Autistic Vs Neurotypical Perception: People react to facial expressions

6 min read

If a person is staring at you, their eyebrows drawn tightly, their head tilted forward, leaning towards you, their jaw tight, their mouth a straight line, you might assume they’re angry with you. You might feel threatened.

If you learn the person is severely visually impaired–legally blind– you realize they’re just trying to focus and process the limited or inadequate visual input they receive to understand what they’re seeing.‬ Their facial expression is not communication to you. They’re likely not even aware of their face at all because they’re spending so much energy processing.

In the image below, the person’s face can be described the same way: tight eyebrows, face leaning forward, tight mouth, jaw set. But here, there’s a visual cue (glasses pulled up) and the person is looking at something else.

Perception and Intent

I am known for performing a lot of spontaneous social experiments, and today was another of those. I sent a series of four images to many people, autistic and non-autistic (and some who aren’t sure which they are), and asked them to just give me their impression.

I didn’t want people to think I was asking them to comment on race or gender biases, so I originally sent a pair of images as a “control;” however, the reaction to those two images was interesting enough to note, as well. Here are the four images and the reactions from autistic and non-autistic people to those images.

Note: gender of individuals was named in the image descriptions from the site where I purchase stock images. “Neurotypical” means that someone is not neurodivergent (autistic, ADHD, Tourette’s, etc.); however, in this article, the word “neurotypical” is used as a synonym of “non-autistic.”

Person 1

Both autistic and non-autistic people responded to this person with words that have a positive connotation: attractive, intelligent, business woman, focused, well-dressed, classy, professional.

Most people, autistic or not, remarked that the woman was thinking of something, concentrated, in deep thought, pensive.

Some autistic people made comments that were references to her sensory processing. For example, one autistic person said the woman was thinking, “It’s really bright out.”

Another autistic person was quite specific, responding that this woman was likely looking away from the visually-overstimulating city and focusing on the clouds, a bird, or trees to regulate her sensory experience.

A few people (women) said she looks like she’s contemplating revenge or “up to no good.”

Person 2

107259842_594465881273322_7544593386001190383_n

This person received the most negative description from non-autistic people who used the following words and phrases used to describe him: creepy, alcoholic, ugly, psycho, rapey, pervert, loser, and stoner.

But, many autistic people had a very different impression, using the following descriptors: trying to listen and understand, hipster, creative, a bit silly, empathizing, kind, in awe of the beauty and art in something, sad but trying to look happy, distressed and intense, masking his feelings, and has seasonal allergies.

One autistic person described him as being on another plane of consciousness and unaware of his surroundings or what others were seeing. A few people said he was looking at something (beautiful, glorious) internally and not seeing what is in front of him.

Person 3:

107533771_904263240053082_5738967645515471646_n

Autistic and non-autistic people reacted very differently to this person, too. Most non-autistic people used words or phrases associated with anger: pissed off, infuriated, mad as hell, rage.

One autistic and one non-autistic person anticipated intent: about to kick somebody’s ass, ready to fight.

Very few autistic people estimated this person was angry. Almost all autistic people reacted the same way to this person, indicating that he was trying to process information or was confused. Words and phrases autistic people used: trying hard to understand something, confused, trying to process, listening hard, not sure what he’s looking at. One person remarked that he is probably visually impaired, one said he is maybe deaf and trying to read lips, and one said that he likely has auditory processing disorder.

Person 4

107757326_3360832874142113_6696975519820575568_n

Almost everyone, no matter their neurotype, expressed that this person was trying to understand what he was seeing. Many guessed he was looking at his phone (he was before I cropped the image). Some used words to estimate the emotion he was feeling: disbelief, shocked, annoyed, confused, irritated, irate, disgusted.

To that last point, two men estimated he just stepped in dog poo.

There were, however, some differences in the language used to describe Person 4.

Zero neurotypical people mentioned the glasses. Many– if not most– autistic people mentioned the glasses. Several asked where the lenses were.

Autistics also tended to use more clinical or specific language to express the same thing neurotypicals stated, describing the way that moving the glasses might aid the man in visual processing.

Oddly, only one person commented on this person’s level of attractiveness.

General Differences: Autistic v/s Non-Autistic

Many non-autistic people commented on the attractiveness of each individual, their clothing, or their hairstyles. They also made some conjecture about the person’s degree of career success (business woman, loser, unemployed).

Autistic people were equally as objective in their impressions of Person 1–4. If they described the emotional expression of person 1, they also did the same for the rest of the people. If they described race or gender presentation of one, they tended to do that for all.

Neurotypical people were mostly objective in their perceptions about Person 1 and Person 4; however, they demonstrated a lot of subjective interpretation of Person 2 and Person 3. While these impressions might be described by racial or gender biases, impressions about Person 1 (a Black woman) and person 4 (a white man) were neutral or positive.

This is conjecture, and obviously not a scientific experiment ready for peer review, but I believe the reason that non-autistic people were so subjective in their impressions of Person 2 and Person 3 is because those people were looking at the camera– eye contact– and they were perceived to be communicating something with their body language.

Lastly, many autistic people expressed that an expression could be interpreted various ways, and more information or context was needed before they could make a guess. Particularly, several autistic people thought that Person 2 was either listening intently or was gazing at something beautiful; also, several autistic people noted that they were unsure if Person 3 was frustrated, angry, or just focusing.

The Hot Take

All people project onto others based on their own personal experiences.

Person 2 is vulnerable to being assumed to be a sexual predator by neurotypicals. If he is dangerous, autistic people aren’t perceiving that– for what it’s worth, it baffles me that neurotypicals see something in his face that indicates anything related to sexual behavior. I just don’t get it.

I have had dangerous men objectify, attempt to assault, or actually assault me, and none of them looked like this person. Though, for those who said “creative” or “smokes weed,” I did think, “Yeah, that’s reasonable.” I don’t typically associate creativity and weed with rape, though.

If anyone wants to explain this one in the comments, I’d love to hear why people think this person is “creepy” or “rapey.”

Person 3 is vulnerable to being perceived as a violent threat. That’s what I predicted people would say before I started this experiment. I believe if people had the context that he was hearing- or vision-impaired, they’d immediately make the internal switch to thinking that he was similar to Person 4. He’s also vulnerable to racial biases.

Imagine how these perceptive differences impact the way autistic people are treated. Think of the consequence these biases might have in policing. In witness testimony. In human resources (HR) on the job– or even in a job interview. In who looks “suspicious” in a store, on the library steps, walking alone in a neighborhood.

 

17 Comments

  1. Well crap, I’m Autistic, but I immediately assumed that #3 was pervy creep.

  2. #2 is a pretty different photograph from the others, regardless of subject, and the lighting choice translates as ominous. Other backgrounds are environmental or neutral backdrops, where this one looks like a hidden camera caught a burglar in your basement.

    1. That’s a really excellent point. I could definitely see how the lighting might make people immediately on edge. I’m a fan of horror & don’t get creeped out by things most people do. I typically am attracted to/drawn to dark/gothic/macabre/freaky things because they doesn’t give me the same tense or unpleasant feelings they do for most. I just find them interesting/beautiful, but I’m starting to understand that this is something unusual about how I interpret things, and not commonplace.

  3. I’m autistic but #2 looks like someone I would avoid the crap out of. He’s staring directly at the camera with very wide eyes, like he’s forcing direct, unblinking eye contact with someone. I have met so many men with this look in their eyes who end up being sexual predators or otherwise mentally unstable and dangerous, and at this point I avoid anyone who looks at me like this as a matter of course.

    That said, I only learned this after trusting many people like this and getting burned. In my younger years, I would probably have seen more positive in him. Unfortunately, for me, seeing the positive in men I associate with this look led to pretty serious troubles in my life.

  4. Some people think that if you have small samples and possibly no credentials (although you might have credentials) then it cannot count as research. But I think this kind of research is important and useful and valid, and a lot of academic published research is not valid, so it’s more a matter of whether you are approaching it openly and with logical methods. Also we get a lot further in understanding if we are asking “what is happening” instead of “what is wrong with autistic people”, so thanks for that!


  5. Person 2 looked like my ex-husband — my reaction was, ‘Shit, he’s annoyed with me!’. So that’s probably down to conditioning. But my ex was, as a friend said, ‘a doormat’. So normally not in the least threatening, pervy, or any of the other things 🙂

    Person 3 I could see right away was concentrating. He seems a nice guy — I’d like to know what he was so fascinated by!

    Person 4 looks like he has the same problem with his glasses that I do — totally useless for reading small print, or small text on a phone!

    Yeah, I’m autistic 🙂

  6. #2 appears to me to a super creative individual with a divergent thinking pattern and may have a lot of interesting ideas, but I did feel like he looked to be on some sort of substance and would be someone I would talk to indoors but not in the street.

  7. Person 2 looks as though his eyes are a bit red around the edges to me, as if he’s been upset or unwell.

    Person 3 looks like he’s concentrating on something, although he’s possibly been mistaken for frowning — I can relate to that.

    Person 4 — have the lenses fallen out of his specs?

  8. Person 1 definitely looks like she’s thinking of something pleasant, maybe daydreaming. Person 2 freaks me out too, but that’s bc folks with really expressive faces make me feel scared/uncomfortable and I don’t know why. My mom—definitely not autistic but very anxious—is the same way so maybe it’s an anxiety thing, as I have that too. Person 3 looked angry at first, but I can also see confused, or like he’s squinting, so, idk, both? I think I’d assume angry at first just bc I associate that face with that emotion but tbh I also kinda think he looks confused, and I’m confused bc now I see both and I. Ant decide which I think it is, lol. Person 4 just looks like he’s trying to read his phone and I guess the glasses aren’t helpful, or they’re broken, or they aren’t for reading or he forgot they were on his head, lool. I’m maybe autistic, Idk, I think I am, but my folks very strongly disagree, so who knows. I have been diagnosed with obsessive compulsive personality disorder though which seems to have a lot of overlap, according to studies, with autism, and I think I’m autistic so.

  9. I (autistic btw) do understand both the ‘weed smoker’ and ‘creepy’ of nr. 2.
    I’m Dutch, I’ve seen way too many (mostly tourists btw, some addicts) potheads. Nr. 2’s pupils are very small, which indicates substance abuse, especially with the red around his eyes and in his nose. Also, the way he looks into the camera is so intense that even with a screen between and while I’m relatively able to look people in the eye for an autistic person, I have the urge to look away to avoid his stare. My experience, like Ada, is that people who look at others like that try to force eye contact, and can be very … that word again, intense, in what they want from the person they look at that way, and often not in a good way.
    I don’t see ‘dreamy’ AT ALL. I see anger, sexual or otherwise, fuelled by drugs.

  10. To me, Person 1 looks as if she’s “spacing out” instead of focused. I sort of get this faraway look like that when I’m thinking about something intensely, but I wouldn’t describe the look I have on my face as focused. I think that’s an interesting distinction. I also don’t necessarily get a “pleasant” vibe from it. It looks thoroughly neutral to me. Maybe a little concerned even because if she’s doing the autistic spacing out thinking about something thing, that can be a pretty intense feeling, which is why we can’t really focus on anything else. Not saying it’s a BAD feeling, but I dunno that I’d say it’s super comfortable, either. It almost feels like a compulsion to me. It’s like something washes over me, this wave of distraction that highjacks my brain & I sort of “check out” of my body and what’s going on around me. I look like a zombie just sorta staring into space. People have commented on how disturbing it looks because my eyes go super wide and I’m just staring in an unfocused way, but I can still be doing something mechanically with my body. I used to do it when I was working. My coworkers would tell me about how unnerving it was. While I feel this person’s expression would be a very mild version of what I do, it still gives me a similar vibe to it. That’s probably me projecting my experiences haha.

  11. Fascinating read! It’s interesting how apparent the projections people engage in are. And we don’t tend to notice we project. You did it as well, here:

    “I have had dangerous men objectify, attempt to assault, or actually assault me, and none of them looked like this person. Though, for those who said “creative” or “smokes weed,” I did think, “Yeah, that’s reasonable.” I don’t typically associate creativity and weed with rape, though.”

    I think because you have experiences with men who are sexual threats that did not look like the guy, you can’t perceive him in that way. My first impressions of person 2 were, “I really don’t like that. He looks ill and threatening.” At the same time, I felt uneasy with other people describing him as creepy, rapey, and a stoner. Why the discrepancy?

    My initial reaction is due to the lighting, the pale skin, the piercing eyes, and the red around his eyes. Light hits his face, but the surroundings are dark, which gives the impression you randomly embarked upon this person in the night. It’s a potential threat. I think this impression tends to make us think of sinister possibilities such as rape—perhaps particularly for women.

    But the reason I felt uncomfortable with the negative ways in which others described him is because I think what makes him look threatening is almost exclusively the lighting, rather than his features. I mean, I don’t think he is actually ugly, and with different lighting people might perceive him as attractive. I didn’t like the stereotypes such as rapey and stoner, which are projections.

    1. As I pointed out, not per se. He has very, very small pupils, which not neccesarily perhaps, but usually indicates the use of substances like weed.
      I do agree, the ‘rapey’ certainly is a projection, also fuelled by his intense stare that (again, projection) feels like he forces eye contact a lot. Like, more than usual NT’s do. I just realised that this might be a reason why many autistic people do not project this creepiness on him per se and NT’s do. We are used to people forcing eye contact, even from nice, usually non-treatening people, so it’s uncomfortable but not a red flag anymore. They are used to eye contact going naturally, and if it’s forced to the NT’s it often is by someone creepy. And so, indeed, a projection is born, but I don’t think it’s a bad one. NT’s forcing eye contact (and overall their way of communication) being seen as normal by us is one of the reasons autistic people are abused more.

      1. *necessarily. Somehow this one word keeps showing English is not my native language xD

      2. *threatening. I don’t know what’s gotten into me today with typo’s and misspellings.


Talk to us... what are you thinking?