Experts usually agree that no matter how many words you use, a large percentage of communication comes through non-verbal actions – facial expressions, body language, etc. If you are autistic like me, it means that you are struggling with many aspects of this nonverbal communication.
A new study now offers insights into why this may be the case – although many autistic people say the study confirms exactly what they have known for years.
The study, published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorder, suggests that people on the autism spectrum find it difficult to accurately identify facial expressions when they show up with the intensity and speed that neurotypics find “normal.”
As the lead author of the study explained in a news release from the University of Birmingham, “We found that people with autism had specific difficulty recognizing the anger that we are beginning to think may be related to differences in the way autistic people and non-autistic people produce these expressions. If this is true, it may not be accurate to speak of people with autism as “impaired” or “deficient” in emotion recognition – rather, autistic and non-autistic people may speak different languages, when it comes to conveying emotion. “
PhD student Connor Keating, the study’s lead author, developed the subject in an email to Salon, where he discussed the so-called “double empathy problem.” It is the idea that empathy relies heavily on both the way we instinctively express emotions and what we have grown up to expect from previous social interactions – experiences that can be very different for people with autism. When this happens, there is a communication breakdown that disrupts both autistic and alistic people (non-autistic people).
“The problem of double empathy was conceptualized by Damian Milton, an autistic academic,” Keating explained. “Many people with autism over the years have supported the idea of double empathy, agreeing that it is in line with their own experience.
His study, he added, was the first “to show that difficulties in recognizing moving, not yet angry, expressions are related to autism, not alexithymia.” Alexithymia is a condition associated with autism that affects emotional communication.
It is fair to say that many people with autism, when reading this, will probably react in the same way as I do: Of course!
“As a child, I understood only obvious outspoken expressions of anger and aggression,” said Jen Elcheson, a school assistant from Prince George of British Korea, Canada, in an email to Salon. “Fine ones? Forget it. Especially if the person had a vague body language.”
Elcheson remembered that he had wrongly thought that other people were humorous, when in fact they were expressing kindness.
“My answer will just make them angry,” Elcheson recalled. “Confusion, shame, and my own anger at myself followed. I understood it again!”
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Even as an adult approaching 40, Elcheson says it’s a “struggle of moments” to understand subtle nonverbal and sometimes even verbal cues. “I don’t always know what can happen to someone who isn’t autistic,” Elcheson added. “I usually understand my fellow autists well. Like people who are otherwise neurodivergent, like I have others [neurodivergent] diagnoses too. “
Alex Planck, founder of a popular forum for forums for neurodivergent people, noticed that he often felt as if he spoke a language different from the neurotypical one, especially when it came to emotions.
“I often have people who think I’m rude when I’m just taking facts or trying to communicate urgency,” Planck said in an email. He added that he often ignores social customs, such as remembering to greet someone or avoid talking about them.
“I’ve noticed that when we talk to other autistic people, we tend to talk to each other, and that works well – we stop talking if we need to or the other person does,” he thought.
In fact, this unexpected anger can be mysterious to people on the spectrum and often seems to appear completely driven. Morénike Giwa-Onaiwu, a visiting scientist at Rice University who is also on the autism spectrum, recalled how she and other autistic people often have experience of interacting with people who are suddenly very angry.
“I would just be really confused,” Giva-Onaiu told Salon. “I didn’t understand where they were getting this mood from or what was going on, because I think we’re having a conversation and I don’t accept any remarks, I guess I have to pick up from their face or body language. “It’s more than just a mistake or an embarrassment; as Giwa-Onaiwu points out, ‘it puts you in a really dangerous situation,’ because neurotypics may not respond well to an autistic person who doesn’t handle their anger properly.”
“I don’t think they really understand that we don’t perceive what they perceive,” she added.
Podcast and life coach Daniel Sullivan (who was later diagnosed with autism) expressed hope that the study would help people better understand the exact nature of the way autistic people struggle.
“I think the findings of this study are absolutely correct,” Sullivan wrote to Salon. “Although emotional intelligence varies in people with autism (in the same way as people with autism) in general, people with autism do not have impaired emotional intelligence. We have different and different language and expression of our emotions, which can be just as much. difficult for neurotypical individuals to read in our faces, as it is for us to read in neurotypical individuals. “
Not worth it, not all autistic people feel this way. The iconic defender of autism and animal rights, Temple Grandin, for example, told the Salon by email that “I’ve always been able to recognize anger. I use the tone of voice as the main indicator of anger.
Anyway, if there’s one common theme from all the conversations I’ve had with autistic people – both for this article and for many, many others – it’s that our neurology just makes us different, not worse. As the British psychologist and autism specialist Tony Atwood once wrote, “I see people with Asperger’s Syndrome as a bright thread in the rich tapestry of life.”