About this blog.

My son was diagnosed with PDD-NOS at 24 months. I created this blog to bring meaning to the often-confusing label. Sometimes I have answers. Other times, just more questions.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Musings, Part II: Social Exchanges

Have you ever considered all that was involved in a simple social exchange? I didn't, until ASD became part of my family life.

"There's a lot of data in a face," one of Brad's therapists told me several months ago.

Data? Face? It seemed like an odd statement at the time because, as a typical person, I read faces intuitively, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

Having a son with ASD forced me to consider the process of social intuition. Take, for example, happiness. How can I tell if some one else is happy? First, words help. If some says, "I'm happy," that's a clear indication of happiness. Second, laughter would be an indication. But what if there are no literal expressions of happiness or laughter. How can I tell? A smile. Eyes light up. It's easy to intuit, but hard to articulate the process.

What about less subtle emotions, such as apprehension. Eyes may widen. Mouth may open. Body may become stiff. There is a lot of data there.

Now consider when some one is talking to you: eyes widen, eyes narrow, mouth opens, body tenses, head turns, words are uttered, posture changes. Data, data, data, and more data.

Now consider a social exhange: you're on the receiving end of all of this data, and in a split second you have to perceive it (i.e. hear the words, see the face), process it (what do the words mean when combined with the gestural communication and the facial expressions) and give it back (i.e. with words or nongestural communication).

Now consider Brad's perceptual abilities: face in the background, appealing visual/spatial stimulus (e.g. letters) in the foreground. And consider Brad's processing abilities: slow and coarse. So when he's in a social encounter, he's bombarded with data which he can't process efficiently, and often that data will be in his background, so he'll disregard it the way we disregard background noise. Other times, he may process it, but very slowly.

Still, he manages to process some of it, and that's an accomplishment in and of itself; he does manage basic reciprocal social exchanges. I'll smile at him and say "Brad!" He'll smile at me and say "Mommy!" Mind you, he didn't start doing this type of exchange until recently, but that small exchange makes me so very hopeful.


Elizabeth Channel said...

Yes, I went to a helpful talk on this topic recently. I won't be able to explain this very well but the neuropsych was telling us how repeated eye gazing actually builds neurons in that part of the brain and habituates the child toward eye contact. I'm continually fascinating at what the brain can (and sometimes cannot) do!

Patience said...

He'll get it. Maybe he won't be a super intuitive type like my oldest boy but not everyone can get every little nuance in body language. (My oldest boy and youngest girl are on the extreme side of the social spectrum. (has it's own challenges)
Sometimes it's a blessing when someone else's hatred of you just passes right over your head.

Laura said...

Elizabeth - how interesting...

Patience - eeek, "hatred" is a strong word. But otherwise, I think you're right. And he is only 3 - synapses are still connecting.

Patience said...


Well kids can be cruel and insensitive as can adults. We've had our share of real creeps and some outstanding niceness. DD is in grade 8 which is a hotbed of emotions anyway.
Didn't mean to offend.

Laura said...

Patience, I hear you, and totally was not offended!

Maddy said...

Indeed. I think it goes hand in hand with 'displaying' the wrong emotion e.g. laughing when someone hurts themselves. It's really tough for them to figure it out and mine certainly have needed a lot of help with trying to disentangle it all. And yes, hopeful is what it's all about, for me at least.
BEst wishes

anything, sweetie said...

..does anyone else ever feel suddenly really really self conscious about retaining eye contact with someone whilst listening to them? sometimes i stop listening because i'm concentrating so hard on the eye thing, and then i realise my eyes are burning because i haven't blinked in about a minute.

there is generally a tradeoff somewhere. one might not have super advanced body language reading skills, but might develop, for example, x-ray vision. it's a thought.

Laura said...

Maddy, thanks for your words of wisdom, as usual.

Anything, Sweetie - LOL don't forget to blink, silly. Sort of. For me, I mostly get nervous when I'm over capacity. I think that's why I'm a social drinker. Either that, or I'm a lush...