Facial expressions. There are two aspects I’m going to talk about, in this topic:

  1. Those we have to interpret and
  2. Those we show ourselves

Interpreting others’ facial expressions

Let’s start with the difficulty of interpreting others’ facial expressions. For many autistic people, for some of the time, and for ADHDers, reading the intention behind someone else’s facial expression can be really tricky.

Have a look at the face at the top of this post. How do you interpret that mood? Is it:

  • I’m holding back the tears?
  • I’m not impressed by your behaviour but I’m saying nothing?
  • I’m overwhelmed?
  • I’ve just broken wind and I’m hoping no one will know it’s me?
  • I’m shocked?
  • I’ve heard it all before, and it’s really boring?
  • I’m being told off and I’m trying to hide my feelings?
  • I’m not feeling anything?

Or something else? I don’t actually have the answer! It’s just an example of how difficult reading others’ faces can be!

Alexithymia is a commonly co-occurring condition for autistic peoplethat makes it difficult to interpret emotions. Recent research, summarised here, suggests that autistic people with alexithymia read others’ expressions as being ‘more intensely emotional’. The researchers found that autistic people struggled to read the facial expressions identified with anger, specifically, unless they were shown to them at faster than ‘real life’ speed. The researchers propose that it is not that we, autistic people, have something lacking, it is that autistic people and non-autistic people convey facial emotion in different ways, ways that they say have been under-researched. This supports Damian Milton’s theory of the double empathy problem, claiming that it’s that our differing neurotypes causing communication hurdles.

Prosopagnosia is also a co-occurring condition for some of us. This is the inability to recognise faces, as well facial expressions. Even if we don’t have alexithymia or prosopagnosia, we may have information processing delays which mean that we need longer to decipher the expressions and associated emotions of others. Reading the entries about theory of mind, empathy and the double empathy problem will all add layers to this interesting area, if you wish to.

Let’s add yet another layer: if we are in hyperfocus, we are effectively switched off from everything else around us, so this too has the potential to cause difficulty with reading others’ facial expressions, as does experiencing sensory overload and masking.

At other times, in more relaxed situations, with more familiar people, we have no trouble reading facial expressions at all.


A rumination on how others’ interpret our facial expressions

The term resting bitch face is not a very flattering one, but it’s one that I’ve seen used by numerous autistic authors, to describe themselves, and I really identify! They, and I, recall numerous situations when someone has said that old classic: cheer up! It might never happen!. Such a rude and inappropriate thing to say anyway, what if my Nan had just died? The point is that many of us are aware that our perfectly-content-or-at-least-not-distressed-face can come across as unhappy, bored or even angry. Interestingly, this is the same point made in the research and theory referred to above: both neurotypes misinterpret each others’ faces.

When I was younger, up until early adulthood, my parents used to say that I have a malleable face! I have friends that laugh at my facial expressions – and not always because I’m telling a humorous anecdote, though the malleable face does come in useful during comedic ‘performances’! I am often only aware that my face may be doing something unexpected when other people pass comment. I don’t think about my face other than that. With one exception – when I was preparing for my first wedding day at a very young age. I distinctly recall realising that I’d have to practice smiling for the photos, so that I didn’t always look like I was either chewing the cud or being handed a speeding ticket.

I tried every variation of faces-that-imply-happiness in the mirror, and the only one that I could make consistently appear was The Toothy Grin. So, I did that for every single photo on my wedding day … and for every single posed photo since. There are still a few bovine expressions that have crept through in candid photos, but generally I would say that this approach has worked for me – I fit in. My stepmother once commented on this – ‘Oh why do you have to pull that same grin in every photo? Just look natural for once’. Firstly, why do people think it’s okay to say such rude and personal things? Secondly, if I look natural then you’ll complain that I look angry/miserable/moody in every photo. What do you people want from me?

This is a lighthearted and personal reflection on the difficulty of creating facial expressions that make other people feel comfortable. I’ll probably come back with something for scientific and useful at another time.