Some thoughts on “behavior is communication”

Intro: On Twitter, realsocialskills posted a tweet that led to a conversation about issues with the phrase “behavior is communication,” which is very popular among the autism acceptance movement. Quickly, I found myself frustrated by Twitter’s limited length format which makes it difficult to discuss nuanced issues, so I decided to try to turn the thoughts into a blog post. Please understand that I don’t intend this as a unilateral condemnation of the phrase “behavior is communication” – many autistic advocates use it themselves to good purpose and I genuinely do support the sentiment behind it –  but rather I’m trying to explain why the phrase has made me increasingly uncomfortable as time goes on. 

I’ve had issues with the phrase “behavior is communication” for a while, and I give realsocialskills (who also has a website/Tumblr, which you should check out, by the way!) credit for inspiring me to look at why this phrase has increasingly given me pause recently.

My view is kind of complex and nuanced as reality often is, so I will do my best to explain where I’m coming from. I’m not against the sentiment expressed by “behavior is communication,” but I find the phrase itself a little troublesome, and I’m going to try to explain why. I’ll start with the positives of the phrase: Why it’s useful and why it expresses something that should be held important. Then I’ll look into my issues with the phrase, and at the end maybe try to suggest something that would resolve it.

The idea behind “behavior is communication” is a powerful one: It is the idea that disabled people – even severely disabled people without the ability to reliably communicate through language – have perspectives, thoughts, and desires all their own and have the right to have those around them understand and respect it. The sentiment is that a person never does anything for “no reason” – an autistic kid who head-bangs doesn’t bang their head on things for no reason, there is a reason for that action and if you can find it and stop the cause, you might be able to make them comfortable enough that they don’t have to bang their head any more. The sentiment is also that there is almost no case where someone has “no way” of communicating distress, discomfort, etc – even if they cannot use language or AAC, they can emote and act in ways to try to get their message across. I want to be perfectly clear: I completely support this sentiment. I agree with it entirely.

Behavior genuinely does offer important insight into what’s going on in a person’s head, especially if that person is unable to express it to you (either due to not having sufficient emotional self-awareness, or due to language issues, or due to not having figured out what’s wrong themselves, or, or, or… there are lots of reasons why someone might be unable – or even unwilling! – to reveal what’s going on inside to others. And being unwilling isn’t necessarily a bad thing but that’s fodder for another post). If I am acting as I often do when I am anxious, odds are fairly good that if you respond in a way designed to reduce my anxiety, my mood will improve, even if I don’t know why or how or even that I am anxious (this happens to me sometimes – emotional self-awareness is not really my strong suit). As my mood improves, I will find it less necessary to do anxiety-relieving stims. This is the general idea behind “behavior is communication.”

And sometimes behavior is communication. Let’s go hypothetical mode that comes to mind because I’ve had it happen quite often in recent weeks: Let’s say I’m hit with a really severe coughing fit because I’m sick and have asthma. I can’t talk at all because I’m coughing so hard, and my face is turning colors and I am generally acting very distressed in my breathing (sitting up very straight, bracing myself against something so I can get a better posture for breathing and coughing, face screwing up in my I-can’t-breathe facial expression, etc). If I can tell this is just a normal illness coughing fit and not a dangerous asthma one, I might nod or give you a thumbs-up sign or wave at you with my hands or something until the fit passes to try to communicate with you that I am not in danger. I can’t talk or use AAC right now, but thumbs-up: I am okay, this will pass. I am uncomfortable and distressed, but not in danger. Please don’t worry.

But, and here is where my issues the phrase begin, sometimes behavior is not communication. Returning to the same coughing fit: I am not trying to communicate with you my distress at my breathing when I cough. I am, to be a bit crude, trying to clear the gunk from my lungs. The purpose of coughing is not communication, it’s to preserve breathing ability. Not all behavior is communication. Likewise, I flutter my hands when I am happy. Is that communication? No. It’s just something I do when I’m happy, it’s how my body emotes. Can you use it as input for your communication with me? Yes. But that doesn’t mean my natural body movements are, themselves, communication. I would flutter my hands just as much if I was alone in a room by myself. The hand flutter is not designed to share meaning or thoughts with you. Sometimes behavior is just behavior: a cough is a cough, a hand flutter is a hand flutter, a fidget is a fidget. It’s not intended to communicate anything with you. There is a reason for it, but that reason is not communication.

That does not mean that non-communicative behaviors should be ignored – if I’m coughing so hard that my face turns purple and I can’t talk, please do check on me! Or if my hands are fluttering in my happy way, it certainly won’t harm anything for you to take that as a cue that I’m happy.

What it means is that not everything I do – or any other person with a disability does – centers around you and trying to impart information to you and trying to get you in particular to do something. And this one of my problems with the phrase “behavior is communication”: it is very self-centered. By re-framing someone’s actions as “trying to communicate something to me,” you are basically writing their entire existence to center on you – your actions, your thoughts, your feelings. And the fact is, someone else’s life does not center on you. It centers on them, and that’s okay, just like it’s okay that your life centers on you.

Another issue is that by assuming that someone is trying to communicate something to you with a behavior, you can blindfold yourself to what is actually going on. Say a person is very upset and crying and melting down and biting their hands. If you assume that biting their hands is attempted communication with you, you might think “maybe her teeth hurt, and that’s why she’s so upset!” or “maybe his hand is sore, and that’s why he’s biting it!” or any number of things centered around the person’s mouth and hands. By assuming it’s a purposeful behavior designed to communicate information, you’ve obscured what’s actually going on: Maybe the person bites their hands when they feel ashamed and is melting down because they accidentally broke something special in another room.

Or, lets say there is a person who has a particular hand fidget before they start working on something involving fine motor coordination. If you assume that the hand fidget is about communicating to you, you might think maybe they’re expressing eagerness for the activity, or maybe think that they’re bored and fidgeting because they don’t want to do it anymore. Or, maybe, you think their hand is uncomfortable and start wasting energy for more sensory-friendly stuff to work with when the current stuff is just fine. But maybe the person has sensory and fine-motor issues, and the hand-fidget lets them know where their fingers are (this one is pulled from me – I have a particular hand fidget that I do before I start fine motor work, and I need to do it so that I know where my fingers are). By assuming it’s all about you, you’ve again missed the point of the behavior.

A third example, one I think I’ve used another incident related to this in a blog post before: When I was a kid, I had a thing where having a sore throat was interpreted by my body as an itchy throat and the only way to make the itchy feeling go away was to do a sort of throat-clearing noise. It was a loud and very annoying noise. One day, I had a really bad throat (it was strep throat, turned out) and I was clearing my throat all the time. Literally, at the height I was probably making the throat clearing noise every ten seconds or so. Imagine that for like eight hours straight. My family was understandably aggravated. My parents got really annoyed – what is it, what do you want, stop making that noise, do you want my attention for something, go to your room if you’re not going to stop making that noise. By assuming it was about them, they missed the fact that I was sick. We spent the whole day fighting over the noise and why I couldn’t stop making it, as my throat got worse and worse and I made the noise more and more. Finally, my mom offered me a sore throat lozenge. I’m not really sure why she did – maybe she thought it would shut up the damn noise if I was sucking on something. Once the lozenge took effect, I realized what the problem had been and told her that my throat felt a lot better now. “Now?” – cue my throat getting looked at and oh, geez, we feel really bad now because your throat is covered in blisters, it must really hurt, no wonder you were acting funny all day!

My point with these examples is that by taking a self-centered assumption, you’re setting yourself up to misunderstand and misinterpret non-communicative behavior. If someone is doing something, it might not be about you.

My last issue with “behavior is communication” is that assuming that behavior is intended as communication neglects the disabled person’s agency, by assuming that everything they do centers on someone else. You are essentially assuming that the disabled person has no life outside of you, and there’s no reason why they would want to do something, unless it applies to you. I’m sure I don’t have to explain why I think that’s a problem, but I will just to belabor the point a bit: People with disabilities are people, with rich and varied lives, both internally and externally. The vast majority of what I – or anyone else in this world – does is things that do not center on one particular person.

My point is this: Behavior can be communication, but isn’t always, and to assume it is always communication is disrespectful to the person you’re dealing with, self-centered, and setting yourself up for misunderstandings. A better way to look at it, rather than the absolute “behavior is communication,” is to think “behavior always has a reason.” That’s an absolute I can get behind – because behavior does always have a reason, even if the reason is really quite simple, like me petting the fleecy blanket because I like the feeling of fleece.

10 thoughts on “Some thoughts on “behavior is communication”

  1. “What it means is that not everything I do – or any other person with a disability does – centers around you and trying to impart information to you and trying to get you in particular to do something.”

    I love this. So important!

    I remember once having stress with my mother (I was about 6) and going into my room and self-soothing by playing a 45 single (KC and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way (uh huh uh huh) I Like It”) over and over at high volume. I was entirely doing it to make myself feel better. It had nothing to do with my mother at all. But years later the topic came up and she revealed that she thought I was doing it specifically to try to get her back for the fight and she was actively ignoring it so that I wouldn’t know I had gotten to her. Completely different interpretation of my behavior! It wasn’t about or for her at all! (Other than vicariously as the person with whom conflict had raised my stress level.) IT was all about me and my own self-care.

    • ischemgeek says:

      Yeah. Exactly.

      I’m not saying that “behavior is communication” is bad, necessarily. It’s certainly a damn sight better than assuming someone who can’t use language “can’t communicate at all.” And I do want to emphasize that I pretty much completely agree with the sentiment behind it.

      I just find that stating it as a blanket, without explaining that it’s shorthand for a far more nuanced concept, could be problematic or even dangerous. A situation comes to mind of when I was a kid and had a bad asthma flareup in class and was yawning a lot because yawning is one of my asthma symptoms (along with severe, otherwise-unexplained fatigue – if I am yawning and struggling to keep my eyes open for no apparent reason, odds are pretty good that if I check my peak flow, it’ll be hanging out around 65%). Anyway, the teacher didn’t know my asthma symptoms yet and thought I was trying to communicate to the entire class that I was bored, and ended up keeping me in for detention, which made me get very upset and end up getting sent home after a meltdown because it was before third grade (third grad was when I got the problem kid label – before that I was a teacher’s pet and always praised for how quiet and obedient I was, so getting in trouble at all was upsetting and then actually getting kept in for something that I honestly had no idea what was wrong about was just baffling and felt like a betrayal and I had a meltdown for the first time at school). In reality, I was just having a bad, poor perceiver asthma day. Not about the teacher or the lesson at all, but the teacher’s assumption that it was punished me for having asthma and also led to a meltdown.

      And, I should emphasize: this was a teacher who I really liked and who was really good at his job – he was the first one to raise the autistic flag about me, too. So just goes to show that even really good, well-meaning people can sometimes make this sort of error.

  2. Pixie says:

    I spent much of my childhood unable to communicate via words. And people acted as if either I was unable to communicate anything at all, or *everything* I did was intended as communication. Even now that I can type (some of the time, at least), I still get those two extremes and rarely the in-betweens. Which is weird to me, since I though NTs were the ones always accusing me of being too rigid to accept “shades of grey” in-between things.

    Anyways. This idea that we, as people who “can’t” communicate, are independent people with lives and wills of our own, even the most “educated” specialists I’ve seen don’t believe that no matter how much they argue otherwise. Because even the “good” changes, like behaviour is communication ideal, still dismisses us as fully-sentient people. For exactly all the reasons you wrote here.

    I think I am good at indicating when a behaviour is communication. I know how to get someone’s attention. It is not hard to do, whether I can type or not. Tugging on someone’s shirt or hands is my preferred method, or if it is someone I don’t want to touch then I’ll wave my hands in front of their face. That is a clear sign to even really dense people that I am saying “hey you, pay attention to me right now.” If I didn’t do something like that, then it is very unlikely I am trying to communicate anything to anyone. But my right to a claim to sentience is flimsy and weak, and entirely dependent on my ability to type a coherent sentence on demand. And when I am a non-sentient sub-human, I do not even get the agency and respect that one would give to a cat. Or a hamster. Even from those who think they are educated and smart and compassionate and aware and accepting.

    • ischemgeek says:

      Thank you for this comment. Would you mind if I link people to it in the future? Fact is, I don’t have your perspective (I was mostly verbal most of the time as a kid), so your words are important to me.

      • Pixie says:

        I am sorry I never replied to this. I am really bad with replies. But yes, absolutely you can if you think it would help anyone.

  3. Very interesting and thought provoking post. IMHO it sadly lacks the distinction between communication and miscommunication. Even when being an able bodied normally talking person, you might be misunderstood. (Just for fun: Let’s eat Grandma! vs. Let’s eat, Grandma!)

    By taking the route of communicating through means that are not well trodden we need the other people to make an effort to understand which means what, like humans need to work on understanding nonverbal animals.

    Most people are willing to try. But then we have such abusive idiots such as the people you cite that happen to populate my family as well who somehow think every last thing on this earth is about them. By using unusual coomunication mean with them, their idiocy which is normally held a little more in check by their social experiences through typical communication now comes out full force.

    With other people they may have needed to learn the hard way not everything is about them. They learnt to shut their gob and they learnt what people actually mean when they say their throat hurts. (No dear mother my throat did not decide to hurt ONLY to annoy you…)

    With this disabled person they are in the priviledged powerful position with the ability to make the person with unusual means of communication look weird, mental, broken asf and themselves in true A$ rhethoric ever so sacrificing and noble blabla.

    Its a recipe for desaster and the only solution I have found so far is to cut off every last self serving egocentric unhelpful helper (see here: ) out of my life.

    Once we dealt with the idiot who never knew how to communicate right in the first place we are left with the interesting statement that you made: not all behaviour is communication. I still ponder on that. My first reaction to your cited examples are that your coughing fits ARE communication, namely between your body and your conciousness. Something wrong in the lungs, go fix it frontal lobe…

    Also expressions of happiness and other emotional states (regardless of whether its a smile or flapping hands, meltdowns, tears…) are meant to let other beings know we are happy. I bet if you had a dog it would know you are happy when you flap your hands your happy way. Communication established even if you don’t flap to let said imaginery dog know you are happy but to just express yourself to no one in particular.

    I guess the bottom line on this so far for me is that you do not need to want to communicate to get a message across and that while all behaviour in my mind is still communication it harbours even more potential to be misunderstood especially by people who have their share of issues with healthily connecting to other people. Would love to know what you think.

    • ischemgeek says:

      It lacks the distinction because that’s not what I was writing about – my focus was on why I have issues with the phrase “behavior is communication,” not on what behavior is/isn’t communication (which admittedly is a very interesting and worthy topic of consideration).

      As for the other thing: I believe it comes down to a difference in the definition of communication one adopts. I was using the vernacular definition of communication, meaning purposeful behavior intended to convey information to another. By that definition, body language may be communication (e.g., when I purposefully adopt confident body language as I give a talk to convey to others that I know what I’m talking about), but isn’t necessarily (the hand flap, which I just do because I’m happy and isn’t intentional). Of course, by your definition, it may be used in communication, as I did allow in the writing, but it is not, itself, purposefully intended for communication. Which is exactly my point: I have an issue with assuming that behaviors are purposefully intended for communication.

      As for coughing: An interesting thought that I don’t know enough about human physiology to evaluate. At any rate, the primary purpose of coughing is to remove obstructions from the airway so that you don’t choke or suffocate.

      • Well some bacterica make you cough to spread the disease on (the dry cough on a sore throat, usually followed by coughing up mucus a few days later as dead bacteria are escorted outside 🙂 )

        Pain is afaik solely existing to notify us of some physical issue we have. Some people can’t feel pain at all. They often die very young or loose body parts because they have no warning system. I’m guessing to some extent the other health related symptoms have that function as well (coughing, itching, sneezing…).

        Yes, true it depends on how you define communication. Need to ponder that a while longer, thanks for the well thought out reply. 🙂
        As of now I think you talking about people who are impaired in their ability to gauge purpose. As in is the purpose of flapping your hands to annoy me or does the world not revolve around me and are you maybe just expressing something in general which might have -perish the thought- nothing to do with me at all 😉 (You *could* still purposefully communicate that you are happy by flapping your hands even if much more often than not I’m pretty sure we all just smile and flap our hands because we feel like it, end of the story.)

        My point is, if these people werent so impossibly self involved and would assume that not everything is all about them wouldnt many of your issues with the “behaviour is communication” disappear? After all I can’t imagine a scenario where the distinction between purposeful expression of happiness and let’s call it purposeless expression of happiness is causing anything but a rather cerebral debate…?

  4. Bigger On The Inside says:

    This is really interesting. I think, in the end, it probably does come down to semantics. All behaviour is communication, in the sense that anything I do tells you something about me (even if it is just I’m breathing = I’m alive). But not all behaviour is *intentional* communication.
    For instance, I’m somebody who cries at the drop of a hat. I can’t help it, and I don’t do it intentionally (in fact, I almost always try not to do it), but it’s just the way I’m made. When I was a child, people usually interpreted it as some kind of attention-seeking behaviour: “there she goes, turning on the waterworks again…” (I imagine that some people probably think the same thing now I’m an adult, but it’s not quite so socially acceptable to say it to my face nowadays.)
    I’m absolutely not able to “turn on” tears, any more than I’m capable of stopping them. I don’t cry to communicate anything to anybody else – in fact, often I don’t realise that I’m sad/angry/in pain *until* I start crying. If anything, tears serve as communication from one part of my brain to another.
    Looking back, it’s difficult to believe that anyone would ignore or dismiss a child showing obvious signs of being in distress, and yet I know that it happened. A lot. By presuming that my crying was intentional communication, adults were able to shirk the much harder job of helping me to work out what was wrong, and maybe even helping me to put it right.

    • ischemgeek says:

      You understand my issue. Behavior-is-communication often seems to be interpreted by those who don’t understand the concept it exists as shorthand for as, “behavior is intentional communication.” Which… no.

      And yeah, I’m the same way – I have a low cry threshold for anger and frustration especially (weirdly, I can be immensely sad and not cry at all, but stubbing my toe on an otherwise-aggravating day will have me in tears), and so I used to get, “It’s nothing to cry about.” and “stop being oversensitive” and “waterworks” types of comments a lot. When It was nothing I was doing intentionally, that was just how my body emoted those emotions (even now, people often mistake my anger for sadness or hurt because I’ll start crying).

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