One major struggle many people with autism face is emotional blindness and reading others’ facial expressions. Interestingly, I hear neurotypical people say they have a hard time reading the facial expressions of autistic people. This sort of emotional blindness goes both ways.
It’s like our faces speak a different language. Today, I want to share some thoughts I have on this subject. My hope is that it will help both neurodiverse and neurotypical people understand each other a little better creating less opportunity for misunderstandings.
Autism and Emotional Blindness
Social-emotional agnosia is the clinical term for this kind of emotional blindness. It is the inability to perceive facial expressions, body language, and vocal inflection. This disorder makes it very hard to accurately understand another person’s emotions in social situations. Interestingly, it also coincides with Alexithymia which is the inability to describe your own emotions. Research shows that almost 50% of people with autism have Alexithymia.
Emotional blindness makes it so hard for people with ASD to understand subtle social nuances. It makes non-verbal communication almost impossible to pick up on. So, this means that they prefer their partners to be direct and say what they mean. But, that is not something that comes naturally to neurotypical people, especially in social situations. It is ingrained in our culture to be polite which often translates to “if you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Or, “you always look your best when you smile.”
Fake it 'till you make it? NO!
Teens and adults with high-functioning autism can be good at “faking it.” Autistic people may try to pass as neurotypical in order to fit in, which we call "masking" or "camouflaging". Many of my clients come to my Palo Alto autism clinic saying that they want my help fitting into a neurotypical world. However, to them this usually means, acting like a neurotypical. This often puts them in a position to fail because simply put, they are not neurotypical. So, why should they act like they are? Faking it and living a life that's not authentic is not sustainable and it's simply exhausting.
Neurotypicals often misunderstand individuals with autism
Misunderstandings between autistic and neurotypical people happen at an alarmingly high rate, especially when the autistic person is high-functioning or has more subtle ASD characteristics. For example, many neurotypicals find someone with autism’s lack of a social smile to be off-putting, unfriendly, rude or even hostile. But this is not the case! Social smiles are not something that comes naturally to many neurodiverse individuals. It doesn’t mean they are disinterested or hostile.
Likewise, an individual with autism’s dislike of small talk can be off-putting or confusing to neurotypicals. This often causes misunderstandings in social situations. Neurotypicals may assume someone with autism doesn’t like them or isn’t friendly.
Dealing with Emotional Blindness on the Autism Spectrum
You can look for other ways to communicate your intentions and values. Social smiling and small talk can be particularly draining, especially if you have social anxiety. It’s okay to set boundaries, you don’t have to do those things all the time simply to be liked by neurotypicals.
One suggestion is to consider offering a mini-disclosure. Use mini-disclosures preemptively. Why? Well, neurotypical people tend to form opinions about others rather quickly, often as first impressions. So, give them more info so they can make a more informed opinion.
For instance, you can offer a mini disclosure like: "I’ve been told by others that it’s hard to read my facial expressions. To them, it looks like I’m not showing emotion, or I might look confused or grumpy. Internally I feel a lot of emotions that aren’t expressed overtly on my face. So, if I ever look blank or grumpy, please don’t take it personally. Also, it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t approach me. If you are concerned about how I am doing or my reaction to you, please feel free to talk with me about it."
If you struggle to understand other’s facial expressions, consider saying something like: "Sometimes, reading facial expressions is hard for me. So, I really appreciate direct and straightforward conversation. I may also ask questions to clarify your intentions. I don’t mean it to be offensive. I just really want to understand you."
Consider Autism Therapy for Support Coping with Emotional Blindness
If you want to discuss the difficulties you’re experiencing as a neurodiverse individual in a neurotypical world, consider joining a social skill group like the ones I offer at my autism therapy clinic in Palo Alto, CA. Our talented team of autism therapists offers a variety of online group therapy opportunities for autistic teens and adults.
Our social skills groups include:
- Women with Autism Group
- Neurodiverse College Group
- Autistic Teens and Caregivers Group
- Neurodiverse Working Professionals Group
We also offer individual therapy opportunities for individuals with high functioning autism and autism parents. We also offer autism family therapy. Currently, to be respectful of social distancing guidelines, we are only offering online autism therapy in Calfornia.
If you're neurotypical, what can you do to be more understanding?
If you’re a neurotypical person looking to understand a neurodiverse person’s expression or emotions, then try putting yourself in their shoes. Imagine always having to think about social skills and how you present yourself to others. Think about how challenging it would be to have to remind yourself to smile. Wouldn’t that get exhausting? So, try and take a moment to offer ALL individuals the benefit of the doubt, and hold off on passing judgment on someone. You never know what they may be struggling with. Know that a lack of a social smile and small talk doesn’t necessarily mean someone doesn’t like you. Try to assume positive intent when you meet someone.
Begin Online Autism Therapy in California
If you’re interested in autism therapy and live in California, we would love to speak with you about your counseling services. Follow these steps to begin individual or group autism therapy in California.
- Make an appointment for a free 30-minute phone consultation using this link. During your call, you will meet with one of our therapists and can discuss the issues you’re having and how we can help.
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Autism Therapy Services offered at Open Doors Therapy:
Our Bay Area autism therapy clinic serves teens and adults on the autism spectrum. We help high functioning individuals who identify as having Aspergers, high functioning autism, undiagnosed autism traits, etc. and their families. Currently, we are offering all our autism therapy services online. Our autism experts provide a variety of autism counseling services including individual counseling for autistic teens and adults, parent counseling, and group therapy. Also, we run several different social skills groups for neurodiverse working professionals, college students with autistic traits, gifted youth & caregivers, autistic adults, women who identify as neurodiverse, a summer social skills college transition training program for youth heading to college, teens & caregivers, and a mothers group. Please contact Open Doors Therapy for more information on our services or to schedule a consultation.