Last summer, my husband and I had some new friends over for lunch. They brought along their two young boys. Toward the end of the meal, the 5-year-old, who was sitting next to me, looked at me and said, “You scare me.”
This was pre-Asperger’s, so like everyone else at the table, I laughed it off as one of those inappropriate things that kids sometimes say.
Still, his comment stayed with me. I couldn’t figure out what I’d done to scare him. He was a friendly, talkative little boy. I’d showed him how to get my dog to do a couple of simple tricks and had given him some bits of hot dog to use as treats. I’d asked him about his swimming lessons and whether he wanted a dog of his own. I’d cooked him a cheeseburger so he wouldn’t have to eat the fancy grown-up food. He’d even chosen the seat next to me at lunch. I thought we were getting along great!
And then, out of nowhere, he told me that I was scary. I was more puzzled than offended, but there was something about his comment that really stuck in my head. Sometimes when I’d catch people staring at me in a restaurant or a store, his words would come back.
You scare me.
A Hard Truth
Months later, I was sorting through boxes of photos and it hit me. There it was–there I was–staring back at myself from photo after photo with the dreaded flat affect. Since they say a picture is worth a thousand words, here’s how a flat affect looks:
And to prove that wasn’t just me getting caught at a bad moment, here’s one I actually posed for:
These pictures are hard to share. I don’t like looking at them. In fact, I almost never like looking at photos of myself. If I don’t have a blank expression, I tend to look like I’m faking a smile or making an uncomfortable, when-is-this-going-to-be-over expression.
As I was sorting through twenty-plus years worth of photos before we moved, I found dozens or maybe hundreds of pictures of myself with some variation of a blank, checked-out expression. I don’t know why I hadn’t seen it before but there it was. Standing in front of the Christmas tree. Attending a wedding. On vacation.
One after another, I tossed them in the trash bag on the floor beside me, tired of looking at this woman who was starting to scare me.
From my reading about Asperger’s I was aware of the difficulty aspies have in reading facial expressions, but it hadn’t occurred to me that I don’t project appropriate facial expressions–or sometimes any expression at all.
The technical term for this is flat affect, which means that a person displays reduced emotional expressiveness. It takes a five-year-old to put it in plain English though: you scare me.
Looking at those photos, hundreds of them in a row, for hours on end that afternoon, I finally answered the question why? Flat affect is unsettling to others–it makes me look bored, angry, sad or spaced out at inappropriate times.
To a five-year-old, who is probably relying more heavily on nonverbal than verbal communication to judge adults, my inappropriate or absent expressions were creating mixed messages. Though I was saying and doing “nice” things, the nonverbal expressions I was projecting weren’t the typical “kind, caring adult” cues he was expecting to go with my words and actions.
Maybe I Can Learn to Fake It?
The disconnect between my expressions and thoughts is frustrating. Not only do I have trouble verbalizing my emotions but my face keeps wandering off on its own and freelancing.
More than once I’ve had a professor pause during a lecture to ask me if I had a question. One day, curious about why this happened so often, I finally said, “No, why?”
“Because you’re frowning,” the professor replied.
Surprised at his reply, I blurted out, “I’m not frowning. This is my concentrating face.”
The rest of the class laughed, but the question was right up there with you scare me in how deeply it unsettled me.
Obviously I was projecting something different from what I was experiencing internally. There I was sitting in calculus class day after day, looking confused, but never asking any questions. This made my professor so uncomfortable that he stopped in the middle of his lecture to ask me what my problem was. I wonder if he even believed me when I told him I wasn’t confused.
I wonder how often people think I’m being deceitful because my verbal and nonverbal communication doesn’t match.
This is a problem that feels too pervasive to fix. I’m literally projecting an expression of some sort during my every waking moment. There’s no way I could–or would even want to–pay attention to what that expression is all the time.
There are also plenty of times when my expression does agree with my disposition, especially when I’m genuinely happy.
Here’s a photo taken around the same time as the above two shots, except in this one I was truly happy and look it:
Since that exchange with my calculus professor, I’ve occasionally tried projecting a specific expression. In class, if I noticed a professor glancing in my direction too often, I assumed that I was doing the confused face and tried put on my “interested but neutral” face. I also made sure to nod a lot, a reassuring sign to NTs.
It seemed to help–it at least reduced the number of concerned looks in my direction–but I’m not very motivated to do this on a regular basis. I’ve seen other aspies talk about how acting lessons or practicing in a mirror helped them overcome flat affect. I admire their commitment to doing this–it sounds like it would take a lot of time and practice to get right.
Then again, if I had a job that required a lot of contact with the public, I might have the motivation to put more effort into improving the type of nonverbal cues I project. Maybe somewhere down the road it will be something I’ll decide to try but for now, I’ll just go on scaring small children and bewildering acquaintances.