Explaining Nonverbal Communication Problems




About: EmmettO is a general mad scientist, blacksmith, metalcaster and former Unix admin. Now he fixes darn near anything that people throw at him and breaks things that need to be broken.

What if everyone but you understood why people acted the way they do? What if everyone had a silent language that you just couldn't understand? The truth is, there is a silent language that most people speak but are hardly aware of it. For the average person it could be that only ten percent of their daily communication is verbal, the rest is eye contact and body language!

There are a number of conditions that cause people to have a hard time understanding nonverbal communication. These include, but are not limited to Asperger's Syndrome and High Functioning Autism. Beyond having difficulty communicating, it can lead to confusing social signals because some of this communication is signaling social status.

What if you didn't understand ninety percent of the conversation? What if your loved ones didn't know you were communicating ninety percent of the time?

It turns out that if a person with a Nonverbal Learning Disability (or NLD) can be greatly helped to learn to better communicate if those around them are aware of their disability

I wrote a book for my son who we suspect, like me, has mild High Functioning Autism. He has found it useful and his teacher read the book to his class last year. We have found it very helpful as a tool to explain both to our son and others what nonverbal communication is.

While this is intended as a children's book, there is a lot of meaning in the pages. I'll write some example questions to ask a child about some of the situations that will bring out some of the ideas.

This book is available on Lulu.com

Teacher Notes

Teachers! Did you use this instructable in your classroom?
Add a Teacher Note to share how you incorporated it into your lesson.

Step 1: Bored!

The story will be told in the pictures, but I'll try to add some thoughts that are brought up in them here in the text. You may want to do a simple read through first just to get the feel.

The subject of the story, Bubs has feelings like any child this may not always be apparent, especially in teen years because NLD people may tend to have a "Poker Face" most of the time. Remember the lack of communication can go both ways, both in comprehending and expressing. While being bored isn't an emotion, it's subtle feelings that are most often not well expressed by people with NLD. If you're not sure what they're feeling, ask. Also don't be offended by a person with NLD who asks you how you're feeling.

Step 2: Can I Go Out?

Bubs' dad tries to express the pitfalls Bubs is about to face but doesn't express it in any detail which may indicate that he also has an issue with nonverbal communication. In this case here we see a generational issue where the parent may not be aware that there is a problem.

Step 3: So Many to Play With!

Step 4: Feathers?

Questions: What is Bubs going to do next?
What are these Little Guys doing?

Here we see a social circle. Each of the members are individuals and react in different ways. There is, in every social situation an hierarchy or pecking order even if it is a casual one. The nonverbal aspect of communication and it's ritual is exaggerated here by the lil' guys not breaking the ritual even for something unexpected (like a giant tree ship almost landing on top of them).

I purposely made the lil' guys small so that they would be less threatening in a group. I didn't want this to look like Bubs was going to get beat up, even if that is a possibility in real life.

Step 5: Hello!

Questions: Why did the Little Guys get angry?
What did Bubs do wrong? (He interrupted)
Do you think it's wrong to laugh at someone that makes a mistake?

There are two very different sides to this exchange. To Bubs, the lil' guys are simply standing around doing nothing. He recognizes that they are doing something by showing each other their feathers but it doesn't have any meaning to him so he instinctively disregards it.

To the lil' guys Bubs has just stomped all over a highly structured ritual. They may not even realize how structured their behavior is. They just know that Bubs is in this situation socially awkward. Some are offended thinking that he has purposely disrespected their social order.

Step 6: The Raceboard

Bubs is trying to compensate with what he does know how to do, in this case fix things. This could be a valid coping mechanism but in some situations it can be just another example of an awkward social interaction.

Step 7: It's Fixed!

Questions: What are these two Little Guys doing?
What are the Little Guys in the back thinking?
What mistake did Bubs make again?

There is a huge amount of emotional signaling in people's eye contact. Here the lil' guys have only white circles for eyes so it doesn't look like they could convey a lot of information with their eyes but here they're intently making eye contact. In fact it would seem that there may be a bit of tension between the fellows in the foreground. Bubs quickly becomes the focus of that tension because he doesn't perceive it.

Step 8: The Race

Bubs interprets this as a friendly challenge. Older people with NLD may be able to pick up that this wouldn't be a friendly social situation just from experiance but Bubs, especially being young does not.

Step 9: The Slip

This is more of a High Functioning Autism example. Bubs fine motor skills seem to be in order but his gross motor skills are lacking. Also he's not paying attention to how the lil' guy is using his board.

Step 10: Challenge

Questions: Why is this Little Guy acting like that?

Here the lil' guy is trying to hammer it home to Bubs that he's missing the point of the nonverbal signals. The thought going through his head is "How can this guy be so dumb?". He is being a bit of a bully. People with NLDs can be confusing because they can be very intelligent but cannot process social signals which most people handle easily. This is a seeming paradox to most people.

Step 11: Response

Questions: Do you think Bubs acted the right way?

Bubs is trying to mimic the lil' guys body language but comes off as awkward.

Step 12: Embarrassment

Questions: You wouldn't want people to laugh at you would you?
Do you think that's mean to laugh at someone?

The paradox of intelligence and NLD is a source of humor to the lil' guys. This makes a lot of sense under the Benign Violation Theory of humor but still is socially painful to Bubs.

Step 13: A Friend?

Question: Do you think you could be friendly to someone that's having a hard time?

Studies have found that having a social guide can go a long way to helping people with NLDs to learn to better interact socially. Many times this is a person who can bridge the gap of normal social interactions and the awkward interactions that Bubs has been displaying. Maybe this lil' guy has a lot of empathy or maybe (s)he can understand Bub's point of view because of some special insight.

Step 14: Having Fun

Here we have a healthy interaction. Bubs still isn't doing great but progress is being made.

Step 15: Healing

Self examination is important to developing coping skills. I didn't have Bubs reach any conclusions here but most children won't immediately either. The question may be one that his parents can answer or maybe his friend. Usually coping mechanisms end up a simple "if then" situation. If the lil' guys are showing their feathers, then wait until they're done might be the simplest but not necessarily the best because it will limit Bubs' expression.

Step 16: Happy Ending

Bubs' unusual social interaction may have been explained by his friend. Just having an awareness that someone's seemingly antisocial or awkward behavior is a misunderstanding is a start and can go a long way to reducing tension.

Step 17: To Parents

This story is  a metaphor for what it's like to have a Nonverbal Learning Disability. The "Lil' Guys" as I have come to call them are very strange for a reason. They were drawn so that, on the first reading a parent or a child will have a hard time identifying with them. However they do have elements that are representative of most people. They are highly social, but rely on body language and nonverbal signs to communicate.

Some people are not equipped with social "feathers". They have a hard time understanding the give and take of "small talk". They try their best but usually come off awkward and often misunderstood. Bubs tries his best to interact with the lil' guys but he just doesn't understand the complex social interactions that he is interrupting.

People with NLD, Aspergers and Autism can be very talented individuals, just like our little Bubs is. To the reader it would seem apparent that he has far more ability than the lil' guys (they have no hands but Bubs has hands and tools) but that doesn't matter to most of them, they may not even understand why Bubs has so many limbs. The same is true for those that are gifted, many people find it difficult to relate to them. They may even find them intimidating to talk to since many with NLD are hyperverbal.

It is likely that our Bubs will learn more about how the lil' guys interact and may be able to fit in one day but it will be difficult since he is very different. It will take hard work on his part and often a bit of creativity. The same is true of those that find social interaction difficult, fitting in isn't impossible, but it won't ever be easy.

Finding a friend can be a struggle at times but there are those gems of people that can reach past the differences and what seem to be odd quirks to those on the outside and make very good friends. Those that do are often rewarded with honest and loyal companions.

Humana Health Challenge

Runner Up in the
Humana Health Challenge



    • Indoor Lighting Contest

      Indoor Lighting Contest
    • Stone Concrete and Cement Contest

      Stone Concrete and Cement Contest
    • DIY Summer Camp Contest

      DIY Summer Camp Contest

    24 Discussions


    6 years ago

    Awesome! But the feather things creeped me out until the final explaination

    1 reply

    7 years ago on Introduction

    Wow, I wish I had had this as a child.....some 53 years ago.....would have saved me a 30 year period of utter confusion :-)

    6 replies

    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    I'd like to do more of these but I haven't been able to sit down and do it. I'd like to do one that explained meltdowns and there was another one that I had an idea for but now can't remember (really gotta write these ideas down!).


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Well, if you have any insight into why some of us "strike and abuse" ourselves physically from time to time, that would be a GREAT help to many parents out there.


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    This is usually referred to as a stim. My son used to jump and land on his knees on a tile floor. He also was getting into the habit of smacking his head. No one really knows why we stim but it may be because of hyper or hyposensitivity (you can have both, my son and I do) and this is an attempt to stimulate (thus stim) their senses. Stims can be socially awkward or downright dangerous, some therapists think you can't control stims but we've gotten the self abusive stims mostly under control for my son. Another family we know got her son to stop hand flapping. My kids don't hand flap frequently enough to really worry about it.

    Have you been over to Wrong Planet? The forums there can be very useful. They have one for parenting issues.


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    Hi EmmettO, you wrote: and this is an attempt to stimulate (thus stim) their senses.

    Or possibly to stimulate another sense to drown out one already over stimmed?   I seem to partake (tis mild now, since I am in my 50's,) but could have used discussions like this when I was younger....heck just having an internet would have helped LOL.  I seemed "motivated" by frustration mostly......and a need to "quiet" the "storm in my head" when that happened.

    As for WrongPlanet, yes, I have been a member there for awhile now....I have so little time to spend On Line of late, I haven't been there for some time now....thanks for reminding me.  I also moderate a site on FB for Asperger's and those that want to know more about it.

    The young person I am concerned about, however will benefit from her Mom knowing about the site, so I will pass that on to her.

    She now has a copy of the PDF from here too. Thanks again.


    Reply 7 years ago on Introduction

    That is a good point about trying to drown out another sense. I'd also inject it may be to drown out stress since that's when most stims happen. Physical pain may make more sense than mental pain and is therefore preferred.

    Oh, this may amuse you, it's not terribly useful but I was pondering what autism is and came to this conclusion. Then I ran into some evidence that I might be on to something.


    7 years ago on Introduction

    Great stuff! From your notes/descriptions, it's obvious you put a lot of thought and effort into this. Were the illustrations done by hand or digitally?

    1 reply

    8 years ago on Introduction

    This is great! I love the detailed explanations, or discussion notes for parents. Very useful stuff.

    1 reply

    8 years ago on Introduction

    This is very cool. Wouldn't hurt for something like this to be a part of elementary school curriculum. Thank you for sharing it. I'm gonna do this with my grandson.

    1 reply

    8 years ago on Introduction

    That's really great! A terrific approach to the "problem" (situation would be a better word), and very nice drawings and discussion. Featured and rated.
    Thank you for deciding to include the whole text as you did!

    For this I'ble (since it is nominally a "how to" :-), you might want to add some more high-level analysis and discussion of each issue presented in the steps. While those issues may seem obvious, we have members with an extremely broad range of life experience (in age and in social connections), and this can be a teachable moment for both "sides" of the communication bridge.

    It would be great for your book to be accessible to people with non-learning disabilities, but with visual impairments or blindness. If it's also for sale in a downloadable format, such as PDF, please make sure the text is annotated so that it can be read by a screen reader. The graphics can also be annotated (tagged) with textual descriptions.

    This is not the way most people produce PDF (it requires additional work with a professional PDF production system, such as Adobe Illustrator), but it can be extremely beneficial. It also seems most appropriate that a product designed to break down barriers should not include barriers of its own.

    2 replies

    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks for the input! The text is separate from the images in the PDF and should be readable, I don't know if I have the ability to annotate the images. I'll have to check that and see what I can do. Although I'm not exactly sure how to explain some of the pictures! For the ible, Maybe I could add the text above.

    As for the higher level analysis I was debating how to do that or more accurately if I should. I'll put some in.


    Reply 8 years ago on Introduction

    Oh, cool! If the text in the PDF version is actually a font, then you've got it accessible for free. Because it's a single column on each page, screen readers will not get confused. From the JPEGs you included here, I couldn't tell.

    For annotating the images, you don't necessarily "explain" them, but rather describe them, as though you were telling someone on the phone about them. For example, an "audio description" of your cover might be, "Bubs The Robot. Bubs using a tool to building a plant stand out of pipes."

    There are professionals who do audio description for videos, and there are good tutorials/discussions on the Web (I just searched on "how to create an audio description" and got several great hits. The philosophy would be the same as for doing PDF image tagging.