For posts on bullying, visit The Learn to be Buddies Series Blog.
All images and posts written by and copyright to Amanda Clements (nee Gray) 2009-2012 unless otherwise indicated.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Facial Expressions, Body Language and Empathy

Billy was building a road out of blocks.
“Hey, Billy! Can I play?” Tim said eagerly.
Billy smiled, “Sure, you can play!”
“What can I do?” Tim asked.
Billy pointed to the end of the road, giving Billy a toy car. “Just sit over there.”
“Okay!” Tim said as he sat in the indicated space and started running his car along the block road.

Billy was building a road out of blocks.
“Hey, Billy! Can I play?” Tim asked shyly.
“Sure you can play!” Billy replied sarcastically, looking at Tim with a sneer.
“What can I do?” Tim asked falteringly.
“Just sit over there.” Billy pointed to the very edge of the mat, out of reach of the road and any blocks.
“Okay.” Tim sat in the indicated spot and watched as Billy turned away to continue building the block road.
(Image copyright Daniel East 2008. Illustration is part of the children's book, Dave is Brave, written by Amanda Gray. Visit for more information.)

Body Language, Facial Expressions and Empathy

These two vignettes illustrate how the same words, used in different ways, can hold very different meaning. That’s because communication isn’t just about the words we use. It is about how we use them.

The same words can have a very different meaning depending on what facial expressions, tone of voice and body language we use. These things let others know what we really mean, or the intent of our words.

There are also many unspoken rules we need to follow when we are communicating to get our message across successfully. For example, we speak differently to a friend that we would to our boss. We also need to take turns, keep to the topic of conversation and use conventions like “I have to go now” to end our conversations.

These things all combine to give us the social context of language and are referred to as pragmatics (Scott Lue, 2001, MacKay, 2000). If a child has difficulty with pragmatics their success in interacting with others will be affected. Not only will they misunderstand others’ communication efforts, but they may struggle to get their message across without misunderstandings, hurt and frustration.

For example, as we speak to and interact with others we use their facial expressions and body language to help interpret how they are feeling or reacting to us. As we empathise we adapt our behaviour (McKay, 2000). So pragmatics helps us tell when someone is not interested in what we are saying, and we stop talking. Or it helps us realise if our actions or words are hurtful. It can also help us recognise jokes, sarcasm or bullying.

But not all children learn these skills in the same way.

Children who may struggle to learn pragmatics

To learn the pragmatics of language you need to be able to see, hear and concentrate. You need to be able to analyse, remember and adapt what you have learnt to new situations. You need literacy skills such as knowledge of words, grammar and how context changes a word’s meaning. And you need to be able to guess at other people’s attitudes and recognise someone else’s point of view (Anderson, 2000).

Children who have vision impairments can miss body language and facial expressions (Scott Lue, 2001). Taking turns in conversations may be hard as their ability to use eye-contact may be limited. They may need to develop other signals to help their friends know they are listening.

For children with hearing impairments, developmental delays and language disorders learning new words and concepts may be difficult. They may struggle with finding the right words to match their body language and gestures so they can get their message across (Anderson, 2000).

Children with attention deficit disorders may find it hard to keep eye-contact and pay attention when interacting. They may miss important facial expressions and body language, thus missing how their words and actions may be affecting another person (Sinzig, Morsch & Lehmkuhl, 2008).

Children with developmental delays, such as children with Down Syndrome, may struggle with the complex process of analysing, remembering and adapting what they have learnt in one situation to be used in new situations (Buckley, Bird & Sacks, 2002; NSW Council for Intellectual Disability, 2006). So they may find it hard to interpret body language and facial expressions they are not familiar with.

But the children we read about most often as struggling with pragmatics are children with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) (Scott, Clark & Brady, 2000).

Autism Spectrum Disorders

Children with Autism may have difficulties learning to speak. Children with Aspergers Syndrome may have a big vocabulary and speak well, but struggle with the pragmatics of language. But in both cases, their key difficulties will include:

  • making eye contact
  • recognising and responding to facial expressions, tone of voice and body language
  • taking turns and
  • empathising (Scott, Clark & Brady, 2000).

For example, a child with autism spectrum disorders may keep bringing the conversation back to their area of interest even if it is not relevant to the conversation. They may not show interest in what the other person is saying. They may echo or imitate a question they have been asked rather than respond to it.

Teaching pragmatics

We usually develop our knowledge about the rules of communication and socialisation by observing, practising and applying past experiences to our interactions (Scott Lue, 2001; MacKay, 2000). We start learning these skills as a baby when we first make eye contact with our parents. But, as previously mentioned, children with a range of different difficulties will not learn these skills in the same way. For these children it is about explicit teaching.

We can do this in many different ways. I won’t discuss this now as I think I can sense from your body language that you may be losing interest :-). But in the coming weeks I will blog about how modelling, prompts, rewards, pictures and social stories can help children with a range of disabilities learn to recognise, interpret and develop body language, facial expressions and empathy.


Anderson, C. (2000). Pragmatic Communication Difficulties. In G. MacKay and C. Anderson (Eds), Teaching Children with Pragmatic Difficulties of Communication, pp24-38.

Buckley, SJ., Bird, G., and Sacks, B. (2002) Social Development of Individuals with Down Syndrome – An Overview. Retrieved 10th April 2009 from

MacKay, G. (2000). Actions and interactions: the roots of pragmatic communication. In G. MacKay and C. Anderson (Eds), Teaching Children with Pragmatic Difficulties of Communication, pp6-23.

NSW Council for Intellectual Disability (2006). What is Intellectual Disability? Retrieved 10th April 2009 from

Scott, J., Clark, C. and Brady, M. (2000). Students with Autism: Characteristics and Instruction Programming. Singular Publishing group: California.

Scott Lue, M. (2001) A survey of Communication Disorders for the Classroom Teacher. Allyn and Bacon: Boston.

Sinzig, J., Morsch, D. and Lehmkuhl, G. (2008) Do hyperactivity, impulsivity and inattention have an impact on the ability of facial affect recognition in children with autism and ADHD? European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 17(2) pp 63-72.


Sue April 12, 2009 at 10:44 AM  

Hi Amanda,
I am a Special ed teacher in Victoria. I found you while looking at 'Joey's Moms' blog. I will check back in on your blog to see how it is developing. I will be very interested in seeing and hearing about how inclusion is being taught at Uni level. I have so many kids in my class that would be great candidates for inclusion but the schools are often ill prepared or unwilling to take on the challenge. Good luck with it!
I have a teacher blog which is linked to my 'Junior Crew' class blog if you would like to check out what we are up to.

About This Blog

You are welcome to browse as you like... but please remember that everything here is copyrighted. To receive printable copies of articles that you can hand out to others, subscribe to the Learn to be Buddies newsletter at

Copyright Amanda Gray 2009-11

  © Blogger templates The Professional Template by 2008

Back to TOP