On my commute home the other day, I was listening to Q with Tom Power on the radio. I’ve blogged about this show before, but the bottom line is that I highly recommend it. Tom Power is the best interviewer alive.
Sadly, I can’t remember who he was interviewing at the time, but she said something that I felt was really profound. To paraphrase, acting is not making your face look sad. It’s feeling sad and then your face automatically follows suit.
Wait. You mean to tell me that your facial expressions reflect how you’re feeling? Yeah. I know. This probably goes without saying for most of you neurotypicals out there, but for many of us on the autism spectrum, this might not occur to us.
I am capable of having the facial reactions of which we speak, but just as often, I’m so focused on the sensory input coming at me and the chaos that that produces in my head that my face forgets to arrange itself in a way that won’t confuse the masses.
I have finally found a good therapist who understands the autism spectrum, and he has already told me several things that no one else has thought to say to me, because those things come naturally to the average person. Saying “Oh, by the way, one’s face usually reflects one’s mood” would seem as unnecessary to most people as saying, “Oh, by the way, the sky is blue.”
My therapist also told me about a thing called “mirror neurons”. To grossly oversimplify things, when you behave a certain way, certain neurons in your brain fire. And when you observe someone else doing the same thing, those same neurons fire in your head. It’s our way of reading the room.
For example, if you walk into a room and see someone there who is laughing and smiling, your neurons tell you, “That is something you do when you’re happy. So that person is happy.”
This causes you to act accordingly. For example, you most likely don’t feel tense with that person, because they’re not behaving like you do when you’re feeling hostile or aggressive. You’re probably feeling relaxed and happy, and since your face reflects that emotion, you smile, and their mirror neurons tell them that you’re happy.
I know my description probably sounds analytical to the point of being robotic, but that’s the basic process. It is for most people, anyway. Which makes it awfully hard for those of us who never got the memo.
Now, imagine this. I walk into that same room in all my autistic glory. I’m not unhappy, but I’m focused inward. The two happy people in the room look up at my blank expression and their neurons say, “WTF? Unidentified mood entering the room! Alert! Alert!”
I don’t think I have resting b***h face, exactly. I’m often told I look sad. Or bored. Or stoned. And 95 percent of the time, none of those things actually apply.
Since the happy people in the room are trying to sort out the panicked message that their mirror neurons are trying to deliver to them, I am subsequently presented with expressions of confusion at best, or tension at worst. And that, of course, makes me uncomfortable. And so on and so forth.
Welcome to my world. This pretty much happens with every human that I encounter, every single day. It’s not a pleasant feeling.
To a certain extent, I have learned to mask, often by mimicking the expressions the people had the second before they spotted me. I think, “This is a happy occasion and I feel happy so I’m supposed to smile right now.”
And so I smile. Which is actually appropriate, because in truth I’m quite content. But I suspect that my expression probably seems inauthentic to the close observer because I had to put thought into it and somehow, don’t ask me how, that shows.
In essence, I had to tell my face what to do and that doesn’t seem natural to others. And so people start assuming things about me that aren’t true. I can’t be trusted. I’m insincere. I’m constantly unhappy. I don’t like them. And so on and so forth.
I spend the bulk of my life being misunderstood. I grow weary of constantly trying to explain or defend pmyself. Those who care to take the time eventually learn to go by what I say rather than go by what my face says. But I’m sure that it’s hard to fight against those agitated mirror neurons all the time, and so people often lose patience with me.
I get it. Believe me. This is probably why I prefer to write about things rather than talk about them. No facial expressions involved.
So how do I fix my face for this occasion? Mixed emotions present me with a whole new level of complexity. How does one look road-weary yet accepting, wistful yet acquiescent, bemused yet acceding?
I’m probably not the best person to ask.
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