I was watching the Republican debate the other evening with my 16-year-old son. About ten minutes into it, he turned to me and said, “I cannot believe that no one has punched Donald Trump in the face.” After watching Mr. Trump’s posturing, antics and very purposeful lack of social filter, I had to wonder the same thing. Now I don’t believe for a minute that Mr. Trump is unaware of how he perceived or that what he says is unintentionally tactless. In fact, I think he very purposefully uses his communicative “style” as an attention grabber and knows the value of a shocking sound bite. His crass act has a communicative function to seek attention and start people talking. He also knows that his baiting comments and rude body language are going to engage the other candidates and incite emotional responses (interestingly, very much like many of the EBD students I work with).
As a SLP fascinated by social language, I started to watch the non-verbals going on with the candidates: Dr. Carson using his eyebrows to punctuate his very soft-spoken points, Ted Cruz’s laser eye gaze locked on the camera and not on the people asking the questions, Jeb Bush’s non-aggressive posture, and of course Donald Trump’s direct leaning in towards those he was insulting. I heard a snippet on the radio the next day by Dr. Patrick Stewart from the University of Arkansas. He is a political science expert and is a certified Facial Action Coding System coder specializing in reading facial expressions and emotional responses in followers and leaders.
Dr. Stewart looks at several different parts of non-verbal language which he noted accounts for 90% of communicative intent (words are the other 10%). He stated that non-verbals are how we influence others to do things we want them to do (I love that succinct description). The areas of non-verbals he analyzes include: facial expressions (including overt and micro-expressions*), body language, proxemics (how close or far away you are), haptics (touching) and vocalics ( verbal sounds, such as when your mom clears her throat to get your attention). Micro-expressions are the immediate feeling that shows up on someone’s face, even without them thinking about it, but are usually controlled quickly. Dr. Stewart often reviews video and looks frame by frame to see them, and finds these micro-expressions when the person is not speaking in a debate and the camera is not on them. Here is a link to a fascinating research article Dr. Stewart authored on Presidential Speechmaking Style .
I think the debates are a fabulous way to work with older students on reading non-verbal language, identifying emotions and figuring out if what someone is saying matches the context of what they are showing. Donald Trump is such an over the top persona it might be easier to start with him versus someone more controlled and practiced, like Marco Rubio. I wrote a blog last Fall about campaign commercials and how to align the study of campaign ads to the common core (7th-12th grade) and questions to use to determine persuasion, bias, point of view, main idea and truth in context HERE.
For your middle or high school students with high functioning ASD, identifying and practicing the areas that Dr. Stewart mentions, facial expressions, body language, proxemics, haptics, vocalics and tone of voice, is like learning a new language. It’s not learned incidentally, but step by step with a lot of repetition! However, by teaching these skills, the long-term goal is that we are going to help them figure out meaning in communicative context with their peers and gain understanding as to how they are being received based on what they are doing and by what they are saying.
Between the debates and campaign adds to come, you will have enough social language material to last several months. You could even work with your Social Studies/History teacher to turn this into a collaborative lesson plan! So search Youtube for video clips, turn off the sound on a debate video and let the students guess what the candidates are feeling. Have them make note of how they stand, the gestures they use, facial expressions, even the color of their face (Mr. Kasich tended to get very flushed and move a lot when he was frustrated). We have a long Presidential season ahead with many more debates to come. I am looking forward to the gold mine of social language learning that comes with it!! As for the best candidate for President? Well, let’s just say that’s up for debate…