Thursday, November 4, 2010
Facial expressions and autism
I can't tell you how many times I've been asked "why are you angry?". The point here is that I had no idea I was angry in the first place. That would be because I wasn't angry at all. It's just something my face does without my notice.
In autism, it's not unusual to have facial expressions go awry. The way I see it, there are three reasons for this.
1: Lack of control over facial expression in the first place. It's like having a connection that just doesn't work from our emotions to the way we show them on our faces. This doesn't always work the same every day. Like anything else, there are good days and bad. This also doesn't work with every emotion the same. Sometimes we can show various emotions just fine while others don't come out quite right. It can be hit and miss.
2: We aren't reacting to what you think. Think of a car accident. Everyone reacts with typical shock at the sudden disaster. Everyone except the autistic person who is laughing. Everyone assumes they are laughing at the car accident, but they aren't. They've noticed something that took their attention away from the scene of the car accident. That's because of how hard it is to filter information. Every tiny thing around us demands our attention and our brains are trying to process it in one giant bite all at once. To that autistic person, the thing that made them laugh is just as loud and demanding of attention as that car accident is to everyone else.
3: Sensory experience. I knew of a child who would scrunch up his face over and over again. When asked why, he honestly replied it just felt weird. Sometimes, what you are seeing has nothing to do with emotion at all. It may be as simply defined as a tic or form of stimming. I believe stimming is highly attached to sensory experience. It's calming and soothing, maybe even fun. On of my son's stims is literally running in circles. He sometimes does it with a great deal of giggling and laughing. He must be having a good time right? So if someone stims by face scrunching or eyebrow movements, it's safe to say it's about the same (I think).
With those examples in hand, I think it's safe to advise not to take an autistic's facial expressions too seriously or to heart. What can you do? The best plan of action is to simply get to know that person. After all, they are a person at the bottom line and that's the best way to understand how they personally feel about anything. I've been told by neurotypical people that it's "normal" to have your quirks. Well, if that's true, why so much confusion? If you want to know what any persons quirks are, get to know them. This is true in the light of any condition or disorder. The main idea is understanding and not blaming someone for what their condition or disorder causes.
Facial expression is a major factor in non-verbal communication. That could make getting to know that person a little tricky or awkward. But if you subscribe to the idea that it's okay for everyone to have their quirks, I'm sure you can manage.
Photo credit: My son showing me his loose tooth last year.