You can provide this loving environment at home through the animal world of affectionate pets, and also by coaching your family and others in your home.
- Unconditional love and non-verbal communication practice with animals. If your family can add a pet or two, or already has one, dogs and cats make excellent, loving non-verbal communication coaches. Keeping a pet is a serious business; be sure to consider all aspects of pet ownership before getting a pet. The advantages for a child with Asperger’s are enormous. Here will be a loyal friend expressing affection no matter what attention your child gives, as long as you make sure your child does not hurt or neglect the animal. As your child develops a relationship with his or her pet, encourage observations of animal behavior as well. But your child’s pet will coach your child without any help from you. Pets work hard to communicate their needs for food, walks, affection, stroking or scratching. They will try every nonverbal behavior in their repertoire until they get the response they want. Both dogs and cats are capable of expressing great affection. Dog behavior classes are great for teaching both dog and owner how to communicate effectively. If you have the time and energy and can afford them, horseback riding lessons with a good coach provide an even more intensive experience in effective nonverbal communication (covered in more detail in a separate article).
- You and your family: Once everyone understands the special challenges of Asperger’s in relation to nonverbal communication, it should be easier to express corrective communication in an unconditionally loving way. The following suggestion is highly structured but can be used at any time. When you or another family member encounter inappropriate behavior from the child with autism or Asperger’s, treat it as a traffic control problem rather than a fault, just as you did when your child was learning to cross the street. Say, in a gentle, soft, but firm voice, “Stop! (Short pause) Look at me. (pause) Listen. (pause). When you _________ (describe the behavior objectively), I feel (become, get) __________ (an emotional or mental state, such as “nervous”. “sad”, “surprised”. I need you to ____________ (describe the preferred behavior).” Follow this communication with a hug or at least a loving smile, and a deserved, specific compliment about something you have observed that day, such as, “I really liked seeing you play chess with your sister today.
Like crossing a street, your teenager crosses a busy freeway of nonverbal communication with each interaction, unaware of the traffic. If you can help your child see the traffic and learn its patterns, she or he can go a long way.
REFERENCES Classic Anthropology and Linguistics and Proxemic Research: There are many current popular books on nonverbal communication and body language. The books listed here represent accepted scientific work written in accessible styles. DeVita, Philip R. and James D. Armstrong. 1993. Distant Mirrors: America as a Foreign Culture. Belmont, California: Wadsworth. Goffman, Erving. 1981. Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Hall, Edward T. 1966. The Hidden Dimension. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company. 1973. The Silent Language. Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company. 1976. Beyond Culture. New York, New York: Anchor Books. Nelson, Audrey, and Susan K. Golant. 2004. You Don’t Say: Nonverbal Communication Between the Sexes. New York, New York: Berkeley Publishing Group, Penguin Books. Tannen, Deborah. You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation. New York, New York: Harper Collins Publishers. For teens: Selected readings from Edward T. Hall (see above). Selected chapters from Charles Dickens, including Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Great Expectations. Detailed and specific observations of nonverbal communication and behavior by a great writer. Wilson, Edward O. 1994. Naturalist. New York, New York: Warner Books. Especially the first seven chapters, for the life of a young naturalist, and how to be an observant scientist. Durrell, Gerald. 1956. My Family and Other Animals. London: Penguin Books. A very funny book with observations about the behavior of people and animals, including pets, written by a famous zoologist. George, Jean Craighead. 1972. Julie of the Wolves. New York, New York: Harper Collins Publishers. An excellent book about naturalistic observation, a girl and her adopted wolf pack, and her relationship with her father. Mowat, Farley. The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be. (Many editions). A humorous book about the close relationship between a boy and his unusual dog.