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Hi, I’m Craig Kendall, the author of The Asperger’s Syndrome Survival Guide. In today’s issue we will discuss…

Autism Symptoms 101
Tips on How to Read Facial Expressions

Ask any person with autism or any autism parent, and they will tell you that a major autism symptom is difficulty with facial expressions. This challenge includes both reading facial expressions and being aware of and controlling one’s own facial expressions.

It is pretty widely known that people with autism have trouble reading other people’s facial expressions. Often they will be able to get basic emotions like happy and sad, especially if they are exaggerated. Some TV shows, especially shows like Mr. Bean, can actually help teach emotions because the emotions on these shows are so exaggerated. Not being able to read emotions on other people’s face can be one of the more challenging autism symptoms, because people use so much nonverbal language to communicate.

In fact, some studies indicate that as much as 80% of communication between humans is nonverbal. This means through the exchange of facial expressions and the way one holds or moves their body. But what if you were blocked from all that communication, completely unaware of it? Both the signals others were sending you and the ones you were putting out? How then would your ability for communication, your ability to understand the other person, change? The answer is, quite substantially.

While much attention is focused on the autism symptoms that have to do with reading emotions on other people’s faces, less is focused on the ability of the person with autism to regulate their own emotional expression.

Autism Symptoms Include Trouble Regulating One’s Own Facial Expressions

But it’s true. Many people with autism are completely unaware of their own facial expression. In fact, the most common comment most people with autism get every day are things like “Are you angry with me?” “What’s wrong?” and “Cheer up!” because many people with autism have a consistently blank, neutral facial expression. This can make other people uncomfortable because they then cannot read what the other person is thinking. It can also make the person with autism seem quite unapproachable, even if they’re thinking “I wish that person would come up and talk to me!”

One person who posts on the WrongPlanet.net message board attests to this issue, “It has been an irritation to me since I was a child as I would get annoyed and frustrated because people would constantly misjudge my mood and as a result misjudge me. I often wonder if that’s why my doctor keeps thinking I am depressed when I am actually not feeling depressed or sad at all.” (www.wrongplanet.net)

Autism Symptoms with Facial Expression Difficulty Can Affect Medical Care

Many people with autism, kids and adults alike, don’t have facial expressions that match what they’re feeling inside. They may laugh at inappropriate times, or seem upset when they’re not. They may not seem upset when they actually are quite upset. The important thing to remember when working with someone with autism is to look beyond the facial expressions. The person with autism is generally not aware of what their face is doing.

Sometimes this makes it hard to get people to take them seriously. There is a very narrow band of accepted social behavior, and if you fall outside of it, most people don’t have much tolerance for it. Says another member of WrongPlanet,

“The same issue caused another doctor to literally call me a liar! He said in his report that when describing neurological symptoms I was pleasant and unaffected, while the symptoms would have caused severe distress if they were in fact true. They did cause me severe distress! And they were true! Because my expression did not correspond with my words, at minimum I was not taken seriously; and at worst accused of lying. It was a terrible experience.”  (www.wrongplanet.net)

Over-Exaggerated Facial Expressions Can Be Another Part of the Autism Symptoms Puzzle

On the other side of the spectrum from a flat affect, some people with autism are very expressive but don’t realize it. They may unintentionally make faces that others interpret as offensive, without the person with autism having any idea what just happened. One young adult with autism told us for this article, “When I was in elementary school, I still remember the music teacher telling me ‘Don’t roll your eyes at me, young lady!’ in front of the whole class. I was embarrassed, and I had no idea what rolling your eyes at someone even meant, let alone that I was doing it. I tried for years afterwards to figure out what it meant to roll your eyes at someone.”

Not Being Aware That Your Face Communicates Information Can Be A Challenging Autism Symptom

She continues, “I didn’t even realize that people could tell how I was feeling from my face until I was in my first year of college. I went into someone’s dorm room and they made some comment about me seeming uncomfortable about being there. I hadn’t said that I was uncomfortable, so in my typical autistic thinking, I thought that no one could know that I was uncomfortable. Which made me feel isolated, because, well, I was uncomfortable.

So I was stunned when this girl kindly pointed out that I seemed a bit anxious. I said, “You can tell that just from my face??” She said yes. It was a revelation for me. I didn’t know that people could do that. I didn’t know that my face was giving off information that other people could read and I couldn’t. I felt at quite a disadvantage, actually. But it did help clarify a few things.”

Is it any wonder emotional isolation is such a big problem for people with autism, when they often lack such simple methods of knowing that someone else understands them?

Tips To Help With Facial Recognition Autism Symptoms

  1. People with autism can use photo flash cards to try to help recognize emotions in others. These should be pictures of real people, not cartoons. Videos, which you can often find on autism Internet sites, are even better.
  2. There are computer games for the younger set that will help them learn to identify facial expressions on others, while making it seem fun so that it will hold their interest.
  3. A person with autism can learn to monitor and be more aware of their own facial expressions by using a small hand-held mirror, and studying how to make different expressions. A therapist can help teach facial expressions as well.
  4. If you can’t tell how someone is feeling from their face, those with autism will often use other clues to try to deduct this information. What happened to them recently? How would they feel if that happened to them? Are they acting normally, or are they acting differently than usual? It’s a difficult process to go through, but people with autism can learn to compensate.

Trouble with facial expressions, both recognizing others and their own, is a key part of the autism symptoms set, but it does not have to be an impediment to success in life.

And for more information on helping with the symptoms of high functioning autism and Asperger’s syndrome read The Asperger’s Syndrome Survival Guide.

12 Responses to Autism Symptoms 101 – Tips on How to Read Facial Expressions-112

  1. Judith says:

    Thank you for your news letter on facial expressions. I now know that not only does my son have Aspergers but my husband as well. WOW! A revelation to me and the whole family .

  2. Keiko Hayashi says:

    Dear Craig,
    Thank you very much for your useful information for asperger symptoms.
    The person with aspergar who takes in negative feeling against others’ attitude, cannot communicate with people in face to face interaction. In this case, how can I help her?
    I shall appreciate in advance if you kindly response to this question.
    Thanking you in advnace,

    • Craig Kendall - Author says:

      I believe that you are saying that the person is negative toward others and had challenges in face to face interaction. A skilled therapist can work with a person to slowly help them feel more comfortable peering into another person’s face. Again, slow steady progress is good with constant positive reinforcement to encourage the person to make progress.

  3. Mary says:

    please note that I have a new email address. I so appreciate receiving your newsletters. My husband of 30+ years has Asperger’s Syndrome. Needless to say, we have had and continue to have our challenges …. he with how I am and me with how he is! You are doing a great work …. thank you!

  4. angela says:

    Hi, thankyou for this article. I have an undiagnosed asperger husband and he often has a neutral face. Sometimes when I tell him something that I think would evoke an emotional response, i get this blankness and a short comment or no comment.It is quite an unpleasant feeling for me for I feel I have not been validated or understood and a “sharing” has not taken place.This is difficult on a relationship!Also sometimes , he asks me am I angry or I must be upset and he is so far away from the truth of the situation. He gets annoyed when I deny i am feeling the way he thought I was feeling.He then thinks he is not being validated or I am being untruthful. Oh! It is difficult sometimes, this inability to “read” body language,difficult for both sides.Thankyou!

  5. Valarue ensworth says:

    I enjoyed your article. Autism seems to run in my family.is it possible that a person could b autistic for 65 years and b aware of it and how would they find out. This person has a very limited income and is on medicare and cannot afford any extra expenses. But for years has had suspicions something just wasn t right with them.. Thank you for your help.

    • Craig Kendall - Author says:

      It is definitely possible that one can go their whole life and never realize they have high functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome. This has happened to many adults. Asperger’s syndrome has only really be recognized over the past 25 or so years. Someone who is in their 60s would likely have been diagnosed. Start with your primary care physician. Get a referral to a psychiatrist or psychologist who has a specialty in autism. Government funded healthcare should cover the costs.

  6. Marina says:

    Thank you! I have Asperger’s and have always had a face that you could read what I was thinking. Wondered why and now I know.

  7. Lyn says:

    This problem is worse if you are an attractive girl because people of both genders will think you are a snob. They might make cutting remarks or act in a way that drives the autistic person more deeply into her shell, believing that most people are cruel.

  8. Carrie Ballard says:

    This was really useful information. It had not occurred to me before to consider an autistic person’s own facial expression incongruence and misunderstandings. Thank you.

  9. anna Chadwick says:

    Yes. This article is helpful to me. My husband has aspergers and often giggles at inapporpiate times–bad news for example. At other times his face is blank. Very difficult to read,and people are put off him as they think that he is”rude”

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