Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | March 28, 2012

Smiles, and Facial Expressions, and Autism

I have a “weird” smile, in that when I grin, it doesn’t look like everyone else’s. When I smile, my whole face is taken up by my teeth. At least, that’s how I feel when I look at pictures. It’s like the Cheshire Cat’s grin – all teeth. People tell me my smile looks like a grimace, as if I’m in pain. But it’s not. When I smile, or more accurately, when I grin, it means that I’m extremely happy, and I’m not afraid to show it. Even if it does look a little different than when other people smile. In reading other peoples’ blogs, especially Autism Parents blogs, I have seen that many of their young Autistic girls (and some boys too) have the same face-splitting grin that I do, and every time I see that, it makes me super happy (and usually produces a Cheshire Cat grin of my own). NT kids don’t seem to have the same grin we do. They somehow show less teeth, and keep their mouth “proportional” to the rest of their face. (Can you tell I’ve done a lot of conscious parsing of people’s facial expressions?).

I used to feel silly when I genuinely smiled, so I would try to keep my mouth closed, or show only a little bit of teeth, just like the people I saw around me. I would spend hours in front of the mirror practicing, but never got it right. I was accused of sneering, of smirking, grimacing, and a number of other negative things, when in fact, I was simply trying to smile “appropriately”. I’ve gotten past that now, thankfully, and am back to smiling unabashedly. But then, smiling is something I’ve thought a lot about.

They say that Autistic people have “abnormal or inappropriate facial expressions”. I certainly do. Partially, because when I’m lost in thought (which happens a LOT), or remembering something, or thinking about something, or when my brain makes a connection, I relive the moment. I remember the smile or the frown or the horrified feeling. And it shows on my face. People tell me that when they watch me as I’m sitting, they can see whole stories happen on my face, but they never understand any of them. I think this is because when my face reacts to something and I’m not consciously controlling the muscle groups to emulate the NT facial expressions I’ve been drilled in, I have my own. They convey MY emotions, MY thoughts, and MY existence. Sure, they’re not like everyone else’s, but they sure do make sense to me.  🙂

Sometimes I get in trouble for having the “incorrect” facial expression, or for making the facial expression wrong – the look of horror when someone tells me something good, or surprise when someone says something happy. It’s because my brain is parsing the information, making connections, and trying to figure out what the person said. I have to go through those steps before I can react “appropriately”, because for me, that “appropriate” reaction isn’t a natural one, it’s the one that I consciously put “on” when I realize that’s what I’m supposed to do. And even then, I haven’t yet figured out how to make the “correct” facial expression. It’s a little bit like speaking a different language.

So does anyone else share my Cheshire Cat grin? Have similar issues not being able to form the “proper” NT facial expressions, etc.? I’d love to know!



  1. Yes! I cannot smile “on demand” I find it insanely difficult. If I have to think about smiling then I just can’t do it, but if I’m actually experiencing something that makes me smile then I go all toothy too. It’s something that has been commented on often, a lot of times people assume I’m unhappy because I’m not smiling, but I’m normally just thinking, processing the world around me.

  2. Oh E. I just posted a photograph of my daughter, Emma with her “say cheeeeese” smile. She says that, when she sees a camera pointed in her direction. I don’t know if she’s really smiling (and that’s her smile) or if she’s been “trained” by others to “say cheese.” Saying cheese is not something either Richard nor I have ever asked her to do, so whenever we’re taking a photograph of her we say, “No! Don’t say cheese!” But maybe she likes saying cheese, maybe she thinks it’s funny and that’s how she looks. I do know I’ve caught her smiling, what I think of as a genuine smile, not one that she’s doing to “please” the person taking a photograph and it’s beautiful. Just a beautiful smile on a beautiful little girl who’s genuinely happy. And since she’s happy almost all the time, it does seem like a different smile than her okay-I’m-going-to-smile-because-that’s-what-they-want-me-to-do-now smile. (Does that even make sense?) But now I think when she smiles, however she smiles, even when she says – Say cheeeeese! – I won’t say anything, but will just take the photograph, because now after reading your post. I’m wondering, maybe that IS her smile. And it too, is beautiful.

  3. “They say that Autistic people have “abnormal or inappropriate facial expressions”. ”

    Oh yes! I tend to look astonished most of the time. If you flip through my pictures, I look almost maniacal, which I suppose I am!

    You made a very good point that having your thoughts elsewhere makes a difference in how you present your self facially. People have expectations of what you should be thinking and feeling based on what they think and feel.

    When your brain is wired differently, it is hard for others to fathom. Great post!

    🙂 <- my best surprised too many teeth grin!

  4. My two family members with autism look like that in school pictures. I’ve always thought it was because their smiles do not reach their eyes. But only in pictures where they are “supposed” to smile. They never looked that way as little kids getting tickled and roughhoused with – just pure giggling and fun. Only when posing. I’ll bet yours is more authentic when you are laughing. 🙂

  5. Relate completely. In watching old videos/cds of me, I look sad because my expression is so flat. I close-mouth smile or fake smile a lot. There are a few pictures where it looks like me because I am laughing. Great post.

  6. What’s an “NT” kid? And, is there really anything such as a “normal” smile anyways? My daughter, when told to smile for her school picture this past fall (the one in my profile pic), produced what I would describe as a grimace, because she wanted to show where one of her bottom front teeth was missing; also, she has a crossbite. Posed pictures are not natural for anyone. I try to make her laugh and take lots of pictures. When I was diagnosed with depression as a senior in HS I used to spend time smiling in the mirror to see if I still could. It was very unconvincing– didn’t go to my eyes. I received (finally!) a diagnosis explaining my years of anxiety and difficulties in school nearly 4 years ago. They tell me I have ADHD: which totally makes sense when I think back. But because I’m “smart” “high-functioning” whatever you want to call it, big trouble didn’t arise until late high school and college? I’m still plugging away…You’ve described your smile well but I’ve never actually heard of this concept before. would it match the emoticon that often goes with these characters: 😀 ?

  7. My Little Man has a chershire cat grin! Although it looks fake if he is waiting for the camera flash too long but I love it when you time it just right and he still has that smiley twinkle in his eyes 🙂

  8. My little one also has the Cheshire cat grin and I love it! Part of his wonderful little self. It does looked forced when posing but when done as part of play, the joy shows on his whole face. 🙂

    • Fantastic! 🙂 Here’s to Cheshire Cat grins. Welcome to the blog and thanks for the comment. 🙂

  9. And that is why a lot of socializing makes me tired and makes my face ache. Not just the stress and mental effort, but because putting on the expressions I have learned to make are not as effortless as the real expressions that automatically NT s make. It is like exercising my face.

  10. Well, you don’t know really know who I am, but I live with high-functioning autism or HFA. Sometimes, I feel like I hate the way that I was born. Today, I went shopping for fabric for the bottom part of my unprepared prom dress. I was getting very bored and sleepy. It’s like I am not a big fan of shopping or great at making decisions with little details, like what kind of fabric do I want. I started doubting myself @ first because my mother didn’t like it, until I changed my mind & we finally agreed on something. When I got out of there, I was still sleepy. My grandmother was fixing me a dress and can’t wait how it will look and how will it fit me. I know I’ll be excited in the inside.

  11. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s when I was 4 and can’t do a smile on demand, unless I think of something that makes me smile. I do smile big, though. I have a Twitter friend (someone I follow there) whose smile lights up the room, people say. He’s maybe hyperactive, since he’s an adrenaline junkie, but not autistic.

  12. smile does not go to the eyes. That is the very thing I’ve tried to find words for but couldn’t till now. I’ve only been diagnosed a few months. I’m 41. From high school on I’ve been self conscious of my smile because the light kinda left my eyes. I’ve been shamed about it a few times so that doesn’t help either. My wedding pictures I am really proud of because I look happy and relaxed–and of course I was! What a great description of what I’ve been struggling with. Thank you!

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