Can I Be Autistic and Read Facial Expressions?

So apparently I have doubts if I actually am autistic again. This time the reason is that I can read facial expressions. Not necessarily well, but I can do it. Can I really be autistic then? There are three aspects of this that make me wonder.

The first one is that I have become better at it the last couple of years, I’ve done a lot of misreadings when I was younger. As I wrote about in the post about my eating disorder treatment, my inability to read other people and to be socially smooth provoked people and had a big impact on my relationships to others. So is it possible that I’ve just learned it with a lot of practise?

The second aspect is that most of the times when I’m around other people, the problem isn’t that their faces and body language isn’t telling me something, the problem is that it’s telling me too much. There is so much information that I can’t navigate automatically, instead, I have to think and very consciously debate with myself what the other person really means. Their words say one thing, their tone of voice says something else, there body language and facial expresson give me a third message.

The third aspect is that sometimes I read people too well, I pick up on very subtle things and I can see that they are not telling me the truth. This doesn’t happen very often, however.

On top of this, I don’t lack empathy. It’s more like I’m lacking a shield or some kind of shell and I’m very strongly affected by other peoples emotions. It’s like somebody is pouring a bucket – no, a barrel – of emotions over me when other people have somewhat strong emotions. Like I’m drowning. Of course, this makes it harder to navigate and read other people.

Is it possible to be autistic and be like this? Is it possible that I’m a lot worse, or a lot better at reading people than I think I am? Is it just that I have a way too stereotypical image of what autism is supposed to look like? Or maybe I’m actually not autistic? Is there anybody who shares my experiences?

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3 thoughts on “Can I Be Autistic and Read Facial Expressions?

  1. I share both of those experiences (although I’m not formally diagnosed with autism either) and I’ve read descriptions of them from other autistic and maybe-autistic people, too. You’re not alone. An autistic blogger’s description of “hyperempathy” was actually one of the first things I recognized myself in, before I started considering that I might be autistic. It’s such a powerful experience, and also so hard to explain, that I was really surprised to see other people describe it.

    I don’t think it’s exactly a stereotype that autistic people can’t read body language– or at least, it’s not exactly false. I think it’s mostly the difference between what an experience looks like from the outside and from the inside. Someone with experiences like we’ve had– experiences of being confused by conflicting or overwhelming information– could easily seem, to the people around them, like someone who doesn’t recognize body language at all.

    So, not recognizing body language might be a real autistic trait, but described by doctors in a way that doesn’t match how it feels from the inside. Or it may be that people who really can’t understand body language at all, and people who struggle with it for other reasons, have been grouped together under the label of autism because we seem to have similar problems.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for you comment! I think what I meant with “stereotypical” is more what you are describing. That many experiences can look like not being able to read body language from the outside, but experiencing it can mean a number of different things.

      Also, I realised that sometimes when I do read facial expressions and body language I read it with a few seconds delay. The consequence is that I act slightly inappropriate, but I can see that I’m doing that a couple of seconds later.

      And yes, hyper empathy is a very intense and powerful experience. My non-autistic partner seems to get it (after a number of explanations), but most people around me don’t. It’s kind of nice to know that other people have this experience too.

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  2. What you have said about having no shield is something I’ve certainly read about and experienced (I am diagnosed autistic, by the way). It’s quite often referred to as having no “filter”: seeing all the details in the information around you but not being able to filter quickly through and focus on the ones that are (typically seen as) most important. So when you’re struggling to communicate with someone, of course you can’t make eye contact or “switch on” to reading their body language – if you did that there would be too much information coming in and you’d forget what you were trying to say! That’s my experience, anyway, and it chimes with some other posts you’ve written about being overloaded by too much contact with other people.

    You’re not alone.

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