Mette Harrison
3 min readJul 21, 2022

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Autism and Smiling

My photos from childhood school picture days are hilariously bad. I hadn’t yet learned what “smiling” was supposed to look like. I just twisted my face into the widest possible grimace/smile I could manage. My bucked teeth make those smiles look even more ghastly. Autistic friends talk about similar problems, or about not understanding the difference between smiling and grimacing at all. As an adult, I’ve learned how to smile in a way that looks authentic, mostly by looking in a mirror and double checking selfies a lot, but the idea that most neurotypical people have that certain smiles are “real” and “happier” than others is baffling to me.

For me, a smile is always a social gesture. It is the way my face is supposed to look for the consumption of others. I take photos of myself to post online that are smiling, but almost all the time, I look at those photos and think about how I felt while making that face — careful concern about making sure it looked “right.” What I didn’t feel while making the face — happy. The two are not connected at all. I’m still confused, even as an adult, as to why it is that other people seem to think that they can tell the difference between “real” smiles and “fake” smiles when it comes to staring at a photograph. I don’t think anyone can, no matter what television show you’ve watched that points out how you have to look to see if the eyes are also smiling. I know how to make my eyes smile. That’s part of the social gesture of smiling.

It’s not that I never feel happy. I do. I often feel happy. I just don’t often smile when I feel happy all by myself, with no one looking at me. Happiness for myself doesn’t come with a facial expression. I laugh privately at times, though to be truthful, I don’t find comedic movies or comedy on television very funny. I once watched a so-called comedy with my sister next to me. She laughed over and over again. I never did. I don’t feel obliged to fake-laugh for her, but afterwards she asked if I’d liked the show or not. I’d liked it fine. I just don’t laugh out loud when I find things funny very often. The only explanation for this I can think of is that I’m autistic.

I know that neurotypical people think that laughing and smiling are “normal” responses. I suppose that’s why autism therapy is so often about getting autistic people to show those responses, but they’re not “real” in the way that I think people imagine they are, not for autists. Yes, we can put on those expressions, but that doesn’t mean you taught us how to show our emotions properly. It’s just that we learn that every time we walk outside of our houses, we are on stage like we have stepped into a theater production. That is what it all is to us, the clothes we wear, the faces that we put on. We are inhabiting your world but it isn’t real to us. It’s all a production we have to pretend in, pretend to another persona that isn’t ours at all.

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Mette Harrison

Autist, Ironman Worlds triathlete, Writer, Right-Brained