Interpreting Verbal and Non-Verbal Cues

By Marlena N. Smith

In a recent study, Kuzmanovic, Schilbach, Lehnhardt, Bente, and Vogeley found adults with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders (ASD) to depend primarily on verbal cues, rather than nonverbal cues, when interpreting social situations. Research has indicated that persons with ASD have difficulty processing non-verbal social information. Kuzmanovic et al. set out to investigate how persons with high-functioning ASD interpret social information, specifically verbal and non-verbal social cues.

Participants included 15 adults with high-functioning ASD and 15 adults with typical development matched on gender, age, education, and IQ. The participants completed two tasks. First, the participants interpreted complex social situations involving verbal cues in addition to either agreeing or disagreeing non-verbal cues. The participants also interpreted basic social situations consisting of a single verbal or non-verbal cue.

The participants with high-functioning ASD performed comparably to the participants with typical development when interpreting individual verbal and non-verbal social cues, as well as verbal cues accompanied by agreeing non-verbal cues. Moreover, both the participants with high-functioning ASD and the participants with typical development depended more on verbal information than non-verbal information when interpreting disagreeing social cues; however, the participants with high-functioning ASD were found to be significantly more reliant upon verbal cues than the participants with typical development.

While the participants with high-functioning ASD were able to interpret individual non-verbal cues, they depended mostly on verbal cues when interpreting complex social situations. The findings suggest that social information processing in persons with high-functioning ASD is primarily centered on verbal indicators. Further research investigating the cognitive processes involved in the interpretation of social situations in persons with ASD is warranted.


Kuzmanovic, B., Schilbach, L., Lehnhardt, F., Bente, G., & Vogeley, K. (in press) A matter of words: Impact of verbal and nonverbal information on impression formation in high-functioning autism. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. doi: 10.1016/j.rasd.2010.07.005

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