Flat Affect and Reading Facial Expressions: Help for Kids on the Autism Spectrum

"How can I help my daughter (high functioning autistic) to better understand non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and body language?"

“Flat affect” is a term used to describe a lack of emotional reactivity. It is manifest as a failure to express feelings – either verbally or non-verbally – especially regarding issues that would normally be expected to engage the emotions.

With a flat affect, expressive gestures are rare, and there is little animation in facial expression or vocal inflection. A person with flat affect has no – or nearly no – emotional expression. He or she may not react at all to circumstances that usually evoke strong emotions in others.

Many kids with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) have a flat affect. Their facial expressions are fixed or “artificial” in appearance instead of naturally animated. The youngster may not laugh or smile unless cued to do so in an appropriate situation, or he may appear to have a collection of rehearsed or “canned” reactions to match certain circumstances (which, by the way, is actually a real strength).

The youngster’s way of talking may also seem “flat” and monotone. In other words, his words may sound robotic and carefully measured, or there may be a lilting tone to his voice (described by some as “sing-song”) in which his speech sounds as if it's bouncing up and down when he talks.

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Many young people on the autism spectrum have internal feelings that may or may not be reflected on their face. But it's important that they provide natural, spontaneous expressiveness – and recognize facial expressions in others – because facial expressions are a form of non-verbal communication essential to interpersonal relationships.

Reading facial expressions is important for social success. An inability to read facial and social cues makes “connecting” to others very difficult. Learning to translate and digest the meanings of different facial expressions can help determine other people's needs and foster true communication.

Parents can teach their special needs children how to be more expressive, and they can teach the meaning of facial expressions in others.

In teaching the child how to express himself “facially,” parents can model different emotions and the corresponding facial expression (e.g., how being “surprised” may look with raised eyebrows and eyes wide opened). Then, parents can have the child practice such facial expressions while she looks at herself in the mirror.

One method to teach the meaning of facial expressions in others is to use photographs that depict different facial expressions. Here are some other ways to teach your child to “read” facial expressions:

1. Teach your child the different modes of facial expression. Start with the building block basics (e.g., what does anger, disgust or surprise look like?). Realize that one building block of reading facial expressions is to discern that the words being spoken may not necessarily reflect the true inner emotions.

2. Teach your child to listen carefully to whatever words are said, but to examine the overall body and facial language (e.g., clenched teeth, angry piercing eyes, or a set, hard mouth). Some people have subtle tics that worsen under stress.

3. Teach your child to look for overly-intensive stares (e.g., overcompensation, rapid blinking, or small smirks in the face). Kids, especially, can’t help but smile a little when thinking that they are "getting away with it." Liars will either avoid direct eye contact or overcompensate by looking you right in the eyes to assure you of their "sincerity."

4. Reading fear in faces can be discerned, even on a subtle level. Pupils will dilate, the person's breathing will become deeper, the mouth will open wider to take in air, and the eyes will wander around much more than usual.

5. Teach that some people hide many of their true feelings under social discourse, from trying to protect others from negative emotions, to out-and-out deception. Often, the words do not match the emotions being conveyed.

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6. Review facial expressions that signify emotions of happiness, including people with a wide open stare, who move in closer, show an unaffected smile, or relax their eyebrows. Playing with hair is a positive sign for women. So is sitting up straight and extending a hand with an honest smile. This shows the person is receptive, not closing themselves away. Eye contact is increased and hands are open.

7. Teach how body language plays into facial expressions. Many body positions tell more than what the speaker is saying (e.g., folding the arms across the chest, even while smiling and saying nice words, is a known "on guard" position). The opposite posture, then, is someone sitting with legs spread out, slouched in a relaxed position.

8. Teach your child to look at people’s eyes. For many people, the eyes reveal the emotions behind the words. Even if a person is angry and hiding it with polite words, a wrinkling at the edges (with the eyes held at half mast) tells a different story. So does the smile on a sad person trying to hide their tears in public, but is looking away. Teach to read these cues.

9. Teach your child to be careful not to stare too intently while seeking to read someone's facial expressions.

10. There are many tests online in which you can teach and practice discernment of facial expressions.

11. To your child to watch for the “con man” who can be far more skilled at hiding true emotions and manipulating facial expressions. Often, this overcompensation translates into lack of affect (emotion).

12. Watch foreign movies with your child to teach “facial reading” skills. Study how the actors respond to different activities and situations. This is a way to "see" each emotion, because unless the movie is subtitled, you'll be concentrating on nonverbal signals instead of dialogue.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

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