“Why do you look so serious?” “What’s wrong?” “What are you so ticked off about?”
If you have ‘resting bitch face’ (also known as ‘bitchy resting face’), you hear this all the time.
People constantly misread your facial expressions and assume, wrongly, that you are the most irritated, depressed, and/or psychotic person on the planet. It’s frustrating and insulting to anyone whose neutral face comes off more like a nuclear face, but it can actually be harmful to people on the spectrum.
It is widely known that people on the autistic spectrum have difficulty understanding and recognizing facial expressions and body language. This is because the part of the brain that is supposed to “light up” in response to social cues, doesn’t. It remains dormant. Therefore, people with ASD must rely heavily on spoken language and often take words very literally.
To put it another way, it can be very difficult for us to understand someone saying “everything is fine” when there are tears in their eyes. It sends a jumbled and confused message that either has us scurrying away out of discomfort or keeps us staring at you in confusion until you become uncomfortable.
One of the most disconcerting things for neurotypical people (individuals without autism) is seeing a flat affect, meaning, a blank facial expression. When someone’s facial expression does not match up with their words, it can leave the neurotypical person feeling as though they are somehow being tricked or deceived.
This is when having ‘resting bitch face’ can be dangerous. Depending on the type of person we’re around, this type of facial expression can get us verbally and/or physically assaulted because we, unlike a neurotypical person, cannot simply brighten up and brush it off when someone points it out.
We don’t “snap out of it and act normal”. We can’t.
If you’re a neurotypical person frustrated by an Asperger’s friend, family member, or significant other, it’s very important that you understand that the communication struggle goes both ways.
We aren’t reading you properly, but you’re not reading us properly, either.
Here are five common ways misreading a person with ASD can be harmful to them:
1. You Judge Us By Our Facial Expressions
Research has shown that neurotypical people make evaluations of character, competence, friendliness, and approachability by reading certain social cues. When neurotypical people socialize, they send and receive subtle but important information from one another through a complex set of facial expressions and body language.
People on the spectrum have a limited ability to discern the meaning of facial expressions and body language unless said gestures are very obvious. For example, red-faced anger or sobbing anguish is pretty easy to figure out. The subtle cues emitted through a slight raise in an eyebrow, an irritated sniff, or a bit of a smirk, however, is almost always lost on those with ASD.
Not only can we not read your facial expressions properly, you can’t read ours. Many people with ASD (especially women, from my research) suffer from a terminal case of ‘resting bitch face’. We seem to look sad, irritated, angry, sullen, or downright nasty when we’re anything but.
This is just how our faces look.
If you judge a person with ASD based on their facial expressions alone, you are more likely to misunderstand and have a knee-jerk reaction that we won’t understand. We have no idea that it was something we did/didn’t do or said/didn’t say that’s triggered your sudden mood shift toward us.
If we are unable to connect your reaction to our perceived behavior, we will feel threatened by you.
2. You Think We Don’t Have Feelings
Empathy in the ASD person has been hotly debated. While one camp believes those on the spectrum lack empathy, other studies suggest we feel far too much of it and shut down as a result.
From the research I’ve done, I don’t think it’s a question of whether we do or do not feel empathy. I can’t speak for others on the spectrum, but I know that I am highly empathic. The issue isn’t whether we have it or not, but how we process and express it.
There are two distinct facets to empathy:
- Identifying what is going on in another person’s mind by seeing the world from their perspective.
- Imagining what the other person is feeling and then having an appropriate emotional response.
When it comes to true empathy, people with ASD have a lot of difficulty with the first part of empathy; the ability to identify what is going on in the mind of another. The second part, imagining what the other person is feeling, is something we are much better at.
The difficulty with this is, due to our lack of social awareness, we may not have the appropriate emotional response, even if we empathize with the other person and want to show support.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and similar techniques can help a person on the spectrum behave more appropriately, but the fact of the matter is, these are still just learned behaviors designed to make social interaction more comfortable for neurotypical people and less confusing for those on the spectrum. It doesn’t do anything to change how the ASD brain works and it never will.
“No matter how much we explain or teach or train the Aspie mind, certain neurological circuits don’t work as they do in the NT brain. The brain has a number of circuits that are all connected like Christmas lights. For example, your mirror neurons may signal you to mirror a speaker and look in the same direction he or she is looking, but they don’t tell you why to look in the same direction. Your caudal anterior cingulated cortex may signal that another person is experiencing pain, but it doesn’t signal you to speak about it—or give you a clue as to what to say.”
A study conducted by Psychologist, Isabel Dziobek, evaluated more than 50 subjects on the spectrum against neurotypical control subjects. The results were fascinating.
Although those on the spectrum had a marked inability to read the social cues of others, which made it difficult for them to connect, once someone filled in the blanks (explained in easy-to-understand language what the person was going through), the people on the spectrum showed the same degree of compassion as their neurotypical counterparts.
3. You React to Us in Startling or Frightening Ways
The inability to read social cues coupled with the struggle to appropriately express emotion on our own faces can lead us to serious emotional harm.
Imagine this scenario for a moment: You walk into your doctor’s office and see a woman sitting in the waiting room with a vacant look. Her shoulders are slumped, her hands are plopped limply in her lap, and one corner of her mouth is turned up in a sort of grimace. You immediately feel uncomfortable.
After all, being able to perceive danger in the facial expressions and body language of others is what has kept humans at the top of the food chain for centuries.
So, if you feel uncomfortable, that’s perfectly normal.
What is harmful to us is your response. If you take something we do or do not do personally and confront us in a sudden, jarring way, you’ll scare us.
If the woman in the waiting room has Asperger’s syndrome, she may simply be in a ‘neutral’ body and face position. There is no need for her face or body to move as she’s not interacting with anyone or doing anything at that moment.
She has simply ‘powered down’.
In other words, she is taking a break and conserving her precious energy for an inevitable onslaught of more sensory stimuli. Unlike the neurotypical mind, the ASD mind becomes overwhelmed much more quickly by environmental and social stimulation.
It is quite common for those of us on the spectrum to take sensory breaks and not even realize we’re doing it or how strange it looks to you.
That being said, we may startle easily. If you suddenly scream at us or ask us what’s wrong or pass judgment on our character (“What are you, strung out or something?”), you will likely get a reaction of alarm, fear, anger, confusion, hurt, or maybe even an emotional meltdown.
First of all, we may not have even noticed you walked into the room. Second of all, being startled in this way throughout our lives has given many of us post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
If you wouldn’t sneak up on a war veteran with a firecracker, don’t sneak up on us with your loud voice or your quick judgments. If you feel weird, don’t approach us at all. If you want to know what we’re feeling, just ask.
4. You Assume We Know What You Want, Need, or Feel
Probably one of the worst things about having Asperger’s syndrome is being unfairly judged almost as often for not doing something than for doing it inappropriately.
Those with neurotypical brains can easily pick up on emotional nuances. We cannot.
Ergo, your raised eyebrow or excessive throat clearing may not even register, let alone tell us that you’ve just been insulted by someone and we should defend you.
Expecting us to know what you want, need, and feel and then assuming our lack of response is that we don’t care is like thinking a blind man is rude for being unable to appreciate your ability to paint.
Really. We are not any more capable of reading these subtle signs than the blind guy is able to compliment you on your use of shadow and light.
The huge difference between someone on the spectrum and the blind man, however, is that nobody would even consider yelling at him for not being able to see.
If you want us to know what you want, need, and feel, tell us. If you don’t, we will assume everything is OK and be quite surprised (and likely traumatized) when the relationship suddenly ends.
Oftentimes, your desire to end the relationship is our first indication that something is wrong. Just like the blind man who can’t see that he’s sitting in front of a masterpiece, we have no ability to read the subtle “hints” you have been dropping. We are, quite literally, blind to them.
Over time, we will familiarize ourselves with your needs and they will become a part of our routine. However, if your needs, wants, and feelings change, you must remember to clue us in again so we can integrate the new behavior into the relationship.
If you want to, you can think of it as programming a computer, but remember, we are human beings whose brains work differently from yours. We are your equals and should be treated with love and respect. If you can’t do that, walk away.
5. You Believe We Will Someday See the World as You Do
If you’re in any type of relationship with a person on the spectrum, this is the one thing you must resist doing if you want to remain in this person’s life. Asperger’s syndrome is not a cold, it’s not cancer, and it’s not a mental illness. It is a different operating system.
Our brains are wired differently.
Therefore, no matter how much social training we get or how much we learn to approximate neurotypical behavior, ASD is our first language. You can hope, beg, cajole, cry, insist, teach, and fall over backward trying to “fix” us and we will remain the same. You will exhaust yourself for nothing, and your effort will be completely lost on us.
We cannot change the way we are wired anymore than you can spontaneously turn into a carrot. Trust me on this.