misty, to thank her for taking care of him over several recent difficult days. But he is beginning to seethe with anger because she’s late returning home from work. He takes it personally – doesn’t she understand he’s put all this work into dinner for her? Why is she snubbing him by being late?

Then he remembers what he’s read about people with Asperger’s having trouble with Theory of Mind – he knows he’s put in a lot of time cooking, but his sister has no way of knowing that. She’s not late on purpose – any number of things could be holding her up. His anger fades as he reasons his way through the situation.

I believe people with Asperger’s don’t actually lack Theory of Mind, they just need to think through situations more methodically than most people, and they often find it difficult to truly understand something that has happened to someone else until they have experienced it themselves. That doesn’t make them broken or unable to empathize with other people, it means they take a different route to get there.

In the 2009 movie “Adam,” a character with Asperger’s Syndrome develops an intimate relationship with a woman named Beth. At one point Beth is describing one of the deficiencies in the relationship and she says she yearns to be with someone who can look into her eyes and know exactly how she’s feeling. Adam, of course, can’t.

What angered me about Beth’s comment is that while Adam can’t read her thoughts or emotions, quite frankly, she can’t read his, either! She doesn’t understand him any better than he understands her. The Theory of Mind “deficiency” seems to only apply when dealing with “normal” folk, and that’s unfair.

I have a vivid memory of my own first encounter with Theory of Mind. I was nine years old, and my grandmother called during the day – this was unusual. From my mother’s side of the conversation, I was able to figure out the call was reporting the death of my great-aunt, a distant relative who had recently suffered a stroke. After a couple of minutes my mother gave me the phone and my grandmother and I chatted about the usual kid stuff – school, activities, and so on. I returned the phone to my mother and she hung it up.

I remember feeling uneasy, sensing I should say something, but I didn’t know what. The call had come at an unusual time of the day, and hearing from my grandparents was usually a pleasant thing, so to break the tension, I said, “that was a nice little phone call, wasn’t it?” As you can imagine, I was met with a very angry response as my mother was processing the grief of my aunt’s death and found my comment profoundly insensitive.

From my point of view a very distant relative died, I had little understanding of death, and I did, in fact, have a nice conversation with my grandmother. I had no clue that I needed to incorporate my mother’s feelings before I tried to engage her with the comment about the “nice little phone call.”

When dealing with someone who is socially challenged and they say something that seems inappropriate or out of character, take a moment to see if there is, in fact, an extra step that’s missing. People with Asperger’s rarely intend to hurt other people’s feelings, but the Theory of Mind roadblock often leads to comments that are perceived as insensitive. A little more understanding from both sides can go a long way.