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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.