Autism=Agitation?

I’m currently in the process of writing a novel. It’s a neurodiverse twist on a classic fairy tale. To help me infuse more emotion into my writing, I started searching around the internet for information on body language. This used to be a special interest of mine in high school, but that was almost a decade and a half ago, and I didn’t have access to the information then that I do now. A writer friend of mine, Jennifer Bardsley, read on my facebook my confusion over conflicting information I was finding, and recommended a book called The Emotions Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. I got the book and I do think it’s an excellent resource. But I also noticed some other things that I picked up on in my earlier searches: things that are natural for autistics are often listed as expressions of negative emotions.

Then when looking up the entry for “Agitation” I was shocked to read what seemed like a list of mostly autistic-natural body language. I was upset by this (you might even say I was agitated by it (joke)) so I put it down and didn’t look at it for several days to come at it with a more rational frame of mind. Once I was ready, I did what comes naturally for me: I analyzed the list and organized the body language descriptions into categories. One list was for things that are often mentioned as “red flags” for autism, or things that I and my fellow neurotribe do for reasons other than agitation, one for things that aren’t autism specific, and one for things that had flavors of both. Out of 33 examples, around  1/3 were things that autistics might do for other reasons, 1/3 was neurotype neutral, and 1/3 was a mix of both.

Examples of autistic-natural body language that is interpreted by neurotypicals as agitation:

  • hands move in jerks
  • a gaze that bounces from place to place
  • an inability to stay still
  • flapping hands
  • forgetting words, being unable to articulate thoughts
  • adjusting one’s clothing
  • avoiding eye contact
  • guarding one’s personal space
  • taking too long to answer a question or respond
  • throat clearing
  • turning away from others
  • pacing
  • making odd noises in the throat
  • flinching if touched

Eye contact is not comfortable for most autistics. A lack of eye contact is listed on a lot of negative emotion body language lists, in this book and other sources. What I get from that is that if we don’t do something that makes us miserable and difficult to process what is being said to us, then we are going to be “read” to neurotypicals as untrustworthy and negative. Forever. Whether they’re thinking this consciously or unconsciously, it seems like the NTs (neurotypicals/non-autistics) just can’t get over this. Even though it’s totally a social construct and not a biological imperative. But I digress.

Throat clearing is a common autistic stim. Lady Bug does a gasping version that sounds like she’s having an asthma attack or something (she’s not.) Forgetting words or taking “too long” to answer a question can be explained by a processing issue; sometimes we need more time to find the right words. Adjusting one’s clothing, that’s trying to fix a sensory problem. So is flinching if touched, some people just don’t like being touched, why are you touching them anyway?! (Sorry, getting ranty.)

When I first read the list, I thought I had discovered something. Perhaps NTs, if they are mis-reading our body language as agitation, just want us to be not-agitated! If they think we’re constantly unhappy because of our body language, then it makes sense that they would want to “fix” that so we would be happy! I floated that idea past my preferred neurotypical expert: my NT husband. He quickly shot that idea down. (Nicely.) He told me I was giving NTs way too much credit, and that that’s not why NT parents try to stop autistics from stimming and behaving atypically/like an autistic person. NTs want us to stop because they’re embarrassed by our looking different. It’s not about mistakenly calming us so that we can be happy. It’s about them not feeling good about themselves because we look too weird and different and they don’t want that associated with themselves.

He went on to explain that seeing someone in public as a stranger who is acting differently than what NTs expect is uncomfortable because they’re unpredictable. If they don’t act like a typical person, then the NTs don’t know what they might do. And that uncertainty is just too uncomfortable and disturbing, so they avoid potential interactions with the unpredictable person. I pointed out that autistics can’t predict NTs very well, and that feeling he described is what many autistics deal with every.freaking.day. He acknowledged my point, but it didn’t change his opinion of why NTs are so intolerant of atypical behavior.

So what does this all mean? I don’t believe that autistics should be forced to speak only NT through their body language. Does that mean that we have to reconcile ourselves to communicating the “wrong” thing and being misunderstood by NTs forever? I do believe that autistics learning to read some NT body language is a good thing. I think the reverse should also be true: all NTs should learn that when a person is autistic that their body language isn’t saying the same thing an NT doing it is, and they should ask rather than assume they’re “reading” us right. I wrote a review of a book last year where this double standard was highlighted.

Autistic child is taught that they are to make their body look like they’re listening to another child, even if they aren’t interested. But in a following chapter another, presumably neurotypical, child is shown doing all the things the autistic child is told not to do, and the autistic child when they see someone else doing that is supposed to stop talking about what they were talking about. Am I the only one who sees a problem with this?

I don’t have any solutions to this other than greater awareness in the neruotypical community. I do understand that the examples in the book need to be in context. It wouldn’t make sense to write a companion book of autistic body language because it’s so different and individual from each other that it doesn’t really work. This did give me a great idea for a new scene in my book, and I will continue to use The Emotions Thesaurus to guide me in how the neurotypicals in my books should behave. But for my autistic characters, I’m going to have to draw on personal experience.

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