Most of us don't realize the extent to which we communicate without words. We rely on our speaking, listening, reading, and writing abilities to interact with the people and the world around us, and we believe that these conduits effectively convey all our thoughts, feelings, and intents. In fact, approximately 70% of communication is accomplished nonverbally, based on the facial expressions, hand and body gestures, and intonation that supplement, or at times supplant, the words we use. "This is so much fun" becomes a sarcastic comment when accompanied by raised eyebrows, upward gazing eyes, and flat intonation, but conveys enthusiasm and delight with a smile and rising pitch.
The natural process by which children learn these implicit codes is remarkable, especially when these feats are held against the difficulties observed in abnormally developing populations. The devastating effects of social and pragmatic deficits in children along the autistic spectrum, for example, show just how critical nonverbal cues are to meaningful communication. An interaction without appropriate eye contact loses its sense of intimacy; words conveyed without a natural-sounding tune can sound stilted or insincere; and the inability to interpret cues such as a "thumbs up" gesture, a shrug, or a smile can create all kinds of social misunderstandings and general awkwardness.
Calling attention to these cues during a conversation or other activities is an obvious but very effective method of teaching nonverbal communication skills to individuals with autism, Asperger's syndrome, acquired brain damage, or other diagnoses associated with poor social skills. What is normally implicit can also be made explicit by practicing natural intonation patterns during interactive book reading, preparing plays, or analyzing cartoons. TV shows and movies can become wonderfully educational by muting the volume and interpreting characters' feelings based on their body movements or facial expressions. Most importantly, use opportunities that present themselves every day to clarify this mysterious code for those struggling to perceive it - help them appreciate the infinite world of communication that exists beyond words!