© David Sponder, Licensed
Educational Psychologist, BCBA, RDI Program™ Certified Consultant

What is Non-verbal Performance?
Teaching Tips

Before we get into techniques, it is important to understand what nonverbal communication is.

  •  Nonverbal communication is any message, intentionally or unintentionally sent that has its own meaning or adds meaning to verbal communication
  • Nonverbal communication often functions as an important, if not the predominantly important reference in social interaction
  • A core deficit of autism Spectrum [and other social, emotional and behavioral] disorders is difficulty in choosing the
    available and most important sources of information to refer to or “reference.”  This leads to the confusion, anxiety, and failure individuals with referencing deficits experience in dynamic, fluid social situations.
  • This explains the tendency to avoid novelty and form static systems of interaction or behavior noted in individuals with ASD.

Primary Functions of Referencing:

  • To resolve uncertainty.  Open systems featuring ongoing, fluid, spontaneous, relatively unrestricted (e.g. unplanned
    and unrehearsed) flow of information produce multiple moments of uncertainty.  This is expected.
  • To allow the optimal synchronous and coherent flow of information in the face of expected and frequent breakdowns in the system.  Optimal synchrony and coherence in emotion/social interaction occurs only about a third of the time at best.  We spend the rest of the time interacting in moments of temporary flux (various degrees and forms of breakdown) and readjustment (repair; adaptation; learning).
  • Referencing allows us to spot the very frequent and expected breakdowns of the moment-to-moment synchrony and pattern of interaction.  This provides opportunities to make ongoing adaptations to restore the synchrony of interaction (“Repair”), and to learn the vast majority of our social and emotional skills in the process.

The amount of time we actually spend experiencing optimal synchrony, agreement, satisfaction, intersubjective understanding and mutual attunement among partners constitutes only about a third of the total time we spend interacting.

This is because fluid, spontaneous, unplanned and unrehearsed emotional/social interaction involves multiple and expected breakdowns, as the relating back and forth incorporates new and changing information constantly into transactions and momentary breakdowns are inevitable.

What keeps such unstructured and relatively unrestricted social and emotional transaction between partners (members of the interactive communication/action system of the moment) from descending into chaos is that partners regularly monitor each other (because changes bring new uncertainties) and make adaptations (i.e. repairs).  Continuous monitoring and adjustment is what keeps any open system from degenerating into disorganization, incoherence or chaos.

We learn the vast majority of our dynamic emotional tools from the regular breakdowns involved in human interaction

The list of these tools is too long to provide here, but the main point is that they are learned as we experience regular interaction breakdowns and try out strategies to get the synchrony going again.  We tend to keep the ones that work, and as we accumulate these tools, we are able to use them in ways that are at the same time complex but relaxed, diverse and differentiated, yet coherent and integrated.

We cannot and should not attempt to reference every point of information present or available.  We need to focus in on the most important indicators of patterns, changes in patterns that portend predispositions of behavior one way or another and to coordinate our responses flexibly in order to keep the system operating coherently (noticing and repairing breakdowns).

To be efficient, we tend to reference only the most key elements involved in the system.  We reference objects when we operate on or think about them, as well as the actions and communication signals of others.

Emotional Windows

The Reference Point as the Focus of Attention and the ‘Operating Window’ of Consciousness

At any given moment, our brains carry out thousands if not millions of operations at once.  Most of them operate automatically, such as breathing, blinking, regulating blood pressure, body temperature, making the thousands of muscle actions required to sit
upright, focus attention, perceive, make rough appraisals of the environment, speak, or move through space, etc.

One can loosely equate these operations with computer operating programs that the brain runs simultaneously.  On a computer, you can see the operations of programs in their operating “windows.”   For instance, you might have a word processor going, a couple of open folders, a few documents, several websites, you email and other programs going all at once.

When you click on one of the windows, it comes to the front and becomes the contents of your screen, and the rest of the windows go into the background.  The other programs remain running or “open”, but they are not in the foreground; they are not the main

Well, if the brain is compared to a computer, it is a computer that has many thousands of open windows running at the same time; many of them interconnected and informing and updating the others constantly.

Attention functions like clicking on one of the windows.  For instance, we usually don’t think about our balance when taking a casual walk, but if we clicked on the window of our balance we would be more aware of what we’re doing in that department.

At any moment, thousands of things compete for our attention from the foreground and backgrounds of our environment.

But attention – the window that comes to the front when we click on one of our programs can only hold a very limited amount of information.  That’s why we should pay attention to what is important at the moment.

How do we learn what is important and what is not?

We focus our attention for lots of reasons.  Generally, any pronounced change going on around us (e.g. a glass breaks; someone walks by) will draw our attention at least momentarily.  Also, our emotions not only predispose actions, they predispose where we’ll focus our attention.

  • Attention selection is largely the function of two key classes of emotion: those that are based on interest, opportunity (predisposing approach behaviors), and those that are based on fear or perceived threatto survival (predisposing flight, freeze or fight behaviors).So any information entering the mind that signals threat or opportunity strongly enough will evoke responses.  There is room for a great deal of difference in this threshold as opportunities and threats involve appraisal, and emotions heavily bias appraisal. Information that signals intensive opportunity or threat tend to jump the line among competing stimuli for attention;
  • In less intense situations – or the vast majority of the time, we learn a value system of attention by following other people’s attention over the course of our lifetimes.  The focus of others’ attention continues to be a current force in our attention or stimulus selection – so it is essentially a social learning process.
  • Choosing the most salient stimulus to pay attention to is an emotional process as well.  Our affiliation with others and corresponding identification with others’ interests, influences our choices of attention by social means.
    • Most of the choices of where we place our attention occur in situations in which we are bystanders or eavesdroppers on others’ attention and where and what they focus it upon.  The people we reference in this way may not be aware that we are doing this.  This happens very frequently, so it is fair to say that much of what we’ve learned about what to pay attention to involved an indirect process.  One does not need to be directly involved in interaction to learn this, if one has developed the dynamic thinking ability or tool of referencing others’ attention.

Visual Forms of Referencing

For instance, if I engage in interactions with you, I might look for the following bits of information as we go along:

When I’m in the lead…

  • I might look to see if you’re still there, or whether you’re listening or paying attention
  • I might look to see if you’re looking at the thing I’m talking about
  • I might look to see if you understand what I’m saying
  • I might look to see if you feel the same way Ido; if you agree, disagree; if I’ve made you happy, angry, embarrassed, etc.
    (emotional referencing/intersubjectivity)
  • I might look to see if there is a need for a momentary ‘repair;’ or a change or adaptation needed at the moment to keep the
    emotional and social interaction going.

When someone else is in the lead…

  • I might look to stay in sync with this person emotionally or to stay in coordination with our ongoing transactions I might look to get the additional information and context that I get [visually] from the way you talk or act, as I can see from your nonverbal communication
  • I might look to know what it looks like is important to you, what is on your mind, or what you might do next by following
    your eyes or attention along with appraising the patterns of your behavior in the past and up until now

Referencing is not the same thing as looking though.  Looking is merely one very common form of referencing the information needed to keep inter-relating going.

However, the visual processes involved in visuo-emotional and visuo-social referencing are very important in our species.  As ground dwelling primates, we need good vision to obtain sensory information from a distance.  We were out in the open evolving on the African Savannah, so we needed to learn to spot both threat and opportunity from a distance, and to be able to do it quickly.

As creatures with the potential for amazingly complex emotional and social interaction, we have to pay attention to and read visual patterns that help us to make reasonable and ongoing updated appraisals of the intentions of others.  We have to make rapid appraisals, sometimes – or much of the time, at a speed that only the lower (reflexive, emotional, procedural) parts of our brain can accomplish.  The more densely wired, multiple and simultaneous processes that the frontal or executive parts of our brain perform
and the amount of information they manage makes too slow of a system to do the work of rapid adaptation.

As cooperative breeders and hunters, we use visual information as important components of rapid communication.  Our emotional brains rapidly recognize visual patterns much faster than our “mental executives” do.

Referencing Action Predispositions in the Visual Domain

With experience and the shaping effect the environment has on us, visual referencing for certain patterns allows us to make rough appraisals rather rapidly of the “action predispositions” of others.

Our brains aren’t as fast as they may appear to be in so-called spontaneous, fluid and ongoing interaction.  To keep up, not only do we need to be able to make rapid appraisals of others behavioral predispositions, we have to have a motor plan ready (an idea executed in thought or action) in order to respond in a timely manner.  Recognition of any pattern helps one to expect how things are to unfold and to pre-load responses from the emotional brain into the mental “hopper” to be released by the [conscious and emotional] brain.

For instance, a warm smile sends the message that approaching is safe and welcomed or ‘keep up what you’re doing’ and a sneer or grimace sends the opposite message – ‘back off;’ ‘stop what you’re doing’…  We use the tentative term “action predisposition” because in complex interaction, predispositions carry only a likelihood of a certain class of behavioral responses.  Behavioral responses bubble up from the emotional brain, but must pass through cerebral filters and gating mechanisms in order to be released.

Mature individuals have considerable control and choice in the choices we make under various emotional predisposition states.

Looking therefore is an important means of tuning in to the visual information available, and vision allows communicative referencing at greater distances than hearing, smell, taste or touch can.  For survival purposes, it is better to be able to detect a pattern that signals others’ threatening predisposition from a distance, rather than having to get closer to smell or touch it.  This
applies to discovering opportunities as well.

Scanning the environment on a ‘regular-enough’ basis can provide rich and necessary information.

Being able to read emotional information such as affective displays helps us cooperate with each other in discovering salient cues in the environment and synchronizing our attention on them.

We don’t only look at faces; we look at a lot of things in order to keep up with what’s going on.  But faces carry a great amount of social/emotional information in a relatively small amount of space, and it is part of our nature as a species to regard what is called “facial/affective” communication or “facial/affective displays.”

For people with autism, faces can be confusing, overloading and overwhelming.  First of all, facial/affective displays (facial expressions) are gestalts.  The component parts involve the “emotional triangle,” the upside-down triangle starting at the top with forehead, and moving down, the eyebrows, eyes, cheeks, nose and chin.   Genetically, we have to potential to coordinate thousands of tiny muscles to form thousands of possible configurations, some of which we should recognize innately (joy, sadness, disgust, surprise, fear, anger), and the rest, more culturally defined and blended forms of these basic emotional displays we learn from watching and participating in emotional/social interaction.  Those with innate difficulties with visual gestalt thinking may avoid complex stimuli such as faces, with corresponding downstream effects of delaying or arresting emotional and social development.

Visually, we reference other patterns of the body (posture; speed and direction of movement; intensity or style of movement, etc.) when those elements are the most salient information.

Visuo-Spatial References

We visually reference seating arrangements, how close people are to each other, the direction or spatial configuration of groups and other forms of visuo-spatial information with social or emotional meaning.  For instance, we walk through a hallway and when we come out we see bleachers, a green court with a net in the middle and two people standing on either side of the net, facing each other, and with tennis rackets in our hand.  If we’re familiar with the game and the situation we would immediately appraise “tennis match” and if the configuration represented something different we would be surprised to find that.

Auditory Forms of Referencing

Vision isn’t the only distal sense we favor for referencing salient information in the environment.  We also depend a great deal upon sound information.  We reference the location, directionality, tone and intensity of others’ voices, not to mention their words.  This ‘extraverbal’ information often reveals the true meaning of what someone is saying, even when the utterance implies the opposite – as in sarcasm.

Same word Communication
Example meaning
“Really?” Questioning/Rising inflection “Did that really happen?”
“Really.” Imperative: Answering/Neutral Inflection “Yes it really did.”
“Really!” Declarative: Subjective opinion-sharing/Descending
“Believe it or not, it really did.”

Conversations can and do sound like this sometimes.  People tend to speak in fragments and abbreviated communications.  This is why the instruction of language cannot be truly successful without first establish strong emotional substrates for total communication along with words or signs.

Much if not most of the meaning of a verbal or written utterance can be found in its tone.  (Written expression
has a tone implied by other contextual clues in the text, and our own active matching of the text to our own experience and the sounds and inflections we’ve associated before).

Proximal Sense Referencing

We reference and join attentional frames with others in all available senses:

Sensory System Means/Reference Variations in Intensity Possible Meanings Examples
Touch Skin to skin contact Light Approachable Affection; Affiliative
Rough Warning Aggression

Reference Words:

Did you feel that?”  “That
felt nice
.  “This is soft.”  “Ouch!”
Proprioception Pressure, stretch, impact Light Approachable Affection; Affiliative
Rough Warning Aggression

Reference Words:

Is that too heavy?”  “Did
you feel that bump
?”  “I want a real hug.”
Smell Chemical/Airborne Loud Proximity to source; high intensity of source Pleasant (approach)
Soft Distance from source; low intensity of source Toxic (Avoid)

Reference Words:

Do you smell gas?”
Reminds me of Thanksgiving.”


Sensory System Means/Reference Variations in Intensity Possible Meanings Examples
Taste Chemical/Tongue Strong Too much Avoid, reduce
Weak Too little Approach; increase

Reference Words:

Can you taste the
cinnamon in this pie
?”  “Is it sweet enough?” “Yuk!”
Interoception Internal somatic signals Strong Urgency; Danger Do something
Weak OK No need to do anything

Reference Words:

Did that yogurt
make you sick
?” “That noise will
give us a headache
.” “I have to go
to the bathroom

Functions of Referencing

  • Basically, we reference to resolve uncertainty.  When we don’t know, we seek information.
  • Changes in a system produce uncertainty.  We often reference when we notice something important to the situation has changed.
  • The changes we deem important have to do withcontext and our current emotional bias.
  • We reference when we perceive that we don’t have the information that we really need.
  • We tend to decrease the frequency of our referencing when we feel we have the information we need, or when there hasn’t been any change.


(Declarative/Subjective/Intersubjective) v. Instrumental (Imperative/goal-oriented) Forms of Referencing:

Referencing can have emotional or “experience-sharing” functions that are used mainly in social situations without much in the way of any particular agenda.  The purpose of the interaction at the moment may be purely for the pleasure or experience of being with each other and sharing each other’s experience.  The combination of ideas will always produce something new as conversation and interaction goes in to unexpected directions.  People go with the flow.

Referencing can also have “instrumental” functions that are used mainly in task-based interaction between people.  For example, we can engage in a coordinated interaction pattern where I hand you a book and you put it on the shelf.  Each of us could perform this activity without looking at each other’s face.  All we would have to do is watch the position of the object and each other’s arms and hands.

In either case, we reference whenever we’re uncertain about something.

We use Referencing to resolve some form of Uncertainty.

Therefore, to create more referencing, or attention to your actions, or social or emotional communication, you must create reasons for referencing.  You have to create moments where him or her doesn’t know something and needs to look or listen or do some form of referencing.  This is why we call this uncertainty “productive.”  It is just enough to notice, not too much to overwhelm, and it creates opportunities to learn something.

Here are the most common ways to do create moments of uncertainty:

  • You do something noticeable
  • You engage him or her in a familiar pattern andadd a variation
  • You do something unexpected
  • You exaggerate, increase your proximity, or useother means of intensifying a cue to the individual’s threshold of noticing

Gutstein’s Rule: Changes must be enough to be noticeable (without additional or direct cueing or prompting), but not so much as to be overwhelming.

Giving prompts or direct cues (e.g., “Look at me.”  “Listen…” are antithetical to dynamic, self-directed [volitional as opposed to response-oriented] referencing.  Prompts and cues evoke specific responses.  Natural noticing and indirect cueing methods help a person discover and use volitional processes to reference something in the environment.

An important implication of this is that we aren’t trying to get a person to do anything.

We provide opportunities to notice things, to discover breakdowns, and to know to begin searching for means to repair.  Again, it is in the process of repair that we really learn our referencing, dynamic thinking, and subsequently – our emotional and social skills.  Teaching fixed cues and responses merely trains memory or recognition.   It doesn’t teach the person to engage in a repair process where any variety of strategies might or might not work.  This has a tendency to increase on an exponential level the potential for nuanced responding and self-learning.

The most Pivotal Responses in Humanity

  • Dynamic Thinking, which includes:
    • Noticing changes
    • Knowing which changes are important and which are not
    • Being able to learn the above by watching and referencing other’s attention and action states
    • Discovering patterns in these references that provide clues as to other’s intentions and action predispositions
    • Sensing the directionality of change in order to be able to anticipate (preload motor plans)
  • Intentionality: Forming intentions (affects) and organizing and updating motor plans (actions) connected to them
    • Feedforward Direction: Forming and executing motor plans based on internal thoughts and affects
    • Feedback Direction: Taking up and incorporating ongoing or changing information
      [internal and perceptual as well as external responses or input from the
      environment] as the motor plan unfolds (Also see Jean Piaget’s “Perception/Action Cycle”


  1. Slow Down: Every step together.  Stop him or her if he or she gets ahead of you and help him or her get ready to continue.
  2. Stop the Action: Pause.  Wait for voluntary attentionfrom him or her. We do not want overtly elicited attention (i.e. directing him or her’s attention with words, such as “Look at me” “Look at…” “Pay attention…”) – that’s a trap.  Don’t rush it or cue him or her’s attention directly.Try not to “cue” attention with a sound or any other device you use over and over.  If him or her starts to become dependent upon any of the devices below (in other words – he or she won’t turn your way unless you do it), use another.You can move closer, kneel down, get your face in his or her line of sight, exaggerate your motions, remove the object or jerk it away or behind your back.
  3. Accentuate/Exaggerate: Make your motions and emotions larger.  “Play to the back row.”  Imagine that you’re trying to communicate with someone far away.  You would have to make your motions larger and your facial expressions larger.  Think children’s television and how broad the acting is.  Don’t yell though – his or her hearing is not the problem and you shouldn’t use your voice to get his or her attention.
  4. Proximity: This is your first and best choice usually.  Simply get closer and let him or her feel your presence.  Move in as close as you have to, including playfully invading his or her space.  Get in position where he or she can easily see your face, so kneel down if you have to or bring the materials up high.
  5. Movement: Movements, especially large ones in someone’s periphery usually alerts attention to the movement.  So by changing positions, handing him or her things, jerking them away, etc., you create noticeable movement.
  6. Random, Unexpected Events: Create reasons for him or her to be vigilant…
  7. Unexpected Sounds: Make funny noises, or exaggerate the sound of something (make a louder, more conspicuous sound as you push the chair into the table).This can include changing the volume of your voice conspicuously, say from loud to a whisper, or vise versa.
  8. Unexpected Touch: Make him or her vigilant of the “tickle finger” or an unexpected tap on the shoulder as you look playfully away (“It wasn’t me!”).
  9. Unexpected Visuals: Put a hat on your head when he or she looks away, so when he or she turns around you’ve changed.  Once he or she gets used to you having your hat on, take it off the next time he or she fails to keep paying attention.  Be funny and playful.  Put a shoe on the table when he or she looks away while you’re both setting the table together.
  10. Unexpected Words: A lot of interactions continue in a scripted, perfunctory way.  “How are you?”  “I’m fine.”  How about, “How are you?” “I’m a giraffe.”
  11. Noticeable change: Anything you can change that gets his or her notice can be good.  Place a sticker on your face and don’t tell him or her.  Wear a hat (take it off or put it on when he or she’s not looking so that when he or she turns back to you he or she notices).   Remove the object without him or her noticing it so he or she will look to you.
  12. Pausing Momentarily: Stopping the action should be a natural cue.  This is often how we sense the need to look.  Exaggerated pauses, as well as simple hesitations help him or her understand that something is expected of him or her.
  13. Absurdity: Do and say ridiculous things.  Give ridiculous answers to his or her questions.  BE SURE AND GET FACE-to-FACE EMOTION SHARING whenever you have the opportunity.
  14. Interrupting his or her activity: This is another form of stopping action.  If he or she stims or pays attention to anything else (including a mistaken reference such as watching your hands, feet, or watching the movement of the object back and forth), you may wait for him or her to regroup and return to the activity voluntarily, or if another object or activity ends up monopolizing and completely interfering with correct attention, then remove it and gently redirect the child back to the pattern.When redirecting a child back to the pattern it is important not to provide too overt cues.  Bring him or her in close enough proximity to the correct cues or begin actions, so the child can reorient without a direct instruction.Remember, we always looking for dynamic thinking, not just following directions or prompts.
  15. Building and “MilkingExcitement: Don’t just walk through doors, open closets; or open bags, letters, gifts, boxes, etc. without acting as if they contain the most mysterious and awesome things.   Try to add a little “productive uncertainty” or in other words, a sense of surprise, fun and adventure to mundane things.Manufacture a little excitement in otherwise mundane things.  Playfully act as if you are on little adventures and discoveries when opening doors, drawers, or boxes, as I modeled for you.  Stop just before you open whatever it is, and then make sure to exchange mutual gazes into each other’s face for sharing the excitement.
  16. Variation: Again, the primary function of referencing is to resolve uncertainty.  We look because we don’t know.  By adding noticeable changes to any pattern of action, you create some uncertainty about what will happen next.  This should spark a reference, although him or her may attempt to solve the problem without looking.  Therefore, you would still use the above techniques.

Managing Interference or Competition for a Child’s Attention

  1. Eliminate Competition: Remove distractions.  Only one adult at a time.  When it is important that the child focus on your lead and a particular reciprocal coordination pattern, don’t allow him or her to have complete control of the objects or have free access to them (keep them behind you – out of his or her reach).  Turn off TVs, close windows, shades, cover mirrors – whatever you have to do to help him or her focus on what is relevant to the pattern.
  2. Controlling Objects: Children with ASD often become “captured” by any object he or she’s handling or looking at.  Neurologically, this has to do with underdeveloped dyssynchronous neural mechanisms that 1) release attention from one stimulus, 2) hold that stimulus in “working memory” while 3) shifting attention to another relevant part of the pattern (stimulus2), holding stimulus2 in working memory while releasing attention from stimulus1and back and forth. Difficulties with this are signs of difficulty with coordinating the various neural circuitry that control these different aspects of attention and memory.IT IS EXTREMELY IMPORTANT THAT THESE NEURAL MECHANISMS DEVELOP, and the only way to do that is to provide practice and motivation.  Making objects appear and disappear while your face becomes an important intermediary object, recapitulates early development in a way that matures this circuitry and allows for much for frequent and efficient attention to the world around the child.I CANNOT UNDERESTIMATE THE FOUNDATIONAL IMPORTANCE OF GETTING THIS TYPE OF ATTENTION SHIFTING GOING!  ”Sticky attention” is probably the most prevalent and damaging trait people with autism have, and they can definitely learn to break the habit.  Breaking this habit usually brings the most pivotal breakthroughs in their developmental pathway.People with autism will also follow your hands or feet to coordinate movements when we want them looking towards your face.  Whenever you notice this – stop.  Take the object away or put it behind you.
  3. Present objects carefully: Don’t just hand him or her an object, because more than likely he or she will not take his or her eyes off of it.  This behavior precludes the gaze-shifting and the referencing of facial gestures, eye-direction, and non-verbal language necessary for joint attention and that are necessary to address directly core deficits of autism.To do this, keep objects behind you, bring them to your chest first, place your hand over the object or otherwise conceal them some way – before placing them in front of him or her.  Once he or she references you and attends to your non-verbal communication, you can put the object down in front of him or her.  Be prepared to take the object back if him or her begins to talk to you, work or relate to you with him or her eyes riveted on the object.Also, as you move the object, you might see him or her watching the movement of the object exclusively (not gaze shifting and visual joint attention).  If this happens, jerk the object back closer to you or conceal it again.  Be on the watch for this.  We need to break this habit.Never allow him or her to reach for an object before he or she references your face for some sign of acknowledgement, permission or direction before doing so.  If this happens, gently place him or her hands back in his or her lap or on the table – or wait for him or her to self-correct.

    Once him or her has manual control over the object – you then have to compete with it for his or her attention.  Once there is face-to-face communication, you can then re-present the object.

    1. Make him or her give responses to your face, not the object: Whenever you expect a response to your face – don’t let the object interfere with that.  Now it is not always important or appropriate for 100% of communications between you to occur face-to-face.  But in the beginning of therapy, we err on the side of using these techniques to promote a high frequency of shifting and referencing to break old bad habits of eyes riveted to objects, and to build new habits of shifting regularly and habitually to the wider environment.
    2. Facilitating “smooth visual pursuit” of the object: Smooth visual pursuit means keeping one’s eyes focused on some kind of moving target or motion, whether it is the motion of your actions or the motion of an object through space.  Smooth visual pursuit is necessary to observe howthings happen, how a cause leads to an effect for instance (e.g. how water gets poured into a glass, or in other words, how the water went from the pitcher and ended up in the glass), or how a series of events result in some kind of product (e.g., get the bread, get the bologna, get the cheese, place the bologna and then the cheese on the bread, close it up and voila – bologna sandwich).This addresses another common visual deficit in autism, which has to do with a habit of taking one’s eyes off the object at critical times during a motion or sequence.  The tendency to look away a lot during motion is due to slow visual motion processing[1]as once a motion is observed, it can become blurred as it moves and then becomes uncomfortable or confusing to focus on.Recent research shows that our understanding of motion is very similar to how a motion camera fools the brain into perceiving motion.  Yes, our eyes and brains do take a series of static photographs, much as a motion camera does.  Other parts of the brain fill in the gaps to give the illusion of motion.Current theories of the deepest underlying neurological deficits in autism focus on their difficulties with processing visual motion and connecting series of actions into “action gestalts” (seeing actions as part of an action pattern with a purpose).

      To facilitate smooth pursuit, or in other words, if you need him or her to keep watching you as you perform a motion, you think of “catching him or her eyes.”

      First, you slow motions down so that smooth pursuit is easier.  The quicker the motion, the moredifficult it is to see the whole arc of it.

      When you see him or her look away – Stop the motion (see “Therapeutic Pause,” below) and allow him or her to return to the motion.  This doesn’t improve smooth visual pursuit necessarily, but it does help establish the expectation that he or she is to follow the motion, and it makes sure he or she can see actions flowing from cause to effect.






[1] This is quite evident when him or her has real difficulty catching a ball.  A child with slow visual processing will look away when someone throws a ball towards her.

Visual motion processing and visual motion memory is not to be confused with visual eidetic memoryVisual motion memory is essential to dynamic thinking, whereas eidetic memory is not.

Visual eidetic memory can be an extraordinary strength for some individuals with autism.  Commonly referred to as “photographic” memory, the mind takes a [static] snapshot of a scene and can remember it to the nth detail.  While impressive, it is essentially a static form of memory that causes a child to lose focus on the successive actions and events that form meaningful activity
patterns (like focusing on individual notes of a melody).  If you think about how you remember things, you actually “re-run” motion clips in your visual memory, whereas people with autism remember their world in static pictures.

Motion processing is an essential component of understanding “e-motion.”  If one overly relies on eidetic memory, the individual experiences what neurologists call ‘motion agnosia.’

Whereas we experience the world as a movie, individuals with attention shifting deficits and who overcompensate with eidetic memory experience the world as a series of unconnected slides and they miss action patterns easily.  This is why you may find that
your child tends to leave new activities after each step.  This is because they do not observe “action melodies.”  They observe individual actions but not the arc of a sequence of actions or an “action gestalt,” and it is not until they acquire rote experience with an action pattern that they become comfortable.  Novel activity patterns make little sense due to an immature ability to detect patterns and anticipate actions (or what may be expected), and anxiety is the result.  This accounts for the resistance to novelty so commonly observed in autism.

The word ‘motion’ as part of “emotion” is no accident.  Intention and emotion reading requires continuous attention to other person’s face as they experience a series of events.  Essential to understanding another person’s emotion is observing how the look on a person’s face changed from one expression or another because of a certain event.  In turn, emotions signal changes in the pattern of a person’s behavior that follows.

For instance, if a person is happy at one moment, they are predisposed to certain set of behavior.  If some event then occurs to make that person angry, then that set of predispositions changes.  Noticing this and interpretation of these patterns in others is essential to reading other’s intentions and anticipating what they will do or need from you next.  It is the functional blindness to this type
of information that causes individuals with autism to be anxious around new people or new activity patterns.  They continue to prefer predictable patterns, control, and people that accommodate their needs for sameness or do the work of adjusting for them.