Behavior is communication has become a catchphrase within the autistic community. If a parent asks for advice on why their autistic child runs screaming from the shower or will only eat yogurt and chicken nuggets, they might often receive the response that behavior is communication. Likewise, if an autistic adult becomes agitated and irritable whenever they have to enter a grocery store, the same can be said: behavior is communication.
The interesting thing is, while this phrase likely began as a supportive means of understanding autistic behavior, particularly as it pertains to body language, it has evolved into being mostly correlated to indicators of stress, such as self-injurious stimming, meltdowns, and elopement. As such, it seems that while certain behaviors are viewed through the lens of behavior being communication, other behaviors are often seen as a failure to communicate.
What I mean by this is, when an autistic person is showing signs of distress, it can quickly become obvious to those around them that they’re trying to communicate something isn’t right. However, when an autistic person begins flapping at a television screen or the like, the reason for their behavior might not seem immediately apparent and it may be viewed as them just being odd or quirky and not that they’re actually trying to communicate something.
When an autistic person is engaged in self-injury, hitting, crying, meltdowns, or elopement, it can be easy for an outsider to say they’re obviously trying to communicate something. But, autistic people don’t only communicate distress. We convey a breadth of messages and emotions through our behavior, they just aren’t always noted as such.
Stimming is one of the most common ways autistic people communicate. It’s often assumed that an autistic person who is stimming must be anxious or overwhelmed. While it’s true that many autistic people stim when anxious or upset, we stim for so many other reasons as well. I stim whenever I’m happy, sad, distressed, angry, etc. and each of my stims look and feel different. They might seem very similar to a bystander, but they’re actually quite distinct. For example, I pace when I’m thinking and excited about new ideas, but I also pace when I’m nervously talking on the phone. The flapping I do when I’m happy is subtly different from the flapping I do when I’m upset or frustrated. They might look similar, but they’re conveying completely different feelings and messages.
Another common body language autistic people use to communicate is eye contact, or sometimes lack thereof. Often, neurotypicals assume that autistic people either should be able to make eye contact or that we notoriously have difficulty making eye contact. If we can make eye contact, then we tend to be deemed “not autistic enough”, and if we aren’t making eye contact, then it’s generally assumed that we’re shy and we just lack social skills.
Many autistic people are quite capable of eye contact and are still autistic, and if we aren’t making eye contact, the reasons vary beyond being shy. While eye contact can be genuinely uncomfortable for many autistic people, a lack of eye contact or the type of eye contact given is often a form of communication.
If I’m looking away from you while talking, it’s probably because I’m trying to focus on what I have to say and I can’t simultaneously think about how your eyes look and the point I’m trying to get across. If I’m very intentionally making intermittent eye contact, then I’m likely more focused on trying to pass as neurotypical than I am on what you’re saying. If I’m looking down and only occasionally looking up, or if I’m looking all around, then I’m likely uncomfortable with the conversation or in my sensory environment.
Even when it seems autistic people are going out of our way to avoid communicating, that behavior is still communication. We may be overwhelmed or anxious by a situation and not know what to do or say, so we just try to avoid the situation altogether. We might also attempt to interact in a situation but our attempts may go unnoticed if they’re considered atypical. Autistic people often observe other people or situations for a while before attempting to directly interact with them, and once we do make the attempt, we may ask a lot of questions or engage in echolalia or scripting. These things are often thought of as lacking direction and purpose, but they may very well signify that an autistic person is trying to communicate that they want to connect socially.
The autistic body is regularly communicating, and it has much more to say than it’s in distress. Behavior is communication needs to apply to more than just a handful of behaviors. Recognizing that behavior is communication is a step in the right direction, but it isn’t enough to view autistic behavior through a neurotypical lens and assume that it means or doesn’t mean something.
Accurately interpreting autistic behavior is the only way true shared communication can occur. This means autistic people need to be allowed to communicate in the ways that come most naturally to us. Forcing autistic people to communicate only in ways which are deemed appropriate by neurotypicals sends the message that autistic behavior as communication isn’t valid and is inferior to neurotypical behavior.