This summer I fell into my usual role of main photographer of our family travels. As I clicked away snapping shots I was confronted once again by the fact that Edward finds it nigh on impossible to smile on demand. Consequently I have countless images of him either looking dead pan or else baring his teeth in a grimace like smile. Edward does smile quite a lot but only if he is genuinely pleased or if he has found something very amusing. Smiling on cue doesn’t seem to be an easy option for him.
An Ethiopian friend once told me that when she first came to the UK she was surprised by how much people smiled here. It wasn’t an entirely positive observation – she actually said she’d never seen so many people smile using only their mouths and not their eyes.
As well as smiling when we are happy or excited most of us probably also smile to communicate other feelings and needs. I don’t know if this is peculiar to the British – probably not!
A smile can soften a difficult message and offer the chance of reconciliation.
A smile can ooze encouragement and give permission.
A smile can make a plea to be understood or be a mask to cover negative feelings.
Subtly different smiles conveying a myriad of messages.
It’s a wonder that most of us ever master the use and interpretation of all these varied forms of smile.
Autistic people, at least those who are like my son Edward, understand communication mainly through the words being spoken.
The non verbal aspects of communication, including smiles, are often superfluous and don’t add anything to the message.
This means that if I need to communicate something to Edward I need to say exactly what I mean. Believe me this is harder than it sounds.
It also means that our family friends and relatives have had to get used to the fact that Edward is often perfectly fine even if his facial expression is telling us a different story.
For me, and probably most of us, smiling at someone whilst we say hello just happens automatically – it’s simply not something we have to remind ourselves to do.
When Edward sees someone he’ll greet them by saying hello but his greeting will usually be accompanied by a dead pan facial expression. No smile in sight.
I know that people are often thrown by Edwards inability to whip out a social smile.
It can make him appear cold, aloof and unfriendly.
It’s something I’ve spoken about with Edward at length.
He explained that in order to smile when he greets someone he has to consciously think about making his facial muscles go into a smile position and that sometimes this is all just too much for him to remember. He finds it exhausting.
A few years ago, after a few fairly unsuccessful attempts at getting Edward to try to combine a smile with a greeting we came to the conclusion that his words alone would suffice. It seemed to us that it was more important for him to be able to give a genuine verbal greeting than provide an obviously forced and awkward smile to accompany it.
Maybe he’ll get the hang of the social smile in time for job interviews in a few years time or maybe he won’t.
In an ideal world an inability to use a successful social smile would not bar an otherwise competent person from getting a job offer or promotion (provided that the job did not involve high levels of public face to face interaction!). I hope more employers become aware that people do not all communicate in the same way and that autistic people, whether they can smile on cue or not, have an important part to play in the workplace.
If Edward gives you a smile you can be assured that he is genuinely pleased to see you.
But please don’t take offence if he doesn’t – his mind will probably be on something else, leaving him with no spare capacity to remember his smile.