If you’re a neurotypical person, you may wonder, if you can’t judge an autistic person’s intentions by their facial expressions and tone of voice, what can you use as an accurate barometer?
Autistic Emotional Expressions Look Different Than Neurotypical Expressions
Many autistic people have what non-autistic people describe as a “flat affect” of the face and voice. This may mean that even if we feel a strong emotion, our facial expression and tone of voice will remain blank and/or monotone respectively, which can be confusing to the neurotypical observer who relies primarily on non-verbal communication.
Conversely, we may also have facial expressions and tones in our voice that make us seem bored, sad, or even angry when we feel perfectly content.
Having neurological differences that make our facial expressions and tone of voice seem to contradict our internal environment can be frustrating for you, the neurotypical employer, and us, the autistic person who isn’t aware of how we’re being perceived until someone has a sudden emotional reaction to it.
I Don’t Know What My Face or Tone of Voice Conveys
For me, one of the most confusing aspects of being autistic in a neurotypical world is when people react suddenly to my facial expression or tone of voice as though I meant to insult them, or I was trying to “say something” with my face or voice that contradicts my words.
It took me a very long time to realize just how nuanced neurotypical communication is and how much of it relies on the non-verbal. I had to take the time to learn about facial expressions and their meanings through books and online resources.
I also started recording myself to see and hear what other people were reacting to.
When I have an emotion, I feel my facial muscles making the corresponding facial expression, and I hear the right tone in my voice, but when I played back those recordings of myself, I was absolutely floored to realize that what I thought I was conveying wasn’t even close to what was coming across.
That’s when I realized how vital it was to inform people to listen to and believe my words.
Sudden Reactions to Perceived Emotions Causes Mistrust
If you’re a non-autistic supervisor, and you catch your autistic employee staring at you with what you perceive as an angry facial expression, you may irritatedly say, “Hey, what’s the problem?”
In reality, your autistic employee may have been frowning in deep concentration and didn’t even realize that you were in their line of sight. Because of this, you loudly asking, “Hey, what’s the problem?” would be startling and confusing.
It’s the same with tones of voice. Let’s say you ask for feedback on an idea you’ve presented in a meeting, and your autistic employee says, “I agree with you”, but their vocal tone sounds flat. Due to this, you may mistakenly believe that your employee thinks the exact opposite. This may cause you to say something along the lines of, “Well, I don’t appreciate your sarcasm.”
From your autistic employee’s perspective, however, your reaction would make no sense. They meant exactly what they said and have no idea how you’re perceiving their vocal tone because they don’t hear it the way you do.
When these types of misunderstandings continue for too long in an office setting, it creates a hostile work environment where repeated emotional reactions come “out of the blue”, causing your autistic employees to mistrust you.
How to Ask Your Autistic Employee About Their Feelings and Intentions
This is how I advise non-autistic people to approach autistic people about their emotions and intentions, regardless of their relationship to the person:
1. Start with mentioning your observation.
If your autistic employee’s facial expression or tone of voice doesn’t seem to match their words, explain what you’re observing before doing or saying anything else because chances are, they won’t know what you’re reacting to without an explanation.
- “I noticed you were looking over my way with a frown on your face.”
- “You said you’re interested in working on this project, but your vocal tone sounded flat.”
2. Explain how you perceive what’s happening.
Once you’ve explained your observation, explain how you would perceive the facial expression or vocal tone coming from a neurotypical person. “When someone looks at me for a long time and frowns, I think they’re upset with me or judging me. Is that true?” or “When a person’s vocal tone is flat, it usually means they are bored or disinterested. Is that true?”
3. Listen for understanding.
Listen carefully to the autistic person’s perspective. You may discover that the person who was “angrily staring at you” was in intense thought and didn’t even see you, and the person you thought was “disinterested” was interested but has a difference in their natural vocal tone.
4. Believe the words.
I can’t stress this enough, believe an autistic person’s words. If you ask us about our emotions or intentions directly, we’ll most likely be 100 percent upfront with you and grateful that you asked because many people do not; they simply react and make our environment uncomfortable, unsafe, and confusing.
The better you understand autistic communication and the neurological differences that come with being on the spectrum, the more likely you are to create a safe and inviting work environment for all of your employees.