Much is made of the difficulty people with Aspergers experience in trying to read the facial expressions of neurotypicals. But the other side of that coin is that Aspies themselves may wear the ‘wrong’ facial expression, at least, as neurotypicals understand facial expressions. Aspie’s faces may be interpreted by neurotypicals to convey something other than the Aspie’s true emotions. This can be very confusing and upsetting for a NT who loves an Aspie.
My friend Rhedyn is married to an Aspie, Dan (not their real names). They met and married long before Dan was diagnosed with Aspergers. Their marriage has been one of ‘feeling their way’ blindly through a labyrinth of misunderstandings. Their love is profound, their chemistry undeniable. But the verbal and non-verbal communication, they tell me, is tricky.
Last week over a cup of tea, Rhedyn confided to me that she and Dan had got into it recently. ‘I accused him of being condescending again’, she said, shaking her head, ‘but he denied it six ways from Sunday’.
‘I’m not an idiot, Ivy!’ she exclaimed angrily. ‘I can read people like a book. They say up to 90% of communication is non-verbal and I’m an expert on non-verbal communication. You can take it foregranted that neurotypicals can lie to you with their mouth, but their face and body will tell you the truth. Isn’t that the whole crux of polygraph tests? So does Dan really think I’m so stupid that I can’t tell exactly what he’s really thinking by his huffing and eye-rolling?! The gall of the man!’ she fumed.
A week past before Rhedyn and I met again. ‘So, how’s it going?’ I asked, knowing she often needs to vent to a fellow NT.
‘You’ll never believe this, Ivy’, she responded. ‘Dan finally convinced me that his face must be making the wrong expressions, at least, wrong to me. In fact, he told me he’s not even aware that he makes facial expressions at all. He almost insisted he doesn’t make facial expressions at all. I’ve learnt so much about Aspies this week!’
It seems that a neurotypical can throw everything they know about human communication out the window when it comes to conversing with an Aspie. They may emote, gesture and make facial expressions in a way that may (or may not) appear perfectly normal to a NT. But just as an Aspie struggles to correctly interpret an NT’s facial expressions, so they may also make facial expressions that NT’s would never interpret as the Aspie intends them.
For example, the heavy sigh and eye-roll a NT will do to show condescension, on an Aspie’s face is not condescension, but rather frustration with themselves. Frustration with their inability to put their point across to us; not frustration by our inability to understand them. The heavy sigh and eye-roll may feel very hurtful and insulting to an NT interpreting the Aspie’s facial expression by NT rules, but that’s not their intention.
For a neurotypical to be in a romantic relationship with an Aspie, as Rhedyn tells it, is to exist in a constant state of hurt. ‘He never reacts the way I expect, the way I want him to’, she complains. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s just the way of things when an Aspie loves an NT and an NT loves an Aspie. It’s almost as though they were raised in vastly different cultures and learned two wildly different ways to communicate, especially non-verbally.
A classic example is when Rhedyn has something interesting or exciting to tell Dan. He doesn’t make eye contact with her, a typical Aspie trait. His face registers no emotion, no interest. He looks away and offers little comment at the end. ‘Yep’ is the best she can hope for. ‘It hurts’ she says, ‘it always hurts. Dan says he is interested in what I have to say, but nothing about his facial expressions or words confirm this’. As a rather sensitive, co-dependant woman, Rhedyn finds it difficult to cope when her need for validation is, almost always, left unmet. She says it’s made her a stronger, more independent woman, but underneath it all is a constant state of being unsatisfied, unvalidated, and yes, inadvertently wounded.
‘Would you like it if Dan emoted like a NT and made the facial expressions you expect?’ I asked her.
She took a moment to consider. ‘Yes’ she said, ‘and no. Wouldn’t that make him an actor then? Wouldn’t it be inauthentic to him as an Aspie? No, at the end of the day, I want Dan to be Dan. He’s the man I married and the man I love. If I wanted to marry an actor, I would’ve chased Sean Connery’.