In my last column, I discussed learning the art of good conversation. Part of this learning process has involved another area that my autism has greatly affected: my ability to recognize emotions, body language, and facial expressions in others. At times, I have difficulty detecting the finer details of different emotions. I do not always see the telltale signs of people’s true feelings by their actions and mannerisms. I then become confused about the meaning of what is being relayed to me, and I become lost or I misinterpret their meaning. Therefore, I recently decided to do something about this and learn more about emotions and the ways that people express them so I can better understand people around me.
One of the tools I am using to learn more about emotions is a series of flash cards with different faces that express different feelings. I use them in two ways. One way is a memory game: I match pairs of faces and copy the facial expression using my own face. This way, I not only learn what the faces look like, but I learn how I can express them as well. Next, I use the cards for a game of “Go Fish.” The questions can become indubitably bizarre at times: “Do you have any surprised faces?” “No, go fish. Do you have an angry face on you?” For extra fun, each player has to make the face they are asking for, which can be a bit hard for me if I cannot picture it in my mind.
I also recently purchased a workbook series which covers different aspects of recognizing emotions, recognizing nonverbal language (body language), making social inferences, getting along with others, interpersonal negotiations, and conversations. I have already had some interesting realizations after doing some of the exercises. One of the first exercises I worked on concerned the different ways that people might express emotions. My mother helped me by demonstrating the emotions herself. I got some on the first try, while I misread others over and over. I think the problem is that I could interpret one facial expression as several different emotional states depending on the context. My mother’s angry face could also mean disgust, disappointment, self-pity, or any one of several other feelings. There may not be enough variation between the different faces for me to know the difference. I would have to rely on other cues like what the other person said or any nonverbal (body) language they might be using to come to the right conclusion. I will have to work on putting all the pieces of people’s facial expressions and body language together to gain better footing when it comes to understanding someone’s emotional state. It is much more intricate than I had anticipated. This surprised me even though I do know that I misinterpret a lot of signals people are sending me. I am learning that one face could represent many different emotions that I had not even thought of.
Another activity was very enlightening when it came to the subject of nonverbal communication. The exercise involved me watching a half-hour television show and writing down all the instances of nonverbal language I observed the characters using and the meanings they conveyed. In only five minutes, though, I had filled up the entire page with examples. It astounded me how much the characters relied on nonverbal cues to support what they were talking about or to send implied messages. They used their hands to emphasize particular points in their conversations, they pointed to certain people as they talked about them, and they moved their hands in certain motions or directions. They also expressed disgust, frustration, and surprise through their facial expressions. In a few cases, they moved away from other people and turned their heads away when they wanted to avoid certain subjects or to be by themselves. All of this occurred in only five minutes; I am sure that if I had kept watching, I would have probably filled every nook of my worksheet with my observations of the nearly constant stream of nonverbal actions. I usually barely notice that I or other people are continuously using nonverbal language when having conversations. I now realize that I need to focus more on these details as I speak to people or they speak to me so that I will be able to fully grasp the entire message that is being conveyed.
One other tool that I am looking forward to using is a computer game featuring real human faces on animated backgrounds. The game will present numerous real-life examples of various feelings in 11 carnival-like activities. It will teach me what cues to pick up on to determine what feeling I am looking at, and it will also encourage me to try making the faces myself so I know what each emotion feels like. This tool should be especially useful, and I cannot wait to experiment with it.
Some other tools I have also acquired recently include an emotions wheel that I really like and a book that I can draw faces in which emphasize the role of the eyes, mouth, eyebrows, and forehead to convey each emotion. Both are welcome additions as they give me different perspectives to learn from.
Emotions and nonverbal communication have been a mystery to me for the longest time. For me, interpreting them was like reading Egyptian hieroglyphics and not getting the complete message. I feel the new tools I have acquired are my Rosetta Stone for finally understanding these complicated and intricate facets of communication. I have already learned many surprising things about emotions, and I look forward to having a better understanding of them.