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Facial Expressions in Autism


20 Mar 2023

The facial expressions that are and are not their.

Autistic people have many different types of facial expressions, which whilst they may be similar to the facial expressions of a non-autistic person, they can mean a completely different emotion is being expressed and may speak an entirely different, non-verbal language to regular facial expressions.

This could lead many people to believe that the often experienced ‘social difficulties’ which many autistic people experience in their day to day lives could potentially be a result of the difference in certain facial expressions which are produced by non-autistic people and people with autism.

This poses the issue that non-autistic people may just have some trouble reading and understanding the many facial expressions of autistic people as opposed to them actually having difficulties with expressing their emotions.

Social Interactions
Facial expressions tend to smooth over any social interactions. For example, a simple smile can help to show that one is content or happy, and a frown may show empathy or discontent. Many people who have autism have a lot of difficulty with finding and making the correct facial expression to coincide with the emotion that they are currently feeling at that particular moment in time.

Autistic people may actually remain entirely expressionless or produce facial expressions which are hard to read or interpret.

Face to face interactions are often a give and receive trade off of inner emotion in social situations. Many autistic people often struggle with expressing spontaneous emotion, especially in social situations which can lead their facial expressions to not match what an autistic person could be saying or feeling.

However, when it comes to intentional emotional facial expressions, autistic people have less of a hard time reciprocating their emotions through facial expressions in social situations often at the start or end of the social interaction where they are feeling a preconceived emotion, such as happiness.

The Differences to Neurotypical Facial Expressions
No two autistic people are the same, therefore no two facial expressions will mean the same thing for either autistic person. They could have similar conventional facial expressions but the emotion behind the expression is entirely different to one and other.

Some autistic people may even make facial expressions which are incredible similar to that of a neurotypical facial expression. However, in general the faces of neurotypical people and autistic people may express emotion entirely differently.

When an autistic person is feeling sad or angry, they may express a specific facial expression that is not typical of neurotypical people. As a neurotypical person may not expect to see the different facial expression from the person with autism, they may not recognise at first that that the expression portrayed on the autistic persons face is sad or angry. This can lead to some confusion when trying to understand the emotion expressed on the face of somebody with autism.

On the other hand, an autistic person may not recognise the facial expression of a neurotypical person when they are feeling sad or angry. This can lead to difficulty understanding each other when neurotypical people interact with autistic people as each will not recognise the difference and may fail to socially comfort one and other.

Facial expressions are widely used to aid in communicating without the use of verbal language in both social and non-social situations. By bettering our understanding of the types of facial expressions an autistic person can produce we can further our inner understanding of the deeper emotion at hand that is being expressed.

By nature, neurotypical people will often imitate facial expressions in social situations automatically. People with autism struggle to recognise emotions as well as expressing them leading their facial expressions to not mimic those around them, especially as many autistic people struggle with things such as social ques.

Be Patient & Learn to Listen
It can be difficult to understand facial expressions at the best of times. But often times clues can be found in what is being said or communicated. Many autistic people will form habits of certain facial expressions when they are feeling particular emotions.

To help gain a better understanding of what emotion they are attempting to convey it is crucial to listen closely and have lots of patients. Whilst a person with autism’s facial expression is showing one thing, it could actually mean something entirely different, such as pouting or frowning when confused or having a frown when they are actually deeply angered or upset.