Gestures

I have been thinking about gestures. When I was assessed the observation that I don’t move my hands while talking was commented on. Remembering that in the early nineties I read a novel by Milan Kundera called ‘Immortality’, that is about gestures -among other things- I fished it out and reread it. Kundera notes that given the billions of people, past and present, on this planet, the number of people far outnumbers the number of gestures, ‘it is difficult to suppose that every individual has his or her own repertory of gestures,’ mathematically it’s not possible. A gesture is more individual than an individual. This leads me to the belief that gestures exist in essence before the individual makes use of them. 

It has only been on very rare occasions that I have had to ask someone what a particular gesture means. From a young age we are taught to wave goodbye, we know that the Queen waves her hand while driving by, what a two fingered salute is, thumbs up, pointing, all the common gestures are decipherable. It’s the seemingly random gestures while talking I can find inexplicable even unnecessary.  When I researched the reason for these movements the main reason given is timing and pacing. 

Does this mean that those of us on the spectrum don’t use timing and pacing in our speech, or do we not augment the timing and pacing with gestures?  And why are ND’s just as capable as NT’s of producing original musical compositions, but don’t use pre-existing gestures to accompany their speech?

Sorry if that was boring.

  • I use gestures in my speech but only in certain circumstances. I'm not (I don't think) one of those people who 'talks with their hands' but I do use hand and facial (to a lesser extent) gestures to emphasise a point, add context, clarity, or depth, or on occasions where being verbal isn't the preferred way to get a message across for any reason. 

    I think I mostly use(d) gestures with my children, especially when they were young, because it's easier to communicate with someone in a tantrum using gestures as they're unlikely to hear or process words. Gestures were also useful when I needed to communicate with them in public or in company without alerting or interrupting other people. I also use gestures with my partner for similar reasons and, I guess, when we wanted to communicate without the children catching on to what we were talking about. I don't think I use them very much at all with people outside the family, certainly not to the same extent anyway.    

  • I rarely use facial expressions but I do gesture A LOT with my hands and shoulders. I've read a few things that people on the spectrum can be far more expressive with their hands than NT's, not including the hand flapping and stims. I do speak in monotone though mostly. On the plus side I don't have many wrinkles from my poker face. I've been told by people that they think I'm in my late 20's, lmao. Genetic disorder my ***! I would smile but I don't want to age overnight!

    I think that it's a mixture of both really. I suppose everyone will be different. I've met people on the spectrum who won't let people get a word in edgeways and know how to keep it that way with gestures, other people who can't get a word in edgeways and you can see the frustration. It's not often I meet someone with a balance, it's either one or the other.

  • “A gesture cannot be regarded as the expression of an individual, as his creation (because no individual is capable of creating a fully original gesture, belonging to nobody else), nor can it even be regarded as that person's instrument; on the contrary, it is gestures that use us as their instruments, as their bearers and incarnations”
    Milan Kundera, Immortality

    The voice is important for me as an expression of self.  I tend not to enhance with physical gestures unless operating in the extremes of light or dark... or maybe when my audience is not hearing my words!! 

    Maybe music an extension of your inner self and individuality..."your voice" expressed onto/into/through an instrument. Music is the "inner self expressed"... to dance to such music surely would be a gesticulated response.

  • Thanks Graham for starting the thread, and splitting it off from the one about diagnosis. There we were talking about the idea, not totally supported by research, that people get an impression of someone else based more on their non-verbal communication than the content of what they say. You also linked to something about the importance of eyebrows.  BTW you might want to edit your post to add an appropriate tag, if there's one about gestures or non-verbal communication. There was also a Radio 4 programme last week about gestures in non-human apes - it seems different species can understand each other, but humans have only retained part of this fixed gestural language.

    I didn't quite get the logic of Milan Kundera's novel (although that's not your fault - I see the same explanation in other reviews of the novel). There is a language of gestures, surely. Complex gestures are made up of smaller ones and subtle tones, like language. It's like the way a generative grammar can create unique sentences. Although most gestures are spontaneous, it is possible to copy and replicate them - you can copy both dance moves and lyrics (see David Byrne for an odd example).

    I'd mentioned that autism assessment looks at 'conversational' gestures. Here explains the two broad classes of conversational gestures in the ADOS-2 assessment. You can tell I've been searching the web a bit. I also found research suggesting something about the gestures autistic people use to tell stories, possibly the timing of the gestures, make the stories less engaging. If all of this means that we're taken less notice of by other people, it's a bit of a disability.

    I think I use gestures a lot in conversation, but they are mostly about the content, not me as a speaker or about the person I'm talking to. It's like my hands are trying to imitate projector slides. I was struck by a photo (taken without my knowledge) of me in conversation at a conference and I had one hand making a barring or chopping motion to indicate a subset or sharp delineation between two concepts, while the other hand may have been indicating a complexity in one of the divisions. Also, yesterday, someone imitated my answerphone message and it sounded monotonous (then I checked if it really was and it sounded fairly sprightly, if delivered quickly and in one breath).

    Do you think neurodivergent people are more varied in their gestures, and therefore less likely to be understood because they are idiosyncratic? Or are we generally more immersed on what we are saying, and engaging less in the interpersonal meaning? As Cloudy Mountains suggets, it is a diversity, and I find both very uninhibited and very inhibited autistic people - I do think I'm in the middle, as are some other autistic friends, partly because of consciously trying to assert without domination, and so that may help us 'pass' as NT.

  • I use gestures a lot as well, but mine seem to be more like attempts to draw pictures in the air about things I am trying to describe, almost as if I am on that TV game-show based on charades. I have noticed other people smiling when they see me do it, but appearing to be harmlessly eccentric doesn't bother me.

    Like many of my quirky habits & mannerisms, it's one I acquired from my Mum as I was growing up. We both spend a lot of time on the phone & both continue to draw pictures in the air, even though the other person can't possibly see them. Every time I catch myself doing it while I am on the phone it reminds me of my Mum & makes me smile.

  • That's interesting. I've never really thought about what gestures i use. I'll monitor and see!

  • Thank you for your replies. Forums are a new territory  - social media were anathema to me, I still feel it to be slightly inappropriate when posting (as if I am gate crashing or imposing myself), this may be a reflection of my age - but this forum has proved more helpful than the piecemeal assistance available through more conventional avenues and my opposition is retreating. The above parentheses, perhaps, betray that I am also rereading Proust. Rather than separate replies, I shall attempt to further this discussion by referring to individual points in this post.

    Like many people diagnosed with a form or category of autism, I wanted to know, ‘what is autism?’ The main observable traits - listed on any google search - are asserted to be gestures, facial expressions and mono-tonal speech - social interaction. There are others such as rocking or similar but I don’t have personal experience of these. At a group meeting of Aspies and HFA’s I noticed that gestures were either absent or minimal and not obviously allied to the cadences or emphases of speech. Speech was to various degrees mono tonal. Music, however, was universally admired. An appreciation of music surely requires an innate understanding of timing and pitch. In my determination to understand the foundations of the AS, I wondered if the disparity between the appreciation of music and the non-appreciation or non-application of some gestural expressions would reveal the essence of autism.

    To explore this, I hope you will excuse my use of an extended metaphor. An analogue radio works roughly as follows: a radio station broadcasts over a certain frequency, the radio dial is turned until that frequency is matched and the sound is enabled to pass through. When listening to music our appreciation is - according to my metaphor - enabled by the tuning in to the pitch, timbre pacing etc and we are able to appreciate it. In social situations we do not always have appropriate frequency to process and reveal the content or intent. Our brains don’t always have the prerequisite frequencies installed.

    I have necessarily had to expand this discussion to include voice tone and facial expressions due to your replies. These - I feel - could properly be described as gestural expressions. The diversity of those on the spectrum that some of you mention has forced me to widen my net, Some of you mention dance, I can appreciate and comprehend David Byrne’s movement in the video -possibly because I’m familiar with Byrne”s work - Cassandro links to. It is essentially a series of gestures interpreting the music and lyrics. Perhaps someone knows of an autistic choreographer? Dance is a gestural response to music, but can we always dance to the music of everyday life? 

    I have taken Cassandro’s advice and added a couple of tags to this discussion - thanks for the tip.

    Like Cloudy Mountains I have been told I look younger than my age and I also put this down to my scarce use of facial expressions. There has to some compensations.

  • Well, I hope you get something out of the medium of forums on specific subjects, as I think you contribute to the NAS forums interestingly and appropriately. I haven't had patience for Proust beyond the first volume, I'm afraid.

    In my determination to understand the foundations of the AS, I wondered if the disparity between the appreciation of music and the non-appreciation or non-application of some gestural expressions would reveal the essence of autism.

    If you can find the 'essence of autism', you're ahead of the researchers. Even after meeting a lot of aspies, I still find it difficult to know if there really is a cluster of related traits, a particular autistic role or essence; or instead a set of many preconditions that enable normal social functioning, and a difference in any one of them can be described as autism. So, while it's true that most autistic people appreciate music, and some may have perfect pitch or be good instrumentalists or even be musical savants, I also know some who are tone deaf or have no sense of rhythm. To extend your analogy further, some people are on too high a frequency for social interaction, some are on too low a frequency, and some are on AM when they should be on FM. Or DAB.

    And yet another caveat is that a difference in understanding or expressing gestures might be a result of something else that is more 'essential'. Some gestures, like smiling, are innate to humans, while others, like nodding, are culture-specific. If the gestural or metalinguistic 'language' is a matter of learning, then not having exposure or practice would result in a perceived deficit. Some research I read suggested that not being able to identify emotions in the eyes is entirely accounted for by past lack of eye contact. So differences in gestures may be a result of being forced or inclined to be socially separate, not the other way around.

    These are questions with scientific answers - I'm just not sure how many are known yet.

    It does sound like there are a large number of us who don't 'transmit' much in tone of voice or emotional gestures, but I believe it can be learned. By the way, I also appear young for my years, but it's not a huge compensation when I haven't done that much with my decades so far.

  • Thanks for your comment about my postings. 

    I have always wanted to take things apart to see how they work. As a teenager, radios and amplifiers etc I could understand. I knew how valves, capacitors and resistors worked. In these days of computers and smart phones I’m flummoxed. Perhaps I should accept the same fate in trying to understand autism, (although that would be completely against character). I know that the autistic community is very diverse, but I can’t help thinking that there must be some commonalities, otherwise the word wouldn’t exist. Perhaps logic doesn’t answer all questions and it’s a catch all word.

    There are probably NT people who are tone deaf and have no sense of rhythm.

    I am not sure about smiling being innate to humans. I have to continually remind myself to return smiles, I have learned this. `i don’t automatically smile on meeting people. However, if I learned to smile - as you write - I could also learn changes in tone of voice and emotional gestures.

  • I'm completely tone deaf and have no sense of rhythm. So I'm told anyway, although I enjoy listening to music if I'm in the mood. I dance like a dizzy crab though, not pretty. 

    I taught myself to use tones of voice and cadence (reading and poetry are probably the only types of rhythm I 'get') over the years mainly because it was something my much younger siblings, and later my children, responded strongly to as babies. Similarly, they were the reason I consciously practised and used a wider variety of facial expressions.

    Along with other material I read over the years on body language, facial expressions, and vocal tones etc, the decades of repeating Dr Seuss were my most valuable resource in learning and practising many of these things - sadly he didn't write much on how to dance  :(