What You see Is Not (Always) What You Get

I spent some delightful time recently with a family I have known for years – not in a professional capacity, just chilling out and enjoying coffee and autism chat – my usual pastime. One member of the family has provided plenty of challenges to ‘service providers’ over the years, having been excluded from an autism specialist school who couldn’t cope and subsequently living at home ever since under the excellent watch of his parents. Multiple agencies have tried to work with him without success. Watching his interactions with Mum and Dad really made me think about how easy it would be for an ‘outsider’ – or someone ‘not in the know’ – to completely misinterpret his facial expressions, body language, and voice prosody. This, in turn, made me reflect on the Don Tillman character in the second ‘Rosie’ book series, The Rosie Effect (Simsion, 2015) when he alludes to how ridiculous he finds it that most people presume that not demonstrating emotion equates to lacking in emotional function. This, in conjunction with reading the utterly superb Blog The Highs and Lows of Functionality made me want to write about, and clarify, a few aspects of autism that are sometimes (or often) misunderstood.

What you see is not (always) what you get – in other words, those facial expressions (or lack of) are not necessarily an indication of what an autistic person is (or isn’t) feeling. It’s quite extraordinary how subtle the PNT (predominant neurotype) can be when translating (PNT) facial expression, perhaps because of the PNT skill of contextualising very quickly – perhaps this is where the expression ‘nervous laughter’ comes from; individuals are allowed to laugh ‘nervously’, because those around them understand that the emotional expression is not one of mirth, but actually stems from anxiety. Hang on, then – why isn’t the same concept applied to people with autism? I know plenty of autistic people who laugh, smile, giggle, grin, gurn, or chuckle as expressions of (sometimes extreme) anxiety – but rather than recognising this, their teachers, peers, or professionals indicate that this is ‘inappropriate facial expression’ and promptly suggest some kind of social skills course. What is that all about?

Funnily enough, while at the family’s house, Mum told me of an interesting conversation with a social worker who had visited recently, along the lines of:

SW (on ‘observing’ for half an hour or so): “He’s got very good eye contact with me, hasn’t he!? I wasn’t expecting that…”

Mum: “Er, no, he hasn’t actually noticed you yet, he’s still processing the noise of the door bell, the one we asked you not to press when you got here…He isn’t looking at you, he’s looking straight through you”.


In a similar vein to the above, a lack of emotional expression may have nothing whatsoever to do with emotional feeling – autistic people have feelings (I feel stupid writing that, but do know that to this day some people view autistic folk as ‘unfeeling’) but they may not express those feelings in a way that is easily understood by the PNT. But – that’s ok, surely? Well, it is – and it isn’t. It’s perfectly ok for autistic individuals to have a very different way of expressing emotions – of course it is – but what is not ok is for them to be judged incorrectly as a result. All those children and adults totally unfairly branded as lacking in emotion, being uncaring, unloving, cold…so many false assumptions made – and over a population for whom society has even decided are not brilliant with their facial expressions!

Most of the autistic people I know have incredible depth to their emotional repertoire – and yes, from an external PNT perspective lacking the necessary translating skills, that depth may go unnoticed; but just because it’s unnoticed, does not mean that it isn’t there. I believe that autistic individuals are best at expressing their emotions when they are relaxed – and yet, almost by definition, high levels of emotional feeling will mean the individual is not relaxed – sometimes, quite the opposite. So, is it so hard to understand that in the midst of what might even be emotional overload, with the myriad of internal cognitive functions trying to deal with the emotion, understand it, process it, identify it, name it, respond to it…that the face is the last thing that the brain is telling what to do? And even if the face is contorted into some resemblance of an ‘expression’ it’s likely not to be one that matches PNT expectations?

Of course – not all of this applies to all autistic individuals – or, even, to the same person (people will respond differently in different environments) – but I can bet that there are so many autistic individuals who have been mis-read and subsequently misunderstood, almost always with negative connotations, who would have benefitted from knowledge that their faces are not a conduit to their emotional expression.

What you see is not (always) what you get. It’s time society stopped applying the same rules of communication onto the autistic population for whom those rules don’t even apply. Perhaps, in time, the PNT will learn how to read (autistic) faces, and be less ‘face-blind’…and damaging, erroneous assumptions, will be reduced.

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