On Autistic Facial Expression and Being A Woman

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.


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7 Responses

  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.

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