Nonverbal Dictionary
Amphibian Brain
Nonverbal Brain
Nonverbal World
Zygomatic Smile

June 25, 2016

La Jolla, California: We are proud to announce the creation of the Nonverbal Curriculum Project (NCP). The NCP will be designed to help Aspergers ("Aspies") and Neurotypical ("NT") folk encode and decode each other's nonverbal signs, signals, and cues. This is a continuing project, so please check back often, and help if you can . . .

David B. Givens, Ph.D.
Center for Nonverbal Studies
Spokane, Washington USA

Adjunct Professor
School of Professional Studies
Gonzaga University
Spokane, Washington USA

The Nonverbal Curriculum Project is designed to explore the overlapping Nonverbal Worlds of Aspergers (Aspie) and Neurotypical (NT) human beings. NTs often have difficulty understanding the nonverbal signs, signals, and cues of Aspie folk, and vice versa.

Click on an underlined topic (e.g., Eyes, Touch cues) for definitions from The Nonverbal Dictionary. Click on additional hyperlinks to watch short videos of Aspies and NTs explaining the topics in their own words and gestures.


Arguably the most expressive body parts for human nonverbal communication are the eyes, lips, shoulders, and hands, a group I call the "Top Four":



Making eye contact may be more emotionally challenging for Aspergers folk than for NTs.

"Ask an Autistic - What About Eye Contact?"


Lip Speak

Lips are perhaps the most emotionally expressive of humankind's body parts. Aspies may have a greater range of lip movements than NTs.

Note the lip movements of a most expressive young woman who is worried . . .


Lifted Shoulder

To shrug is to lift, raise, or flex-forward one or both shoulders in response a. to another person's statement, question, or physical presence; or b. to one's own inner thoughts, feelings, and moods. In a conversation, the shrug gesture may connote uncertainty or submissiveness. On the production (outgoing or efferent) side, I see little difference in Aspie and NT shrugging cues. On the reception (incoming or afferent) side, there may be some differences in their interpretation . . .

An Aspie's lifted right shoulder speaks louder than words . . .


David's Hand

Aspies may wonder why NTs use so many speaking gestures and "talk with their hands." NTs wonder why Aspies may use fewer hand gestures while talking.

Spoken words and hand gestures are neurologically linked in a shared compartment of the hindbrain and upper spinal cord (see "Neuro-notes IV" in the entry for Hands).

The linkage explains why we move our hands while pronouncing words. Hands may also reach out socially to "connect" a speaker to listeners. To enhance rapport with NT listeners, an Aspie may reach out with a palm-up gesture. And yet, with an Aspie, since many hand signals fall on "deaf ears," so to speak, NT speakers should rely more on words themselves than on hand cues to get their meanings across.


Among the most expressive human body movements, postures, and gestures are the following "Elite Eight":

Body bow

To bow is to bend, curl, or curve the upper body and head forward. Around the world, people bow to greet, defer, show courtesy, and pray.

This video shows an Aspie repeatedly bowing her head forward as she speaks. The bowed-head (with downward gazes) give her a coy, diffident, submissive-like appearance. NTs may use the same mannerisms in courtship and flirting.

Head nod

Head-nod gesture: 1. A vertical, up-and-down movement of the head used to show agreement or comprehension while listening. 2. A flexed-forward, lowering motion of the skull, used to emphasize an idea, assertion, or key speaking point.

NTs appear to use more, and higher volume, head nods than Autistics. This video shows how a bumptious NT (Donald Trump) nods to emphasize his words. Compare it to Aspie nods shown in videos available in the NCP.

Head shake

Rotating the head horizontally from side-to-side to disagree, or to show misunderstanding of a speaker's words. In an emotional conversation, a rhythmic, side-to-side rotation of the head to express conviction, disbelief, sympathy, and/or grief. The head-shake is used to demonstrate cognitive dissonance or emotional empathy.

Subtle head-shakes add emotion to her words.

Palm down

I've noticed that Aspies use fewer palm-down speaking gestures than NTs. Perhaps this is because the latter people tend to be more socially confident than the former folk?

Can you spot the palm-down cues in this video?

Palm up

Palm-up cues are among the most common speaking gestures of Aspie and NT alike.

While some Autistics may use few hand gestures with words, folks on the Aspergers end of the spectrum often use many--especially palm-up--cues. Palm-up signs ultimately derive from the shoulder-shrug display.

Watch an Aspie's palm-up speaking gestures.

Self touch

It is common for mammals, including Aspies and NTs, to self-touch in contexts of emotional arousal. Often called "self stimulation," self-touch helps animals adapt to sensory-emotional arousal and overload through competing sensory behaviors that help counteract upsetting or overly arousing afferent (incoming) cues. Hand-flapping, jumping up and down, self- and other-touching, and triumph displays are common on TV game shows.

"Ask an Autistic - What is Stimming?"

Smile face

Aspies may not understand why NTs smile so much in greetings and conversations. The former folk may not automatically return a smile with a smile. Meanwhile, NTs may wrongly interpret the Aspie's blank face as "unfriendly."

Tone of voice

Voice Box

Voice quality: 1. The manner in which a verbal statement is presented, e.g., its melody, rhythm, breathiness, hoarseness, or loudness. 2. Those qualities of speaking and vocalizing not usually included in the study of languages and linguistics. 3. Tone of voice reflects psychological arousal, emotion, and mood. It may also carry social information, as in a sarcastic, superior, or submissive manner of speaking.

Linguists call the quasi-musical qualities of human speech “prosody.” NTs appear to use more prosody than Autistics, whose speech may sound "flatter" in tone.


I call the following key meaning categories the "Suite Sixteen":



Isopraxism (Greek iso = "same," praxis = "behavior") explains why NTs dress alike and adopt beliefs, customs, and mannerisms of the people they admire. Wearing the same team jersey or franchise cap to look alike suggests like thinking and feeling, as well. Aspies, on the contrary, may show anisopraxic (Greek an = "not") tendencies, and not grasp the meaning of "group think" and team sports.

This video shows an Aspie's aversion to team sports.

Auditory cues

Sound of Music

Aspies may be hypersensitive to certain sounds and noises--such as sirens, the tearing of paper, or fingers drumming on a desktop--that NTs find undisturbing. Auditory overload is more common in the former folk than in the latter.


Around NTs, Aspies may feel like "aliens from another planet."

An Aspie explains how not socially belonging with other kids in kindergarten made her feel alien or "weird."


First Couple

Courtship: To send and receive messages in an attempt to seek someone's favor or love.

Watch an Aspie girl talk about her relationships with boys.


In Autistics, repetition of others' words and phrases may be seen as "abnormal" and "involuntary." In NT infants, repetition of others' sounds may be considered "normal," and seen as a "necessary" step in language acquisition. Both examples of echolalia are forms of isopraxism.

"Ask an Autistic - What is Echolalia?"


Autistics may show fewer emotion cues than NTs, but may "inappropriately" laugh, cry or show anger more often.

That Aspies have emotions is clearly answered in this video. The predominant emotion visible here is anger.

View a video that teaches how to decode facial cues of emotion, feelings, and moods.


An Aspie may not understand an NT's feelings as expressed nonverbally in body language. An NT may not understand why an Aspie's feelings do not find expression in nonverbal signs, signals, and cues.

Do Aspies experience empathy? Some say yes, some say no . . .


Aspies are more likely to show signs of emotional fight-or-flight than NTs. Called "meltdowns," these acute, often dramatic episodes are caused by sensory overload.

"What are Autistic Meltdowns?"

Meaning of life

"We analyze our existence, the meaning of life, the meaning of everything continually. We are serious and matter-of-fact. Nothing is taken for granted, simplified, or easy. Everything is complex."

Nonverbal Worlds

Footloose in Nonverbal World

This young Autistic's Nonverbal World revolves around objects. Physical objects--toys, medical instruments, watches, and teapots--comfort him with a powerful cognitive and emotional appeal.

Object fancy

Magnetic Pull to Touch

Object fancy is the human urge to pick up, hold, handle, touch, own, arrange, collect, display, or talk about a manufactured human artifact. In Aspies, fancy for one or a few objects may become obsessive.

"The only thing that I can think about . . ."

Reptilian routines

Many of our behavioral routines and repeated actions each day may be seen as reptilian-inspired rituals that are controlled by the brain's habit-prone basal ganglia (a motor control area identified as the protoreptilian brain or "R-complex" by neuroscientist Paul D. MacLean). According to MacLean, these neural components set the patterns of our daily master routine.

Daily master routines may be stronger in Aspies than in NTs. The former may feel greater frustration with upsets in daily routine.

Rhythmic repetition

Rhythmic repetition, such as walking, is an ancient type of movement. It dates back 500 million years ago to vertebrate spinal-cord, brain-stem, and cortical-motor areas. "Once initiated," according to Claude Ghez, "the sequence of relatively stereotyped movements may continue almost automatically in reflex-like fashion." Walking stimulates nerve receptors in muscles, tendons, and bones (see above, "Self touch").

As an NT, Joy Jones, put it, "I am in the moment, living the experience, when I am walking." For Autistics, walking is a form of self-stimulation that enables escape from this (NT) world into their own inner world of autism.

This young Aspie visits her Nonverbal World through the alternating rhythmic repetition of walking.

Sense of time

Along with balance, hearing, sight, smell, taste, and touch, human beings have a highly developed sense of time. So time oriented has our species become that we define distance in chronometric terms. By international agreement, ". . . the meter is defined as the distance light travels in 1/299,792,458 of a second" (Itano and Ramsey 1993:64).

Aspies and NTs may have different senses of time.

Sensory cues

Some incoming sensory cues--such as bright lights, sirens, and staring eyes--can lead to sensory overload in Aspergers folk. Stringy foods such as celery--and certain tactile cues, such as fleece--may be avoided as displeasing to the senses.

Visit this Aspie's "peculiar" (in his words) sensory world of incoming visual, auditory, and proprioceptive cues.

Watch "Shopping Mall Overload"

Touch cues

Aspies may not understand why NTs need to reach out and touch during a conversation. NTs may not fathom why Aspies often seem reluctant to touch.

NTs frequently engage each other in "small talk"--"What a beautiful day," "What's happening?" and "How are you?" Small talk has been likened to chimpanzee "grooming talk," as the apes sociably clean and pick through one another's fur with their fingertips and hands. Aspies may not get the point of small talk, nor enjoy its tactile qualities akin to hands-on grooming and vocal "touch."

(More to come . . .)

Thanks for reading! This is an ongoing project and I'll be adding and revising in the weeks and months to come . . . Please stay tuned and help me if you can!


Dave G.