AAC: Gesture…

If you smile at me, I will understand, ‘cause that is something everybody everywhere does in the same language. Lyric from Wooden Ships by Stephen Stills, Paul Kantner, David Crosby 1969

Funny mime in white hat with red flower

Wooden Ships is one of my all-time favorite Crosby, Stills, & Nash songs! I have loved and related to it for decades, and for me it beautifully describes the power of non-verbal communication. People who have suffered strokes, traumatic brain injuries (TBI), or progressive neurological disorders may suddenly find the use of spoken words lost to them! When that happens, non-verbal communication may need to be employed through Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) methods. In my blog, AAC: Hands Just Speak to Me!, I celebrated hands and introduced them as AAC tools. Gesture is one of the most obvious ways this can be accomplished. The thing is, gesture isn’t limited to hands alone, and interpretation of its meaning depends heavily upon the context in which it originates.

For example:

• A smile — as in the lyric — is a form of gesture. We think of it more specifically as facial expression, but it is a gesture generated by the muscles of the face. It can convey a multitude of messages from pleasure, anger, acceptance, despair, grief, joy, reassurance…

• A frown may signal displeasure, pain, worry, frustration…

• A nod of the head can indicate direction e.g. go to the right/left, affirmation, acceptance, pride…

• A wink can be flirtatious, reassurance that all is well, encouragement to keep up the good work…

• A shrug of the shoulders may mean “I give up” or may be interpreted as resignation to an insurmountable situation.

TMachohere are many, many messages conveyed by body language alone during the course of a single day! There is much non-verbal communication when harried drivers share a busy roadway during rush hour! Full conversations may take place between individuals who are so completely separated that there is no way they could engage in an auditory/verbal conversational exchange! Communication is achieved most effectively with exaggerated facial expressions, hand gestures (yes, that “digital salute” comes to mind…), and the use of augmentative devices e.g. blaring horns to convey messages that vary from extreme hostility and anger to regret, apology, and forgiveness.Road Rage Frustration

The point is that the use of gesture is not limited to hands alone. The facial expressions, head nods, smiles or lack thereof, postures, limb movements all convey meaning without the utterance of a single word. In fact, non-verbal messages tend (with exceptions, of course) to cross language, cultural, and socio-economic barriers. To paraphrase Crosby, Stills, & Nash: we all smile in a universal language! This is part of the beauty of gesture as a communication tool!

On the other hand, there is gesture and then there is gesture! This article was about the daily, informal gestures we humans use to communicate non-verbally; however, more formal, complex gesture systems are also employed in AAC. In future post I’ll begin to explore a couple of different types of sign language.

Peace Sign Language


CyndeeBlue2Cynthia Williams Bowen, MS, CCC-SLP owns Bowen Speech-Language Therapy, LLC in Clearwater, FL. Cyndee provides quality, creative, collaborative treatment to adults and adolescents with communication, swallowing, Parkinson’s, and related disorders.

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