The dictionary definition for ‘wink’ is ‘to close and open one eye quickly, typically to indicate that something is a joke or a secret or as a signal of affection or greeting’.

When my daughter was little, she was desperate to be able to wink. She’d stand in front of the mirror, pulling all sorts of strange and wonderful faces, blinking (not winking) enthusiastically, and asking, “Did I do it that time?”, “Did I get it?”

At age 7, she can now wink (coordinate closing and opening one eye quickly) but is struggling to grasp when to drop this non-verbal communication into her interactions with others. In short, she’s winking like it’s going out of fashion. It’s even more entertaining than it sounds, as she’s adopted an exaggerated comedy wink as her wink of choice. It’s anything but subtle.

Currently, her primary use for a wink is to try to cover a lie, in the same way you might cross your fingers behind your back whilst saying something that isn’t true. There have been instances where she’s come close to using a wink in the right context but has missed the mark, and I’ve struggled to explain why. I’ve had to go back to that dictionary definition to remind myself what a wink is typically used to communicate to try to explain it to her.

So why am I talking winking? Well in part because it made me smile, but I also think it’s helpful to reflect on the fact that the subtleties of non-verbal communication can be tricky to grasp for children, not just those with a social communication difficulty. We learn non-verbal communication by watching others, experimenting, and then gauging our success by the response we get. This means that adults in the school environment play a significant role in helping children by providing feedback ‘in the moment’ and by utilising natural opportunities to explicitly explain non-verbal signs that you might use to indicate something that is unsaid.

My daughter is a typically developing 7-year-old. It’s interesting to see her go through the process of observing verbal and non-verbal communication in the world around her and attempting to make use of it in her own communication. The newly acquired wink is just one strand of that. I’m sure she’ll drop it quickly so I’m going to enjoy it whilst it lasts.

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