Updated: Nov 9
The Problem with Telling an Autistic Person to “SMILE!”
You may think it is a harmless request: Smile! You may think you are expressing your good intentions: I want you to be happy. But when you say that to an autistic person, you may not realize how complicated and problematic it is.
Autistic expression is often different from non-autistic expression. An autistic person may not show their emotions on their face as much as a non-autistic person would. This does not mean they are not feeling anything. It just means they have a different way of expressing themselves.
For example, when I am thinking deeply, solving a problem, or having an insight, I may have a blank or serious look on my face. But that does not mean I am unhappy, bored, or angry. It means I am engaged, interested, and curious. My blank face is masking a storm of thoughts and feelings inside me.
There are many reasons why an autistic person may not smile or laugh when a non-autistic person expects them to. They might be content to enjoy something in their way, lost in thought, overstimulated by sensory input, or uneasy with social pressure. Autistic expression is not wrong or inferior. It is just different.
But when you tell an autistic person to smile, you are implying that their natural expression is not good enough. You are asking them to conform to your standards of happiness and communication. You are taking away their autonomy and forcing them to mask their true selves.
The Beauty of Autistic Expression
I smile a lot. But not because someone tells me to. I smile because I feel something genuine and authentic. I smile because I am happy, excited, amused, or grateful.
Autistic smiles are beautiful. They are driven by insight and inner intensity and radiate originality. Autistic people do smile, but not on demand or for show. They smile when they feel it.
And they feel a lot. Contrary to popular stereotypes, autistic people are not emotionless robots. Many of us feel emotions as strongly as non-autistics, if not more so. Some of us have hyper-empathy, which means we feel what others feel very deeply. Some of us have alexithymia, which means we have difficulty identifying and describing our own emotions. Some of us have synesthesia, which means we experience sensory stimuli in different ways. Some of us have intense interests, which means we are passionate about certain topics or activities.
All of these factors affect how we express ourselves. Autistic expression is diverse and complex. It is not limited to facial expressions. It can include body language, vocal tone, gestures, eye contact, stimming, writing, art, music, and more. Autistic expression is a reflection of our rich inner world.
The Harm of Masking Autistic Expression
Masking is when an autistic person hides or suppresses their natural expression and behavior to fit in with non-autistic norms. Masking can involve forcing a smile, making eye contact, mimicking social cues, pretending to be interested, hiding, stimming, and more.
Masking can be useful in some situations, such as job interviews or emergencies. But masking can also be very harmful if done too often or for too long. Masking can cause stress, anxiety, depression, exhaustion, burnout, identity loss, and even suicidal thoughts. Masking can prevent an autistic person from being themselves and living authentically.
Masking can also be harmful to society as a whole. Masking can perpetuate the stigma and misunderstanding of autism. Masking can prevent non-autistics from appreciating the diversity and value of autistic expression. Masking can hinder the acceptance and inclusion of autistic people in all aspects of life.
That is why telling an autistic person to smile is not a harmless request. It is a form of pressure to mask their natural expression. It can actually be a sign of disrespect or ignorance.
The Solution: Respect and Celebrate Autistic Expression
Instead of telling an autistic person to smile, try to understand why they may not be smiling at that moment. Try to learn more about their perspective and experience. Try to appreciate their unique way of expressing themselves.
And when they do smile, enjoy it for what it is: a genuine and authentic sign of emotion. Do not take it for granted or expect it to happen again. Do not assume you know what it means or how it feels.
Let them be themselves. Let them express themselves in their way. Let them smile when they want to, not when you want them to.
Autistic expression is beautiful. It is diverse and complex. It is a reflection of our rich inner world.
Respect it. Celebrate it. Learn from it.