There is something that I really want to see more people accept. This is probably true in much broader contexts than autism, but autism is the place where I feel it the most.
That being – what you see when you look at me and what is actually going on do not necessarily line up. People assume that whatever is going on in one’s head will automatically show on one’s face. That it just *happens,* all on it’s own. Which means that if a person has a blank facial expression, there must not be anything going on in their head.
It’s an easy conclusion to reach. It’s easy to assume this, and there may be plenty of circumstances where it’s true. There are, however, also plenty of circumstances where it is not true.
For instance, when I am particularly focused on something, my face tends to go blank. I knew that my face tended to go a bit slack when I was focusing, but up until recently I was not aware of the extent of this tendency. Not too long ago my SO took some brief video of me during my riding lesson. During the time that he was doing so, I was focused and concentrating and actually working quite hard. As it turns out, I did not look that way at all.
I imagine that when people think about someone who is really focused or concentrating on something, they picture something like this:
I, however, look different. I looked blank. Completely blank. I mean, my jaw was slack and everything. Keeping expressions on my face takes a certain constant amount of attention. Usually it’s a small enough amount of attention that I don’t actually have to worry about it. However, when I am strongly focused or really tired, my facial expressions just seem to fall off. I imagine it happens in more contexts than just riding, too.
Sometimes people treat me as though I am, shall we say, not so smart. There are any number of reasons why they might, including that being just their default way of interacting with people, but I imagine part of it is that slack-jawed, empty looking stare I can get sometimes. And when people see me with that blank face, they assume that my mind is equally blank, when, in fact, it’s the other way around.
I’ve had similar “what you see is not what is happening” incidents in my life. For instance, when doing things like card games, I like to sit and visualize moving the cards around before making a move, so that I can get an idea of which moves will work and which moves will not. If someone happens to be watching me, all they will see is me just sitting and staring motionless at the screen. I have had people try to point out moves to me, thinking that I must not be seeing them. What I am doing does not show, but that does not mean that I am doing nothing.
I know that keeping this sort of thing in mind in the moment can be challenging. This is one (of many) reasons why autism advocates say to assume competence. We don’t always look or act the way you expect intelligent people to look or act, but that does not make up stupid. I often listen best by looking away and having a small fidget or stim with my hands. Other autistic people may listen best by flapping their hands or by humming or otherwise doing things that do not look like what people expect listening to look like. Forcing me to look like I’m listening will only result in poorer listening from me.
Instead, I would rather people accept those of us on the autism spectrum as we are, even if we don’t look or act the way you think we “should.”