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Nonverbal Communication: What’s it all about?

We use 8 different types of nonverbal communication without even thinking about it. What are they and how do these skills affect children with developmental disabilities?

Communication is critical to continued human development throughout our life span.  It is what allows us to share thoughts, feelings, wonderings, and knowledge with others.  Whether you are a verbal or nonverbal communicator, the vast majority of communication we do is through nonverbal channels. 

So if nonverbal communication makes up a substantial portion of our communicative experience, what does it involve?  Many of us associate facial expression and gestures with nonverbal communication, but these are not the only two types involved.  There are, in fact, eight different types of nonverbal communication:

  • Facial Expression
    This makes up the largest proportion of nonverbal communication.  Large amounts of information can be conveyed through a smile or frown.  The facial expressions for happiness, sadness, anger, and fear are similar across cultures throughout the world.
  • Gestures
    Common gestures include pointing, waving, and using fingers to indicate number amounts.
  • Paralinguistics
    This includes factors such as tone of voice, loudness, inflection, and pitch.  Tone of voice can be powerful.  The same sentence said in different tones can convey different messages.  A strong tone of voice may indicate approval or enthusiasm, whereas the same sentence said with a hesitant tone of voice may convey disapproval or lack of interest.
  • Body Language and Posture
    A person’s posture and movement can also convey a great deal of information.  Arm crossing or leg-crossing conveys different meanings depending on the context and the person interpreting them.  Body language is very subtle, and may not be very definitive.
  • Proxemics
    This refers to personal space.  The amount of space a person requires depends on each individual’s preference, but also depends on the situation and other people involved in the situation.
  • Eye Gaze
    Looking, staring, and blinking are all considered types of eye gaze.  Looking at another person can indicate a range of emotions including hostility, interest, or attraction.
  • Haptics
    This refers to communicating through touch.  Haptics is especially important in infancy and early childhood.
  • Appearance
    Our choice of color, clothing, hairstyles, and other factors affecting our appearance are considered a means of nonverbal communication.

By the time most children are one year old, they are experts in nonverbal communication.  They have spent the whole first year of their lives making their wants and needs known, as well as sharing their experiences through nonverbal channels.  Around the time of their first birthday, they add the next layer to their dynamic communication repertoire with the verbal piece.  Even with the addition of verbal communication, nonverbal expression continues to be the main mode of communication for children as they add more and more words to their vocabulary.  Even after children are talking in sentences, nonverbal communication continues to add meaning and structure to the messages being sent and received. 

This use and understanding of nonverbal communication becomes automatic for ‘neuro-typical’ children.  It is so automatic that many of us are completely unaware that we employ facial expressions and gestures, or that we are using this information to enhance the words we are hearing from our communication partner.   We continue to use this mode of communication throughout life.

Think about the word “no,” which can be interpreted in many different ways depending on the nonverbal communication that is being conveyed along with the word.  If we say “noooo” with a wrinkled nose and a questioning tone or funny voice, this could convey that we are unsure or don’t really believe what we are hearing.  If we hear someone say “NO!” with a loud, or harsh voice, we can interpret that they person is angry or wants an action to be terminated.  If someone asks you if you would like a drink, you may answer with “no”; but your tone of voice will most likely be even with little inflection, and your face may just be neutral.  In each of these examples the person was saying “no,” but there were three different meanings being conveyed.  Without nonverbal communication, it would be difficult to know how to interpret the word. 

Many children with autism spectrum disorders have difficulty interpreting multiple modes of communication, and because of this they often miss the nonverbal communication piece that allows accurate interpretation of what is said.  In the examples provided above, most children with autism spectrum disorders would only hear the word “no” but miss the nonverbal pieces which help to interpret which “no” is being communicated.  This misinterpretation can lead to frustration on the part of both the communicator and the child who is struggling to understand what is happening.  At other times, the child may interpret a facial expression, tone of voice, or gesture but not hear the words that went with the nonverbal, which again results in miscommunication.  These breakdowns make it difficult for the child to make sense of his/her world. 

Working to improve the use and understanding of nonverbal communication is essential for a person with an autism spectrum or neurological disorder.  In most cases, working to improve nonverbal communication is the best place to begin improving communication abilities.  Expanding the ability to use and understand nonverbal communication provides the necessary foundation for building meaningful dynamic communication.  Just as a neuro-typical infant begins by communicating nonverbally, going back and teaching this mode of communication for children who may have missed this step is the foundation for productive communication throughout life. 

Teaching nonverbal communication should be done in a natural way that makes sense for each individual child.  Telling a child, “look at my face,” or showing a child several pictures of people’s faces and having him/her identify the emotions he sees is not a natural way to work on nonverbal communication.  Spending time doing activities with the child where the adult uses very little verbal communication, but is communicating through nonverbal channels, is an effective way to begin introducing nonverbal communication.  Playing games where you have changed the rules slightly so as to use only nonverbal communication can also be a fun and more natural way of working on nonverbal communication.  For example, you might play Simon Says, using a made up signal for when Simon says to do something.  Playing charades can also be a fun way to work on nonverbal communication in a natural context.  Take a walk with your child; but instead of saying, “hey look at that dog,” you might pause, point and vocalizeArticle Submission, “oh” with a rising inflection to draw attention.  There are many ways to work on nonverbal communication that can be explored and used to build this critical foundational piece of communication.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR


About the Author: Helping children on the autism spectrum to begin using nonverbal communication is one of the ways that RDI® works to remediate this core deficit of autism.  Improving the ability to communicate meaningfully improves a person’s quality of life.  For more information on communication issues and the RDI® program, visit our website at www.HorizonsDRC.com



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