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Recognizing and Expressing Emotions: It's Complicated

Learning about pragmatic communication can help us help neuroatypical children.

Key points

  • We all express and recognize emotions using facial expression, body posture, gestures, voice tone, and touch.
  • Neurotypical people tend to use these kinds of non-verbal cues quickly and automatically.
  • Neuroatypical people tend to use these non-verbal cues relatively slowly and deliberately – with much effort.
  • Better understanding can help us see all brains and social abilities, typical and atypical, as awesome.

We express our emotions and recognize them in others using facial expressions – this is obvious. What is, perhaps, less immediately obvious is that we also recognize and express emotions using body postures and gestures, voice tones, and touch.

Each emotion is conveyed and appraised via its own signature combination of facial expressions, body postures and gestures, voice tones, and touch. While there is overlap between the ways emotions are expressed, most neurotypical people can tell when someone is experiencing shame versus pride, disgust versus enjoyment, fear versus contentment, anger versus gratitude, etc.

Furthermore, most of us recognize and express emotions mostly quickly and automatically – without consideration or deliberation. Imagine what it might be like to struggle to recognize and express emotions, or at least struggle to do so quickly and automatically.

Pragmatic Communication and Theory of Mind

Using facial expressions, body postures, voice tones and touch to recognize and express emotions is, in part, what psychologists mean when they are talking about ‘pragmatic communication’ – a term frequently used when discussing autism and social (pragmatic) communication disorder.

‘Pragmatic communication’ modifies and adds meaning to ‘semantic communications’ (spoken word meanings) when we make a request, ask for or offer help, coordinate attention, direct someone to act, indicate what we want or are trying to do, and more. Pragmatic communication helps us predict and anticipate other’s behaviors and helps us help others predict and anticipate ours.

Having some sense of a communication partners intention and motivation, reasons for doing or not doing things, what they are trying to convey to us or get us to do is, or how they are reacting to us is, in large part, what psychologist mean by ‘theory-of-mind’, another autism and social (pragmatic) communication disorder related term.

‘Encoding’ and ‘Decoding’ Emotions Experiments

In one study, some participants (the ‘encoders’) were asked to imagine scenes that elicit specific emotions and then videotaped as they demonstrated how they would communicate, non-verbally, those emotions to others. These videos were then shown to other study participants (the ‘decoders’).

In another study, an encoder (the toucher) and a decoder (the touchee) sat at a table separated by a curtain, which prevented all communication between them other than touch. In yet another study, ‘encoders’ were asked to produce vocal bursts (sounds but not words) to communicate each emotion. Audio of these vocal bursts were then presented to a second set of participants who were asked to 'decode' them.

These studies found that most people can (mostly) accurately encode and decode, and thus convey and identify, emotions in these nonverbal ways. These studies did not compare neurotypical people to people diagnosed with autism or social (pragmatic) communication disorder. Those of us who live or work with children with these children well know, though, that they find it harder to successfully encode and decode emotions using nonverbal cues.

Why can some people do this easily and others struggle? It’s Biologically – Brain - Based

Most neurotypical people can encode and decode emotions relatively easily, automatically, and accurately. These abilities are biologically – brain – based. We know these abilities are biological – brain – based because:

  • They are universal, that is present in all typical people growing up in typical social environments in all places and cultures all around the world.
  • They are present, to some extent, in closely related species (e.g., chimpanzees and bonobos)
  • There are sensory-motor precursors and tendencies – some partial abilities and abilities to learn - present at birth (newborns tend to focus on and react preferentially to faces and voices in the first moments of life, for example).
  • They develop in predictable, uniform, stages that build one upon the other (in interaction with social environments, of course, and there is some normal variation among the universality).
  • They can be lost when some brain systems, but not others, are damaged by injuries, tumors, or infections.
  • They correspond to distinct neural activation patterns, as identified by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans.

The brains of people diagnosed with autism or social (pragmatic) communication disorder tend to be structurally and functionally different from those of neurotypical people. Brain structures and systems involved in expressing and reading emotions tend not to develop in typical ways. They may be able to encode and decode emotions and other pragmatic communications, but only slowly and deliberately, with much effort, using ‘work arounds’ – alternate brain structures and systems.

It’s Complicated – And Awesome

Quickly and automatically encoding and decoding emotional expressions and using these and other pragmatic communications to develope a sense of what someone else is thinking and intending are incredibly complicated processes. It is amazing that we can do any of this at all. Our abilities to do these things, typically or atypically, are something of a miracle.

The phrase ‘quickly and automatically’ is key to understanding the experience of people diagnosed with autism or social (pragmatic) communication disorder. Many of the neurodevelopmentally atypical people in my practice somehow, sometimes, or even often, figure out other people’s pragmatic communications and perspectives, at least well enough to function at school, at work, or on their families. They don’t, however, do this quickly and automatically but instead slowly and deliberately, with much effort. What do they say when I ask them what this is like? The most frequent response: “it’s exhausting”.

Many of the neuro-developmentally atypical people in my practice are working harder than their peers – classmates and coworkers – to, at least somewhat or perhaps mostly, successfully read and express emotions and get through their day. I experience these people and their efforts as awesome. I invite you to experience the neurodevelopmentally atypical people in your life as awesome as well.


Rogers, S. J., Vismara, L. A., and Dawson, G. (2021). Coaching parents of young children with autism. NY: The Guilford Press.

Shiota, M. N., Campos, B., Oveis, C., Hertenstein, M. J., Simon-Thomas, E., & Keltner, D. (2017). Beyond happiness: Building a science of discrete positive emotions. American Psychologist, 72(7), 617–643.

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