I seemed to have stumbled upon an article recently I was rather interested in that seemed to resonate with some people on twitter, and wanted to write down some thoughts here.
This article is specifically about how facial expressions are not simple expressions of emotions, but are potential indicators of how someone wants to steer the social interaction. I find this important, because as someone who doesn’t often make facial expressions (unless it’s genuine laughter, or, masking laughter), people seem to think I am cold/aloof/”off”/uptight/defensive, and even hostile. It may be that they are confused by my lack of emoting. They may simply not know what to do because I am not steering any of the social interaction. I’ve never thought about facial expressions in this way, and I think this explains why non-autistic people so readily misinterpret me.
This can make me come off as uninterested, uncaring, unenthusiastic, or sometimes even very calm and level-headed (if everyone else is in a panic). Essentially, by not providing that social response, people can read whatever they want into my still/unsmiling face. This explains to me why I often become the backboard of people’s emotions and assumptions. My face can stay the same, but context changes, people around me change, and suddenly (to other people) I am angry, or bored, or sad. I’m mostly referring to people who are acquaintances or strangers, people who don’t know me well or only met me once or twice. People who do know me understand that my face simply does not represent my emotions or intentions often, and understand not to “read into it” as some sort of social communication.
If things like facial expression and possibly tone of voice are about social intention, rather than representing emotion, then I’ve not faired well at most of my social interactions. This also explains why I felt like (and saw how) I was being manipulated when I was very young, as people never meant what they said. However, this is simply how most non-autistic people talk to each other and make their intentions in a conversation known (“I’d really like X right now”), and so rarely recognized their words as potentially manipulative, even if I pointed it out (child me: “You are just saying Y because you want me to do X, but you’re not telling me you want me to do X! Why don’t you just tell me you need help with X?”). Most adults seemed taken aback when I told them to say what they meant, and they simply went on talking around the subject. It was so frustrating when I could clearly see what was going on, yet no one seemed to be telling me the truth. I know now that the lack of directness by adults was due to trying to not seem “rude” to a child by being direct to them.
I find the best way for neurotypical people to understand us is to learn about their own subconscious social processing. If someone doesn’t know that they are performing tasks subconsciously, then they can’t understand how much work it takes us to do the same task manually.
Hopefully, more awareness of the intricacies of the neurotypical brain and of neurotypical subconscious social processing will allow for better communication between neurotypical and autistic people.