Most experienced parents and teachers are well aware that children with NLD and Asperger’s don’t pick up on nonverbal cues. Most often the focus (and intervention) is on cues having to do with facial expression, body language and gesture. What many don’t realize is that tone of voice is also a nonverbal cue that is often misinterpreted. 

I’ve had AS and NLD children (and adults) who read many tones of voice as mad or negative in some way. I have a 10 year old boy who constantly complained that his parents yelled at him. When I met with him together with his parents, I found that if they spoke in an urgent (we need to go now) or even a serious but not angry tone of voice, he immediately accused them of yelling. His reaction to feeling yelled at was to become immediately upset and yell back, at which point his parents did start yelling at him and a fight resulted.

Another critical aspect of tone is understanding inferences and sarcasm. One could say “Get out of here” in a way that is unfriendly, or one could say the same words with a tone that is teasing, meaning “I can’t believe that.” Children (and adults) who miss that tone can’t tell if someone is teasing, and again, they can assume a negative intention. Or, frequently, they’re mystified when others laugh because they don’t get the humor.

Those with NLD and AS can also be unaware of their own tone of voice as well as that of others. I worked with an adult who wanted to teach, and he tended to talk in a monotone even when he was excited. I worked with a teenager who sounded aloof even when he didn’t intend to; his tone tended to go up in a way that sounded impatient. Parents, families and teachers get angry when they perceive someone’s tone as rude.

There are ways of helping. A Speech and Language Therapist can work with someone, helping them listen to and identify different intonations. Role playing saying the same word with different feelings is helpful. Volume can be practiced by experiencing oneself or someone else go through a variety of different volumes, sometimes at different distances.

With the aspiring teacher, I videotaped him telling a story about his favorite activity and we watched it together. He retold the story, learning each time about using different pitches and pauses to emphasize important parts of his story, allowing his voice to rise when something was exciting and go lower when ending. I’m happy to report that he did extremely well, and ultimately was able to tell a story to his class very effectively.

It’s important to intervene not only with the people with AS or NLD, but also with those who are interacting with them. Often, the listeners interpret the tone of the AS speaker as being rude or hostile when this isn’t intended. Rather than making that assumption, it’s much better to clarify what’s being said and the intent. They can also recognize when the AS individual is misinterpreting them, and correct rather than respond to the feeling.This helps keep situations from escalating.

People seem to respond immediately to tone of voice. Even when families, parents or teachers are aware of the problem, it can take time for them to “get” when it’s happening, so I find teachers, families and individuals with AS or NLD reacting to each other rather than understanding. Happily, there are ways to improve this, which makes communication more accurate and effective.

Photo by teamaskins