Language and Communication

Module 3, Class 3: Rhythm and Interpersonal Communication (with particular reference to ASD)

The group of students presenting this module on the role of rhythm in communities began by considering the role of rhythm in African-American and Caribbean communal identity-construction and protest in order to introduce the ways in which rhythm functions to both hold people together and keep them apart. The prevalence of rhythm in African and later North American Black cultures in such communal identity-construction makes this a helpful place to begin for understanding the social dimensions of rhythm. However, the group’s objective was ultimately to introduce the ways in which rhythm is a part of all relationships, not only at a larger, communal level but also between particular individuals.

The difficulty, however, is that we are not usually aware of the rhythms involved in our day-to-day interactions. They are the carrier-waves of those interactions and are indispensable for indexing emotional and social meaning and keeping the conversation going, but we are not often aware of them and they are difficult to notice and measure. Some researchers, particularly Elizabeth Couper-Kuhlen and Peter Auer, have begun to measure the rhythms of conversation scientifically but this requires parsing conversations quite elaborately in ways that can be confusing to follow.

Instead, Phoebe Caldwell’s research on communication with non-verbal persons with Autism Spectrum Disorder is remarkably helpful for understanding the role of rhythm in interpersonal relationships more intuitively. According to Caldwell, those with ASD will often create repetitive patterns in order to focus their attention, thereby protecting an over-stimulated brain. This is essentially talking to one’s self through repetitive rhythms of speech or gesture. Communication is only possible by entering into this self-talk by repetition of the individual’s rhythms. For example, responding to the rhythm of finger-tapping with a similar pattern sets up a communication within a safe sensory space.[1] Repeating a rhythm opens a way out of the distressed person’s world because it feeds information back that is familiar rather than threatening.

Once this connection has been established, rhythms can then be subtly altered, introducing surprises into the conversation. [2] This is a highly controlled form of communication in which the communicator must learn a new language by entering into the world of the autistic individual, and in this case the connection is created through the imitation of rhythm alone, by doing the work of figuring out the rhythm that has been devised to protect an overstimulated brain.[3] However, the eventual purpose is to direct the attention of the individual outside his or her own internal processes thereby enabling to connect with someone in the outside world.

Imitative repetitions, and variation on such repetitions, are part of how rhythmic connection works. Communication in the case of ASD is literally only possible through the synchronizations of rhythms because it is this imitation that communicates empathy, that one is entering into the experience of the other. Through this repetition, one says, “I am here with you in this rhythm, in this language.” It is through this empathy that the ASD patient is then able to transcend his or her rhythmic-loop into new rhythmic variations. However, this is simply a more slowed-down and formalized version of a process that occurs in all successful human interaction. In empathy, we not only acknowledge the experience of another but we enter into the other’s experiential space ourselves precisely through rhythmic repetition and imitation. Rhythm makes this possible because its emotive associations are based in the imitation of the bodily movements that accompany affect.

This research on communication with those with ASD suggests not only the process of rhythm in communication, but also perhaps a particular reason that communication often breaks down, that barriers exist between people of different communities. Phoebe Caldwell’s approach to ASD was unique at the time she started. The focus instead has often seemed to be on requiring those with ASD to adapt to our rhythms rather than a willingness to adapt to theirs. If you watch videos of intensive interaction (another name for Caldwell’s approach), which the students showed in class, imitation of the movements of those with ASD can appear to us impolite or distasteful to us but what is remarkable is that you can also see from the videos that such imitation is in fact successful in establishing a connection. This makes me wonder how many other situations exist in which entering into the rhythms of another’s world or community might establish better relationships, and how many barriers have been erected by an unwillingness to do so.



[1] Phoebe Caldwell, Finding You, Finding Me: Using Intensive Interaction to Get in Touch with People with Severe Learning Disabilities Combined with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, 105.

[2] Rowan Williams, The Edge of Words, 95-96.

[3] Ibid., 98.

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