Facial expressions are a form of non-verbal communication that accompanies a verbal message and can help convey the intent behind the message and the speaker’s emotional state. In short, it rounds out the complete picture for the receiver. And for neurotypicals, a conflict between a person’s words and facial expressions can lead to misunderstandings.
For autistics, this conflict is a way of life. We often rely on words only to communicate.
There is a stereotype that autistics can’t produce or read facial expressions, which isn’t true. Let’s take a look at what it really means to be autistic when it comes to facial expressions and where the challenges lie:
Autistics are not the “expressionless robots” we’re assumed to be.
We can unconsciously produce facial expressions, though it’s less frequent than neurotypicals. People around us may expect to see a facial expression only to be met with an expressionless face. When we do produce them, they can be inappropriate or ill-timed.
The “wrong” facial expressions can cause further challenges in communication. You aren’t – essentially – speaking the same language. The differences, though subtle, can make other people feel lost about your emotions.
But the challenge is…
We don’t know what our faces are doing.
I have memories of being scolded for rolling my eyes as a child. But I didn’t know that I rolled my eyes. I wasn’t annoyed or irritated. So, why did my eyes roll? Probably because I didn’t know what my face was doing.
Unintentional eye rolling is only one of my unconscious facial expressions. Another one, my “resting face” is often confused for anger or irritation.
My face and tone of voice never clearly expressed my excitement about a new gift when I was a child. And the list goes on.
Feeling one way but being read by those around you another way is a way of life for us. We often catch ourselves apologizing for confusing people about our intention and feelings.
Like all autistic traits, the ability to produce facial expressions and their accuracy can vary from one autistic to another. Some are relatively expressionless, and others’ abilities are so similar to neurotypical expressions that a difference is hardly noticeable.
Some of us do mask our facial expressions.
As an autistic woman, I know society expects me to be more expressive and bubblier than a man. I also want to avoid being misunderstood.
“The world still has no space for eloquent women with flatter facial expressions. I am aware that autistic men share this trait with us, but time and time again, including in my own family, I have seen this trait excused and overlooked in brilliant men. Apparently, this sort of intensity in a man is not as threatening.” – Wendy Katz Erwin
The social expectation that women are emotional and expressive places an additional burden on autistic women to mask their non-verbal communication. A man is respected and confident if his face remains firm during a conversation. A woman, however, is thought to be rude or a bitch if she doesn’t smile.
So, like many autistic women, I actively monitor my face during social situations. At times I’m so caught up in the conversation and suddenly realize I have no idea what it looks like. I have to take a survey of everyone else’s faces and adjust mine to copy them.
“Oh, they are all smiling. I better smile, too.”
For most of my life, I thought everyone consciously monitored their faces. It’s like a tiny film director in my head – “Okay. Smile……NOW!”
This little voice calls out directions throughout an entire conversation. It’s exhausting to monitor my face while processing a conversation and saying the right things.
Apparently, neurotypicals don’t actively monitor their faces like us.
We can’t always read facial expressions which can make masking tricky.
I can read some facial expressions but it’s a conscious process and limited to obvious expressions like smiling, laughing, and crying. Reading faces is limited to extremes or a resting face. Everything else is difficult to interpret.
Eye contact – or lack of it – also comes into play. Every autistic has a different comfort level with eye contact. For me, it hurts to look people in the eyes, making it harder to read people’s faces.
Even with masking, we are unable to completely hide our difficulties with nonverbal communication. So, we lose friends (or can’t gain them, to begin with) and aren’t hired for jobs. Just think of the issues this can cause in an interview.
For fun, I’m throwing in the most anti-autistic career interviewing advice article. It even has a section dedicated to – dum, dum, DUM! – facial expressions. Go figure.
Obviously, there are no easy solutions beyond awareness and getting to know someone. If you’re interviewing someone with limited facial expressions, push past your initial reaction. Recognize that not everyone will be as expressive as others. Listen, instead, to their words. And if you are in a relationship with an autistic, get to know them. You will eventually understand how they share their feelings beyond facial expressions.
As autistic women, communicating is difficult, but we want to socialize and have friends and jobs. We don’t want to hide who we are all the time. For neurotypicals, communicating with an autistic isn’t easy. But communication is a two-way street. You will only discover the benefits of having an autistic coworker or friend if you make an effort.