On Autistic Facial Expression and Being A Woman3 min read

When Greta Thunberg began to take the stage as an autistic cli­mate change activist, the world took notice.  My reac­tion was one of pow­erful pride, not just as an autistic adult, but as a former autistic girl.  Here was an artic­u­late, pas­sionate, bril­liant girl dis­in­ter­ested in fame and fashion, who wasn’t going to let the weight of the neu­rotyp­ical world crush her or keep her from speaking out!

And in some ways most moving for me, she wore my true face without shame.

This is why the internet back­lash has been so emo­tion­ally painful for me.  Lately, many pun­dits and con­ser­v­a­tives have tar­geted the (to a non-autistic) awk­ward facial expres­sions, which organ­i­cally cross Greta’s face, as signs of awk­ward­ness, unwor­thi­ness, and derange­ment, and it breaks my heart.  Not just as an activist, but as a woman who sees the same face in the mirror when she lets her guard down.

I have been pro­foundly moved by Greta’s face, and tear up when I see a person with a face so like my own lauded and cel­e­brated.  I watched Greta speak to the UN, gain inter­na­tional acclaim, and win the respect of Barrack Obama– all with this autistic face.  And, as an autistic woman, I allowed myself hope.  That maybe my face and its expres­sions weren’t really that odd or ugly to the rest of the world.

But appar­ently I was wrong.  The world still has no space for elo­quent women with flatter facial expres­sions.  I am aware that autistic men share this trait with us, but time and time again, including in my own family, I have seen this trait excused and over­looked in bril­liant men.  Apparently, this sort of inten­sity in a man is not as threat­ening.

I am not of Greta’s Generation; I am of the old guard and will turn 40 this very month.  Only this year did I have the courage to truly shrug off my self hatred and don the AspieGurl cape, metaphor­i­cally speaking.  But I still carry the scars of inter­nal­ized ableism and my fear of the video camera is a large part of this legacy.

My vocal inflec­tion is very nuanced, and tele­phone, radio, and tape have always been quite com­fort­able for me.  I love to write even on very per­sonal mat­ters and do so without fear.  But I faced my fear and did my very first livestream only months ago, and it took a lot out of me.  Why?  Because I just couldn’t take my focus off of reg­u­lating my face.  I couldn’t let myself go.

When I was a child, with the excep­tion of brief fleeting smiles, tears, and laughs of pure joy, I had a flat resting autistic expres­sion.  When told to smile for pic­tures, I would at times lit­er­ally use my hand to lift my mouth.  When I hit ado­les­cence, I became more aware of the stigma and ridicule that this opened me to and felt a need to con­quer it to fit in.

Around this time, many things hap­pened. First of all, I began playing a flute in the school band, and my facial mus­cles got stronger.  My mouth found the smile move­ment easier and more nat­ural.  I also faced social pres­sure and began to prac­tice smiling in the mirror.  With masking came increased social power but also increased social pres­sure.  If I didn’t have the energy to smile, I started choosing to stay home.

A lot of my smiling is nat­ural and gen­uine now; it isn’t all phony.  But between smiles, when I am not masking, other expres­sions can take over.  Intense, thoughtful, somewhat-flat expres­sions.  Greta’s expres­sions.  This is why I am con­sid­ered unpho­to­genic.

And this is why I cannot allow myself to let go in public or on video.  What if someone, who didn’t know or love me, well, saw it??  What if they truly saw how alien and ungirly I was beneath the skin?  What if they judged me for it?  The biggest struggle in my unmasking has been let­ting go and accepting that risk.

And Greta has the guts to do it EVERY DAY.  I love her for it and loved the society that wasn’t judging it.  Except for a secret thing.  A lot of society was.

For there to be either true autistic accep­tance OR true female equality in our society, men AND WOMEN, and non­bi­nary folk must be respected for showing their true faces.  In joy, in sad­ness, in pride, in pain, in inten­sity, in thought­ful­ness, AND in flashes of autistic bril­liance without being deemed broken or men­tally ill!  I await this day and hope that Greta’s Generation will achieve it.

 

7 Comments

  1. An excep­tional, strong woman, with more people like that this world would be ideal

  2. People see what they want to see or expect to see, whether in favor of it or not. I’ve seen many, many photos of Thunberg, and I’ve yet to see any expres­sion that could be called autistic. In photos where she is sur­rounded by other pro­testers, there is nothing to dis­tin­guish her from the others. So much has been made of her “autistic face” lately, that I can’t help but see it as part of the growing divide cre­ated by those who not only want to dis­tin­guish them­selves from NTs, but make a case for autism as somehow supe­rior.

    1. I am not sure if you are talking about the article I wrote, but I am frankly incred­u­lous. First of all, how anyone could read an article about someone’s deepest inse­cu­ri­ties and see it as a bid for supe­ri­ority is.……honestly baf­fling. I also am unsure as to how anyone who truly covers Greta and is autistic could come to your con­clu­sions about her never wearing our expres­sions. I am frankly more baf­fled than offended.

      1. I see her expres­sions as being much the same as anyone who is under stress or in an emo­tional state of mind. It doesn’t make any sense to me to see them as “autistic” rather than human. Considering how much the state­ment “You don’t look autistic” is resented, why would anyone who is autistic insist that there is a spe­cial autistic look?

        1. 1. I don’t resent that state­ment per­son­ally.

          2. I think people are more offended by the impli­ca­tion that there is one type of autistic PERSON than that there may be resting autistic expres­sions.

          3. I see no point in denying my own lived expe­ri­ence or the obvious in an effort to be more PC.

          1. There’s always going to be a wide range of inter­pre­ta­tions, and everyone is cer­tainly enti­tled to the one that comes from their per­sonal expe­ri­ence. No fault.

  3. As some­body who has a strong “resting autistic face”, I totally iden­tify with this. I learned how to mask pretty early on because of how I was treated for simply existing with the appar­ently “wrong” facial expres­sion, and I give Greta a lot of credit for living openly without the mask. Although, I do wonder if she even thinks about masking or even knows about it. I don’t know if it’s so much a choice as she prob­ably wasn’t given a lot of grief about her nat­ural facial expres­sions since she’s quite young and the view on autism has changed. I could be wrong, though.

Talk to us... what are you thinking?