Global News

October 25, 2012

Boosting Students' Communication through Physical Presence

Michelle Garcia Winner

Caleb is a 23-year-old "bright" young man with Asperger's Syndrome who is particularly gifted in math. He recently participated in a social thinking assessment at our clinic. Caleb recognized and acknowledged he has never been able to figure out how to be perceived as "friendly" when around others, but he sincerely desires to have friends to hang out with and learn what he can do to bring this about.

As part of the assessment I asked Caleb to get up from the table and move with his father and me to the other side of the room, where we were to stand in a group. He quickly stood to join us, but positioned himself two arms' length away from me. His father was standing the more typical one arm's length away. I pointed out to Caleb that this simple body positioning sent unspoken messages to those around him about how interested he was in them. We discussed that a significant part of face-to-face social interactions involve moving our bodies into the "communication zone" of others and then maintaining a physical presence that demonstrates a desire to communicate with the other people. Caleb looked puzzled and somewhat amazed. Despite his intelligence in other areas, he had never thought about communication and friendship being anything more than sharing ideas through language.

Following along from our last column, in which we discussed the different aspects of physical presence and the nonverbal messages our bodies and faces send to others, in this column we will explore strategies to help our students increase their awareness of the part physical presence plays within human interaction.

Before we offer the how-to, take a moment and hear this:

Avoid assumptions that are all-too-easy to make: 
1) about what our students should "already know" about physical presence
2) that intelligence equates with social understanding in this area 
3) that these strategies are only for younger students. 

Many of our older students with social learning challenges fail to make critical social connections with others because they are completely clueless when it comes to physical presence. They learn the language involved, some even know to stand an arm's length away, but they enter groups in stiff, odd ways that greatly decrease their opportunities to be accepted by others. As discussed in our last column, our bodies convey a sense of emotional comfort (or lack of) in the process of relating to others face-to-face. It is through our bodies, our faces, our gestures that we connect with people at a deeper interpersonal level.

The concept of establishing physical presence involves not only physical proximity, but also how we shift our weight on our legs, subtly move our bodies to talk to different people in a larger group, our general stiffness/relaxation conveyed through our body posture, and our use of gestures and facial expression to support communication. A few brief ideas follow to break down this topic into smaller units that can be explored and practiced with our students of all ages. Keep in mind that physical presence is a huge part of communication, and as such, deserves time and attention on the part of educators and parents. We are too quick to jump into social language and short shift physical presence. In reality, a student with limited language and good physical presence can achieve more success in most groups than a verbose student with poor physical presence. That inability to connect with one or more people on a nonverbal level will have very negative consequences.

Furthermore, it is important for professionals and parents working with these students to work specifically on physical presence itself and not combine these teachings with practicing social language strategies simultaneously. Our students need time to focus on their body movements and nonverbal signals they are sending (which I call "cues" or "miscues") before they can do more complex tasks such as think about both how they are moving and what they should be saying.

Then move your instruction away from the table or sitting in chairs. Explore, not just through words but actions and movement, how we physically move into group and shift our bodies and faces to establish and maintain most social relationships. Get up and teach within lots of different real-life situations: walking to class, joining groups during recess, standing in a hall with colleagues, playing outside or just hanging out.

As a general practice, it is always a good idea to start lessons by having the students think about how these concepts impact their own emotions before having them imagine how their own behavior makes others feel! Taking the perspective of others can be difficult; you need to raise awareness of the positive and negative feelings associated with physical presence first. Have them discuss and rate the physical presence of other people in the group, including the group leader. How do the different postures impact what the student thinks and feels about the other person(s)?

Then try the following ideas related to physical presence.

Strategy 1: Establishing an appropriate physical distance or physical proximity.
Ask your students to stand together in a loose circular group. Once there, ask them to lift and extend their arms toward the persons next to them. Ideally, their fingertips should just about touch the shoulder of the people next to them. Point out those who are standing too far away and those who are standing too close. Both positions affect how others feel. Talk about their own emotions and the feelings their proximity may produce in others.

Strategy 2: Establishing an appropriate posture for the situation.
Videotape or take digital pictures of students acting out different postures they use in real life (slumping, standing in erect attention, looking relaxed but attentive). Then have students talk about the different types of feelings people have when looking at these postures. Next, have the students identify the type of posture appropriate in different situations, for instance, a formal meeting, hanging out with friends, when by themselves, etc. Have students each select a posture they want to target as their goal for hanging out with others. Have them hold that posture and describe how it feels in their body and through the different muscles, etc. Take pictures of students intermittently over time and have them identify if they are using their goal posture to convey a sense of connectedness to their peers. If not, work with them on adjustments they can make and how these adjustments impact other's feelings or their desire to communicate with them.

Final tip: When all else fails, dance!
Many kids with social challenges are out of touch with their bodies. Put on some popular music and encourage them to "feel the beat" and move in different ways. This is also a great way to help them work on relaxation. One 18-year-old girl with whom we worked presented very stiffly; she always looked "uptight" to those around her. Once she discovered that dance was a fun way to explore how she can get her body to move in a range of ways, she asked me why her body didn't naturally learn to do this. I explained that part of her learning disability related to the fact that her brain never let her "make friends" with her body! For the first time in her life she was identifying with her body in a more relaxed way, and beginning to understand how it conveyed different thoughts and emotions to those around her.

It's never too late to start! Just get up and move!

 Source: Autism Support Network  |  Courtesy of Social Thinking
"Young Kid Silently Standing Behind The Board" courtesy of Photostock:

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