Anyone who corresponds with me via email, text or social media will know that I usually put a smiley face or two in my messages. Sometimes I put a frowny face, occasionally I put a heart. The reason for my pared back emoji usage is that I do not understand the meaning of almost every other emoji. I know the red circle one on Facebook is an angry face and the crying one is the sad face but beyond that I have no idea. Sometimes I look at the other facial expression emojis and wonder if I should use one but I have no clue what they mean so decide not to, just in case it is rude or disrespectful. Somebody sent me a picture of a cat lying down and eating a cookie the other day and I had to ask what it meant!
I am unsure if other people have this experience but it really does confine my emoticons to about four or five. Of course this probably isn’t much of an issue in and of itself. I can usually express meaning well through words and if people get sick of my frequent smiley faces in typed communication, well it’s a smiley face. How unpleasant or annoying can that be?? The issue goes beyond emojis though and has been with me since before the world wide web was even a digital twinkle on Tim Berners-Lee’s monitor. Like many autistic people I really struggle with communication through anything other than the words typed or said.
I can’t tell in conversation what people are feeling or wanting to express other than the words and tone of voice unless they are yelling, laughing or crying – and even then I struggle. In conversation, facial features move much too quickly for me to follow. I actually know a lot of facial expression when given context. When I was younger I watched the three Lord of the Rings movies over and over. It was comforting. At one point I had memorised each word and each scene in the three films. I worked out a lot about facial expressions from watching these movies. I knew the context beyond the conversations and Hollywood actors often exaggerate their facial expression to convey more meaning. I was excited at my discovery and thought I would be able to decipher communication clues in conversations with friends. However it didn’t work like at. Even after working out which facial ‘look’ corresponded with which emotion when it came to real life, real time conversations I had no idea. It moved to quickly and couldn’t keep up and didn’t know the back story as I had when watching the movies. That was in about 2005. My understanding of facial expression has not really changed since then.
There are some challenges which arise from this. The first one is understanding how people respond to me and whether they like me or not. I am quite good at picking up the general emotion coming from people intuitively – not from what their face or body looks like but through a sort of emotional ‘aura’ coming off them. So when I talk to a happy person I feel their happiness and assume they are enjoying talking with me. But when somebody I speak with is out of sorts – having a hard day, angry about something, has had a loss or disappointment – I cannot work out if the negative emotional ‘aura’ I feel from them is related to that sort of thing or to them not liking me. I have had so many people dismissing my concerns about a person and saying ‘you are being silly, they don’t hate you’. Sadly while that is sometimes the case, in other instances my intuitive ‘feeling’ from a person does relate to them being toxic.
Another issue – and one which has contributed to a lot of incorrect interpretation of autistic experience – is the impact on perceptions of empathy when people do not understand facial expressions and body language. Autistic people are constantly being told we don’t have empathy, which is total rubbish. Empathy is not understood in context. If I am talking to someone and do not notice their face or body language and the words they are saying do not alert me to any distress, I am unlikely to respond in a caring manner. Why would I? The information I have is that they are OK. The issue is that people can hide their struggles and moods. The person I was speaking to may have been really distressed but not showing me in any demonstrable way, When I don’t pick up on their distress and therefore not respond with support and empathy, they or someone else in the conversation might think I was callous and heartless. I am actually very caring, as are so many Autistic people. If the distressed person told me in words that they were distressed I would be very kind and thoughtful and listen to them and assist in whatever way I can. The Autistic people I have met – and that is quite a big number – are usually just as thoughtful and empathetic as I am but we need enough input to understood what is going on. Understanding that different people communicate differently is a really important consideration for everyone and especially for those who are autistic or know, love, work with or are a friends with autistic people.
These considerations around understanding facial expression and body language go to the heart of difference between Autistic and neurotypical experience. I think that they are actually best seen as cultural or linguistic differences. This is a place where we need understanding rather than assumptions and criticism. I have almost no understanding of what facial experiences or body language mean – in real life or in emoji form – but I have a signifiant level of emotional intelligence. A great number of other autistics are similar. Just because we do it differently doesn’t mean we do it ‘wrong’. My smiley face may be one of the few facial expressions I know but I do like to share smiles. And if you are talking to someone and they don’t seem to be reading your face the way you expect, it is actually quite easy to explain in words what you want to convey. Once again, different is not less, just different.
Me, communicating 🙂
Photo credit: David Jenkins