Communicative Intent

Unlike adults, children are often unable to describe their feelings in words. Therefore it is common for children to express themselves through their behavior, particularly if the emotions they experience are intense and/or unpleasant. This behavioral form of communication is known as "communicative intent of behavior" (Coggins, Olswang, & Guthrie, 1987). Unfortunately, many parents and well-meaning professionals misinterpret and react inappropriately to the child's behavior while failing to recognize the behavior's communicative intent. Misinterpreting child behavior is particularly problematic for professionals seeking to develop accurate diagnoses and effective treatment plans during clinic visits that are hurried and focused on the presenting problems. In addition, child behavior during these visits may be artificial because the setting is unfamiliar and may even frighten the child.

It is important for healthcare providers to remember that children and adults with autism, as well as other conditions affecting communication skills, may use nonverbal communication to an even greater extent than typically observed.