I was talking with another parent yesterday and they were explaining how their child gets very upset whenever they see another person who is upset or sad or angry. It got me thinking about social cues.
My first thought was: why don't I get upset when I see someone crying? I may feel sad. If it's a heart-tugging commercial or poignant situation, I may even have tears well up. But I don't begin to get anxious and sad myself every time I see someone who is upset. So what's the difference?
I'm no expert, but I think the difference lies in the social cues. Even as a child, I could look at another child crying and see: are the adults going to comfort him or her? I could distinguish between mad-crying and sad-crying. I could tell if there was something I needed to be upset about as well. There were dozens of cues I could pick up to determine if this situation was something I needed to worry about.
Imagine not having that. Every tear is a potential signal of an explosive tantrum. Or a dangerous situation. Without signals to the contrary, it's bewildering and overwhelming. There's no predicting what will happen next and humans do not do well in a state of uncertainty. It's one of the most reliable torture techniques.
The state of uncertainty would provoke a lot of tantrums and acting-out as the child desperately tries to make sense. It would encourage them to find artificial means of control, just to reduce the amount of chaos.
It makes me wonder how much of the challenges of autism can be boiled down to not being able to pick up social cues? It's something which neurotypical people do so thoroughly that we forget that the signs aren't actually obvious.
On the other hand, the signs are there. They can be taught. Even a child can be taught to look for certain telltale signs to help them to interpret what's going on around them. Maybe this is a potential therapy option for kids with autism, something which can be taught early on enough to allow them to proceed in a much less frightening world.
I'm not an expert. I don't know if my musings here are old hat, long worn out by autism workers, or if there's actually something to this. I've personally tried (and continue to try) to teach my kids various body language and facial signals so they can interact appropriately. Will it help? I won't know for years, not until they're adults.
But it's definitely something interesting to think about.