14/18: Body Language and Social Interaction

Finally, I want to talk about autistic people and social interaction. There’s a whole section of the DSM 5 criteria devoted to “deficits in social communication and social interaction,” making it one of the main characteristics of autism. Over the years, there have been some remarkably awful theories that try to explain this. There are people who claim that autistic people lack any understanding that other people are intelligent and have their own minds and thoughts (the thing we supposedly lack is called “theory of mind”.) There are others who say that autistic people lack empathy, the ability to recognize and share other people’s emotions, or even that we don’t really have emotions of our own. I’m not going to address these ideas directly right now, because my main point is that there are much better, more straightforward explanations for why autistic people struggle with social interaction. I’ve already talked about several of them, in fact:

It’s hard to socialize when you have difficulty putting your thoughts into words.

It’s hard to socialize when you have difficulty understanding other people’s words.

It’s hard to socialize when you’re distracted by sensory sensitivities.

Autistic people’s problems with relating to other people are (mostly) not because of any fundamental problem with empathy or understanding. Instead, we have problems with all sorts of different aspects of communication. I’ve mentioned problems with verbal language already, and now I’m going to talk about body language and nonverbal communication.

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