Many autistic children have difficulty interpreting someone's mood from the way their facial features arrange themselves, my boys are no exception to this general rule. Now that they can speak and use their words occasionally they will ask a pertinent question such 'are you mad?' [translation = angry] Curiously this isn't generally because I am wearing an angry face. [translation = perish the thought that my cheerleader face might slip]
No, it's much more important than that. I think it's because they either recognize that they have transgressed [translation = made a less than perfect choice] and or that they have concerns as to how I, their mother, might feel about that behaviour. [translation = rats to the theory of mind] [ref – see previous post]
I know that there are a great many children who have similar difficulties without the label that my children have. You'll see them on the playground at recess. Some poor benighted child takes a tumble and another child laughs. The child who laughs isn't necessarily playing with the one that falls down. He may be entirely unconnected with the other group at play, he just notices the fall. He has a visceral reaction what he observes but his synapses direction him to the wrong response because his 'pity/concern' category is either misfiled or under developed. The reaction most readily retrievable is the 'laugh' response.
You doubt me? I do too. But if you examine your own behaviour, very occasionally someone will tell you something and all you can come up with is 'the nervous laugh.' [translation = except Brits who are never nervous and always have the stiff upper lips firmly in place] It's the same underlying principal for us all. We know we ought to react, not quite sure how, and we leak a giggle instead. [translation = with the exception of Brits who refuse to react to anything without prior permission in triplicate]
He practices his facial expressions in front of the mirror. It's o.k. if I observe this child, the littlest one, as he doesn't have strong feelings about me watching him occasionally. It's the other one that explodes with outrage if he catches me watching him. [translation = it must feel like spying whilst you're experimenting with something new, in private, until you are comfortable enough to permit a public audience] For a long time senior son refused to look at photographs of people's faces, it was one of the many triggers for a major meltdown, along with teddy bears amongst other things. If you are a child then it is quite remarkable for an adult to realize just how many teddy bears there are in a child's life, but you learn this very rapidly as your child identifies every single one of them, wherever you happen to come across them, and demonstrates that he has correctly managed to find even the most obscure ones, by melting down in a catastrophic tantrum.
This kind of behaviour makes even the simplest of task outside your own teddy bear free zone house, a game of chance. [translation = a crap shoot / shute?]
It might seem a little grim, but it was a vast improvement on the period just prior to that, when the word 'teddy' wasn't in his non-verbal filing system. Curiously, Pachycephalosaurs and all his relatives, were neatly catalogued for easy and frequent use. I can tell you with confidence that in everyday life, you are likely to come across at least 100 teddies for every one non specific dinosaur, it's a statistical fact. [translation = do not challenge me, I know I am right from evidence I the field]
I attempt reinforcement with junior and his mirror, “that's a very happy face you have there!”
“It's not a happy face, it's a straight line, see!” I look. His mouth is straight, a tight line but his eyes are cartoons of surprise. “Perhaps you are surprised?”
“No, I try surprise. That's too difficult for me.”
“So what face do you have now?”
“I don know. A happy face with a straight line mouth.” I watch him part his lips, reveal his teeth as if to check for lipstick, then purse them closed again. He snaps them open and shut again, watching the effect.
Another curious aspect of this discomfort with images of the human face, is that mirrors, [translation = not that we have many of them] were avoided. Senior son would try and cover them up, obscure them, so that he wouldn't accidentally catch a glimpse of himself. The shock of seeing himself unexpectedly always produced a meltdown. Translation = an assault of surprise] In the summer when panes of glass shifted their aspect in the sun, they too became substitute mirrors, but it took me a long time to work out his sudden aversion to doors and windows.
Junior lets his chin drop to his chest, despondent, “I never get it right!” he sighs. If I knew what he was attempting to mimic, I might be able to help him. Hopefully whatever emotion he is trying to convey, won't require me to role play 'smiling,' because if I smile and reveal my braces, this might be detrimental to his comprehension. [translation = negative reinforcement]
His older brother has made a lot of progress in the last three and a half years. The innocuous smiley faces that he encounters daily are no longer abhorrent. He advanced to cartoon faces over a year ago, but only if they were line drawings, black and white. We pushed him forward to accept colour versions, and gradually, minutely, stepped into the world of photographic faces. It's not something that he enjoys but the main purpose would to prevent the heart failure he experienced, whenever such an image jumped out and accosted him. Mirrors are no longer an object of fear, he can tolerate their existence, can choose not to look into them rather than expressing his displeasure in a sociably unacceptable manner.
I turn my attention back to junior as his manipulates his bottom jaw with the assistance of his hands, as he doesn't have a great deal of muscle strength in that area.
“What are you trying to do dear?”
“I happy? I sad? I mad? I surprised? What I am?” Seems more like curiousity than anything else to me.
“I think you're happy. Are you practicing a happy face?”
“No. I practice my face. It is the lips or the chin that makes the smile?” A reasonable enquiry under the circumstances, but I hope that he doesn't delve too much further, as I haven't passed human anatomy 101.
“It's the lips dear?” He pouts, purses and preens, testing out the hypothesis.
“You know?….. it not dah lips, it's dah muscles that are moving the lips underneaf dah skin.”
Ah! I stand corrected, as usual.