Tuesday, July 20, 2010

It's Just An Expression...

I’m an observer.

I always have been, I always will be. Perhaps it’s my attention to detail, the fact that I’ll always notice car number plates (which REALLY confused my roomie for the longest time, when we would be in the car and I would suddenly go, “Ha ha! UGH!” and she wouldn’t understand until I pointed out that ‘UGH’ was the last three letters on the number plate of the car in front), or that I’m one of the best proofreaders my friends know because I’ll be able to pick out all those tiny spelling errors or when something doesn’t look perfectly even in Photoshop.

As a child, I was also an observer. I read online that a lot of children with Asperger’s, particularly girls and sometimes boys too, learn how to cope in social situations by mimicking the actions and reactions of other people.

I believe this is one of the reasons it has taken me until my very late teens to be diagnosed as having an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (though I do prefer the word ‘Syndrome’ to ‘Disorder’). As a child, I was very over-dramatic with my physical motioning. I remember thinking to myself every time I moved, every time I reacted to something, of an action a cartoon character would make in reaction to the same sort of stimulation. For example, if I was asking where something was because I was confused, I would pull a ridiculously exaggerated facial expression and spread my arms out really wide, palms up, fingers splayed, like you would see an animated character do in a cartoon. Instead of being blank and lifeless, I was over-dramatic.

I remember adults would comment on it, and I remember other children picking on me for it, calling me ‘Drama Queen’ or ‘Drama King’. It was facial as well as physical, and I would overreact to everything. This went hand-in-hand with my already gangly, awkward nature of pulling my uniform socks up to my knees and running with both arms thrown out to the sides (the kids used to tell me I looked like I was trying to take off). I watched a lot of cartoons from birth until my mid-teens (I still do, but not as much, due to adult responsibilities like work), and I remember being particularly entranced by the way the characters moved, the way their bodies and faces reacted to things, and how over exaggerated it was. It was a little easier to read – it was forced and deliberate.

This has transferred over into my adult life, forming habits that I both hate and am grateful for. I’m not sure if other Aspies will feel the same or understand me when I talk about the ‘mask’ – I call it the ‘mask’, anyway, because that’s what it feels like. When I am talking with a group of people, or even one-on-one, my face doesn’t always like to form expressions, especially not appropriate ones. Every now and then, I’ll feel the overwhelming urge to grin broadly at the most inappropriate times, usually when being told or telling something that should be depressing or upsetting. For example, I was watching a crime show with my roomie the other night, and she said to me, “I think I remember this one, what happens?” And as the father died on the screen, I turned to her and said, “That’s right – I remember too, the father dies,” and I felt the overwhelming urge to smile. Not because his death amused me at all; in fact, I understand that it was a really upsetting plot twist, and I don’t like seeing death at all. But for some reason, even though it didn’t amuse me at all, my lips wanted to twist into a grin.

Anyway, I experience what I call the ‘mask’, and I call it that because it doesn’t feel real at all. It feels very over exaggerated, very fake, and doesn’t always relate to what I feel inside. It’s almost as if I’m forcing the emotions out, because inside I may be blank or just mildly reacting, but outwardly I overreact. Let’s form a hypothetical situation in our heads, where a friend of mine is trying to talk to me about her room mate not doing the dishes after promising she would do them.

FRIEND: Dude, you remember I asked her to do the dishes? Well, guess what. She totally didn’t.
ASPIE BRIT: Oh, yeah. I remember.
MASK: Dude, no way!! She didn’t?! That’s ridiculous! You asked her like, tonnes of times!
FRIEND: I know, right? So I told her I wasn’t going to put up with her crap anymore.
ASPIE BRIT: I guess that makes sense, if she keeps doing it.
MASK: *trying to think of what would be the ‘right’ thing to say to this, what would be good to back my friend up, a fact or a comment about people in general* Dude, totally!! I mean, what the hell! She’s always doing this. And it’s just not right, you know? You can’t just dump your crap everywhere and expect someone else to pick it up. That’s just not something room mates should do, it’s not fair to you, man.

That’s just a short example, but you would have to imagine a lot of exaggerated ‘OMG NO WAI’ facial expressions in there, and a lot of open-mouth gawking with no real emotion behind it. It almost feels like I’m forcing these facial expressions (because I still don’t quite have the hang of bodily expressions, save for rubbing my eyes), and although I’m twisting my features, my face still feels blank. And when it comes to reactions, I have a few main ones that I use depending on what the situation warrants.

Shocking news: I drop my mouth open a bit, open my eyes wide and lift my eyebrows, and usually say, “Whaaaaat,” or “Dude.”

Sad news: I wrinkle my forehead and brows a little and say, “Oh, no. Hun. That sucks.” Usually, the vocal pattern on this one isn’t as good as the rest, and can sound a little flat and emotionless. I’m working on sounding more interested.

Great news: I slap on as big of a grin as I can manage at the time and say, “No way! That’s awesome.”

A lot of the time, I’m terrified that people have started to notice that my expressions and reactions are either too bland or too overenthusiastic, or that they’ve realized I constantly re-use the exact same ones over and over again.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that, if there IS a reaction I am very confident with and I feel it correctly inwardly, I will massively over exaggerate it outwardly. For example, if I see something funny, I have to literally point and laugh my heart out overenthusiastically even if I don’t find it THAT amusing, and I have to reiterate to the people around me how hilarious it is until they acknowledge me and take note of my amusement.

I’ve still noticed I tend to mimic those around me, on television and in movies as well as in social situations. I was at a small get-together for a friend’s birthday last night, and a few of the guys there were ‘rocker’ guys – very cool, very confident. They would sit with their legs open, one forearm resting lazily on one knee, chewing gum, and their expressions were very lazy and ‘cool’. And so, I automatically began to mimic that way of sitting, speaking, reacting, etc. I don’t really know if I do it subconsciously or consciously. I just know that, depending on the people I am around, I will always act slightly differently.

I suppose the point of this blog is to address the ‘masks’ that we Aspies may or may not be forced to wear just to appear warm and emotional rather than cold, selfish, blank and boring, and for us all to share some of our coping mechanisms with other Aspies, and how you all are learning to deal with situations where you may be under- or –over-exaggerating. If you have any comments, or anything to share, please do! I don’t have many coping mechanisms for now, except to live and learn and not repeat mistakes (and to ALWAYS remember to be enthusiastic and ask questions when they are talking about their interests so that I don’t appear rude), so anything you want to share with me and anyone else who might be reading it greatly appreciated!


  1. This is interesting. I do the mask especially for sad news, because I know sad news is serious and it's very important to look terribly sad and sympathetic - and I end up looking too sad and sympathetic, like I'm about to cry or something!

    I don't tend to use the mask so much for happy or exciting news - I tend to do my natural reaction, which is not very excited, but just analysing the situation logically. I probably should apply my mask more to those situations. I do it better online, because I copy the sorts of things everyone else says ('that's fantastic' is a popular one for Brits, I observe!).

    I tend to prefer the word 'disorder', because to me that just means that things are not in their regular order - so things like learning to read earlier than normal and learning to walk later than normal.

  2. great post, can really relate to much of it, especially the 'mask' i tend to have scripted responses to emotional situations.
    although i did also watch cartoons, i really used to love silent movies (still do) which i think is mainly because the emotions are much easier to read because they are all over dramatized.