Editing and Projection


default blank facial expression

This is largely in response to comments on a recent post.

These pictures are, just so nobody has any doubt about it, pictures of an overloaded autistic kid. (Sometimes right in between meltdowns.) Any facial expressions or gestures going on here are not expressions of emotion, they are expressions of overload, shutdown, or some combination of the two. (Although this is really my default facial expression, I am pretty monotonous that way.)

What I find interesting about this is the context in which these pictures were used.

Just as I was beginning to enter a time period that I call adolescence and many professionals in my life called extreme regression, I was in a film for a grief counseling service. The acting was, in general, really bad. Really bad.

more default blank facial expression

It’s hard to be a good actor, at least playing an NT, if you have pretty much one main facial expression that you can’t easily change on cue, limited gestures, and look visibly separate from a group of kids you’re supposed to look like a part of, even when you’re told exactly where to put your body and what direction to point things in.

That last part now gives me a much better idea of why people were so convinced for awhile that I wasn’t paying any attention to anything social, my movements simply do not coordinate with or intermesh with the movements of the people around me, while all their movements are coordinated with each other.

And if your idea of “acting with feeling” is to combine echolalia with making your voice go up and down in a regular rhythm, and occasionally flapping your hands around while they’re at your sides. But even the non-autistic actors weren’t much good.

chewing on hand

Anyway, the assorted demands of a film set had me pretty much constantly on the edge of overload, and sometimes over that edge.

They did edit out the part where I started taking things out of my desk and sticking them in my mouth.

But there were plenty of shots of me staring at nothing, sticking fingers in my mouth, biting my hand, and even at one point flapping. (All of the expressions and gestures shown here are part of my standard set of positions, which apparently hasn’t changed much over time, but the hand-biting and stuff is generally something I do when I’m extremely overloaded.)

So, anyway, I’ve established that these are pictures of overload. They’re not pictures of acting. They’re not reactions to the subject matter in the film. They’re reactions to an environment that I still remember as intensely loud, bright, and cluttered.

chewing on one hand, flapping the other

So, when I finally pulled my tape of this out again as an adult, something immediately struck me.

They thought that all that chewing on my hands and staring at nothing and stuff was acting, or at least reacting to the idea that we were talking about people’s families getting killed. (Many of the kids were clients of the grief counseling center. They, by the way, give me an idea of what really deserves mourning in the world.)

They were interspersing it with the things people said. These things were supposed to convey sadness and reaction to a discussion about death.

chewing on finger with eyes almost closed

Acting, as far as I was concerned, was managing to be positioned in roughly the right spot and repeating roughly the right words, not much more than that. I’m now stunned that, despite the fact that they weren’t particularly good actors, the other kids were showing all these nuances of reaction and stuff all over their faces and in the noises they were making, constantly. They seemed to constantly have their bodies positioned in relation to each other.

So it makes sense that the filmmakers would have imagined that, rather than being overloaded, I was actually acting. (They also figured that my repeated meltdowns were a reaction to the seriousness of the subject matter, and kept trying to express their sympathy and explaining to me that lots of people feel that way. Which of course I perceived as just more sensory invasion.)

standard blank expression

All this interests me in light of the recent discussion that was going on in the comments to one of my posts. People were talking about the sort of mistaken impressions people get from their facial expressions.

It got me thinking about how in this case, it wasn’t just a mistaken impression, but it got used to convey a whole lot of things that weren’t going on in my head. I suppose that’s what most acting really is, but I think most acting is a lot more intentional.

People were talking in the comments, about their eyes or faces being interpreted as blank, which can be interpreted ‘favorably’ as ‘thoughtful’.

I’ve frequently run across that interpretation, and I’m pretty sure that’s what they were assuming here. Along with ‘sad’ and ‘serious’, two other things my face gets me considered often.

This is the only thing where I have evidence of misperception on film. I can rewind the thing and remember what was really going through my head (sensory chaos, mostly) while they were pointing the cameras at me, and then I can look at their obvious interpretations of this. It’s very strange.

This makes the power of editing very apparent, too. And the power of projection (and I don’t mean film projectors).


About Mel Baggs

Hufflepuff. Came from the redwoods. Crochet or otherwise create constantly and compulsively. Write poetry and paint when I can. Developmentally disabled, physically and cognitively disabled. I'm not really part of any online faction or another, even ones that claim me as a member. The thing in the world most important to me is having love and compassion for other people, although I don't always measure up to my own standards there by a longshot. And individual specific actions and situations and contexts matter a lot more to me than broadly-spoken abstract words and ideas about a topic. My father died in 2014 and that has changed my life a lot in ways that are still evolving, but I wear a lot of his clothes and hats every day since he died and have shown no sign of stopping soon.

36 responses »

  1. So you would not agree with the idea of this program [http://actorsforautism.com/] where they seem to use acting workshops to teach autistic kids “normal” interaction? I was thinking it was a pretty good idea (because autistic people could learn how to convey their actual feelings/meanings to the outside world), unless it really sort of has the opposite effect inside the kids’ minds as it has on their outsides, and then I think it would be awful.

    Would this work for some people and not for others? Or would this make kids think the only way to communicate is to pretend(*), and that would mess them up psychologically?

    (*)Mental image: The “bared teeth” smile imitation image from your other website.

  2. I know autistic people who are really good actors, really good meaning really good at playing NT roles in plays or films or whatever. They use echolalia, echopraxia, pattern-matching, etc to good advantage. Suffice to say I’m not like them.

    I also know autistic people who are really good actors, as in they pass well in everyday situations. There’s some overlap with the ones who do formal acting, but not all of them do. A lot of them just act every day of their lives. (One told me, though, that she made a good actress because she was always acting in real life anyway.)

    I don’t see a lot wrong with learning about non-autistic body language, but I have reservations about non-autistic mandating body language to avoid misunderstandings and so forth. It should be a choice, something a person can deliberately turn on and off, not something that a person gets automatically triggered into and then can’t stop. And people who are flat-out unable to shouldn’t be penalized.

    I’m interested in acting, by the way. I’ve thought about what acting means as an autistic person who is going to always look unusual. It would be a totally different acting technique than that used by non-autistic people, but I really am interested in it. It would be much more possible, and much more rewarding, to act, if the roles I was in were disabled people — real sorts rather than the imagination of some playwright somewhere who wanted to use us as symbols or something. I think I could do some kind of acting in that context. I’m obviously not cut out for a character that has to move in ways my body just won’t move, or a character who has to speak out loud, but a lot of people aren’t cut out for certain kinds of characters.

    (I’ve also seen enough physically disabled, Deaf, and intellectually disabled actors to see what a variety of parts can be played by disabled people.)

    So, back to your question, I have no idea if that thing is good or not, I could barely navigate the website. But as an autistic person who decidedly can’t move my body in the ways required for that kind of thing to be any use to me, I have some interest in being able to communicate regardless of whether I can do standard body language or not.

  3. Are all those pix of the same kid? (damn the faceblindness!)

    One of our autistic kids at summer camp has those expressions at times, and I was wondering if he wasn’t getting overloaded.


  4. Yeah, all the pictures are of the same kid, that was me somewhere around early puberty. The facial expression is pretty much my constant one, though, whether overloaded or not. (Well, there are subtle nuances that are different in overload, but I think for most people it looks the same, that’s just the default facial posture.)

  5. The pictures on this site never download for me. Do I need to add something? I would like to see what you are talking about with regards to the facial expressions.

    As for autistic actors, Keanu Reeves claimes to be autistic/aspie, Darryl Hannah was supposedly diagnosed as a child and no one is going to tell me that Leonardo Di Caprio is not autisistic because I’d lay money on it.

    My husband has learned to do a lot of acting to pass in the NT world but I know for a fact that the corresponding emotions are not there because I know him inside out and backwards. He used to cry a lot because he thought women found men appealing who showed their emotions. I told him it was getting on my nerves because he was not doing it appropriately. He stopped and never did it again. It is like the laughing, he does not always get it in the right place.

    Maybe it would be better for autistic/aspies to just do what is natural instead of faking it to fit in.

  6. Amanda: Wow. this post hits home, because I do a lot of acting in real life, and often I do not realize it until after the fact, in a situation. I’ve started thinking now…did I really mean to say that, do that, think that…..I’m surprised at how often my answer is either outright no, or not exactly that way. I’ve been an actress of sorts all my life….sometimes I tire of the act….I look for people with whom I do not have to act. Thinking of your post about social graces like controling belches and other gas and stuff….my friend and I burp to our hearts’ content….(in her car, or when we are alone in her house) I consider that as part of “natural me” and not the actress me. She is not autistic…she’s a very cool NT. The post I am referring to is the one about the colored spoons.

    Corpsebride: Leo D is autistic? interesting… I’m not doubting you but where did you see this? I’m very curious….

    Cheers to another great post (this one, like the others)

    I am always excited to read your words, Amanda.


  7. This is the very first time the photos on your blog here have worked for me, with your listing of the jpg’s for Corpsebride above. Thanks much for posting them — they’re wonderful!

  8. I too was not able to see the pictures on any of the things you posted until you did those links above. Then I could see all of them. Can you do that with the others too?

  9. On a different note, the photos makes me wonder what Charlie will think of the ones I have taken of him through all these years. He gives me a certain look when I take out the camera these days.

    May I ask what the film you were in is?

  10. They say that autistic kids go into meltdowns with no warning. Hmmm. Maybe not without warning, just warnings that don’t look like warnings? I sense calmnes and reflectiveness… but a reflective surface is good for projecting upon… (bad pun). I sitll do those kinds of hand to mouth things and biting on my index finger.

    It’s very cool that you have video of yourself, I’m sorry they put you through overload to get it, though. I’d like to see video of myself interacting with people. I think it would be interesting. I know I do a lot of subtle things to avoid contact with people, moving to the edges of rooms and using, “don’t bother me” kinds of body language that don’t invite people to talk.

  11. I’ve always wanted to conduct a sort of impromptu psychological experiment by going around showing a bunch of pictures to people. I might even cut the pictures out of magazines– it doesn’t matter who the people in the pictures actually *are*; the point would be more who I claimed they were, to the people viewing the pictures. And see how people’s interpretations of them differed, and what they claimed to be able to “see in their eyes,” based on what kind of background I told them the subjects of the pictures had.

    See, I think that the whole concept of being able to “see things” in people’s eyes is largely bogus, even for non-autistic people in cultures where eye contact is expected (or maybe especially for them, since they’ve been led to believe it is easy to see certain things?). People were always telling me that they could “see in my eyes” whether I was lying, for instance, but they weren’t always right, and when they were, it was often because they had picked up on other cues but were falsely attributing it to what they thought they saw in my eyes.

    It’s possible to project things even into pictures of one’s self, I think. I’ve been photographed under various moods and various conditions, and very rarely does my perception of the “look in my eyes” match up with what I knew I was thinking or feeling at the time of the photograph. There were several years during which I didn’t want photographs of me taken at all because I thought my eyes always ended up looking “empty,” like there was nothing going on in my head. I tried consciously thinking about and concentrating on things very hard while being photographed, and it really didn’t seem to make a huge amount of difference– I had that same “vapid” (to my perception) look in pictures where I knew I had been concentrating very hard on something.

    And logically, I know I don’t really look like there’s nothing going on in my head. You can’t tell that from a photograph. In fact, I think the ultimate challenge I’ve seen to the idea of being able to read things in people’s eyes is the fact that I’ve known several people with artificial eyes and most of the people around them couldn’t tell they had them, or couldn’t tell the fake eye from the real one. So much for the idea that it’s all about picking up incredibly subtle eye muscle movements. I don’t really “look like I’m not thinking,” but I’m imposing popular ideas of what a person who isn’t thinking or isn’t all there looks like, onto images of this body.

  12. For people who haven’t been able to see the pictures — have you tried right-clicking on where the images should be, and then clicking on something like “Show image” or “Go to image” or something like that? If you do that one at a time it should take you to the same links.

  13. Yup, those links worked, thank you for the trouble you went to. I think I looked a lot like that myself in school. I hated school.

    As for Leonardo Di Caprio… I have lived with AS for 18 years and after seeing him being interviewed a few times I saw so much AS in him I just knew. Maybe I am wrong, but I truly tink he is autistic. He is one of my favourite actors, he is an amazing actor. Did anyone see him in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? The character he played was listed as autistic.

  14. Julian^Amorpha – I actually did something very similar to that as part of a counselling course. We were given sets of photos (she told us afterwards that she’d cut them out of the colour supplements), and split off into groups to talk about the people in them. Our reactions were very strong – almost whole biographies for some of them, including some ones that were quite unexpected, like our group having very strong negative feelings about nuns. We then compared our reactions. The idea was to get us to acknowlege that we have very strong feelings about people from what they look like, some huge assumptions about everything from what their personality is like to how they’re feeling at the moment. With this acknowledgement to learn that this is pretty meaningless – given that we had come up with some wildly different ideas about some of the pictures. Quite a good excercise for training NTs (even though we did still think that we could ‘read’ a lot from body language – which I think is true for a large number of people you’re likely to be reading)

    Amanda – I would totally have said that the first two pictures were ‘thoughtful’ or ‘daydreaming’. Positive, but unhelpful.

  15. Amanda your comments on acting were interesting and I was surprised that you were curious to try acting again after a semi-awful first experience with it. (I guess pleasantly surprised, as you have some intriguing ideas about it. I would like to see such a movie or play).

    Weirdly, I am perfectly happy “doing stand-up” in my classes but hate to do acting or public speaking of any other kind.
    (I figured out I can use humor to keep my students “on my side” -also to let them know I am on their side- because I am hopeless at any other sort of classroom discipline. In college, this works OK.)

  16. PS: Would any of you guys want to do any small videos for the AutTV project that AFF is doing? They are looking for more and more voices (literally and metaphorically) and topics and video clips to include.


    Unless Autistics.org has such a project going on already (if so, URL please???), it seems like something that different groups could come together on.

  17. About photos: My husband likes to take pictures catching me in certain expressions that when I see them I think, “man, do I look autistic!!” (what they used to call “blunted affect”, which come to think of it is a fairly ugly word for a look that is quite inoffensive in itself, or that “lost in space” look that people have mentioned). And this used to bother me, but why?! I am autistic, so… shouldn’t I look it?! Maybe I look like this a lot, maybe other people always knew it… Often I do show my actual emotions (and sometimes my face or voice shows an inaccurate emotion), but maybe outside of conversations I stop showing them, or something…

  18. Folks (myself included) should probably be careful when observing that someone’s mannerisms/appearance qualify him/her as “looking” autistic, particularly in still shots. Though I’m quite aware of what that “look” is like (and it’s indescribable, really; one just has to know it), appointing a “look” to a blanket neurotype gives me the heebie-jeebies ’cause it resembles diagnosis. I hate diagnosis, because everybody seems to want to have a diagnosis on hand to explain away (and make them more comfortable with) certain movements, habits, routines, etc. “Oh, he’s got ___; he’s ___ic — that’s why he does that.” When really “he” may be doing “that” in response to environment, or internal factors; or he may just do “that” as a part of his individual set of mannerisms, perceptions, and reactions. (Also why I have problems with a black and white divide between “autie” and “neurotypical”, and why it’s refreshing when you, Amanda, say things like “I tend to do X; it’s what I do” rather than “I tend to do X because I’m autistic”.)

    I recently had an interaction that made me feel very creepy indeed, and I’m not sure exactly why; I guess it was because I was wrestling with my own preconceptions while trying to correct someone else’s. I had used the phrase “vague manifestations of palsy” — which in itself was admittedly vague, and diagnostic — to describe to a friend movements in someone that I, incidentally, find adorable. He didn’t interpret them as adorable. But it took me further conversations and him using a despicable slur — “just joking”, of course; they always are — to make me realize that he was picturing a certain stereotypical (and quite often legitimately typical) posture. And what bugged me more than his misperception was the fact that I knew exactly what kind of posture he was picturing. And I sent my friend a photo of the person, just to show him that he didn’t look the way he was evidently thinking he looked — and also to prove that he was very good-looking ’cause I wanted to brag a bit. ; )

    But again, here’s what bugs me: If my intent was to shoot down a kind of stereotypical, diagnostic manner of envisioning someone — and to prove that folks of all “types” can be damn attractive, fine. But what if the person really DID resemble the image my friend conjured on his own? Would I have been so quick to show him off, or would I have held back because I didn’t want to prove my friend right? (Chances are I personally would’ve found him gorgeous either way.) Augh, I’m so conflicted.

    Anyway, Amanda, I’ve always been unable to view photos on this site too; in fact, it took me happenstance running the mouse over the place where one was supposed to be to even realize where to find them. I had to right-click and save the photos, then open them in another program ’cause the browser or whatever wouldn’t let me view them on the spot. So the links were nice. And you were quite the beautiful kid yourself.


  19. Oh, and one more thing. A, I can’t help but be reminded, whenever the interpretation of facial expression comes up, of a page on “Getting the Truth Out” where you draw attention to a photo of you flapping with your face turned upward, saying something to the effect of “Look at me. I am HAPPY.”

  20. Was there a previous post somewhere here about small talk and how little sense it makes to an autistic person? That is sort of in line with the “look in my eyes” or look in someone’s eyes to figure out what they’re thinking, sort of thing. Maybe NT’s can do that with one another….but one of us, autistics, breaks the rule. And not all NT are the same. Small talk would be another thing that makes little sense…..for us. I recently listened to my sister and her friend bantering about something or other….and when people say hi how are you and stuff in a large gathering….I might say, “I like your shirt” or something like that. It’s like an automatic response but I do find clothing fascinating.

    N: autTV sounds really interesting, in fact, I had a phone conversation with another autistic friend of mine, about that very topic. a tv channel for autistics, something like that. We were trying to figure out what we would include on that news channel….news and autism information, but stuff like what’s on autistics.org, not Autism speaks or some other thing like that.

    I just wanna say bye to everyone on here, I’ll be going away for two weeks, and then I’ll be going back to school. See you at the end of August….25th or so.


  21. “man, do I look autistic!!”

    When I was 10, I had a habit of coming up to people with babies or small children and asking how old they were. Usually 3 or under. Once at the pool I asked how old a kid was and his mother said he was 5 years old and autistic. What I really remember is that he held his arms a certain way, with the upper arm vertical, lower arm horizontal and hands curled under. After that whenever I found myself doing that I stopped doing it. I’m not sure why, I just felt that there was something wrong with holding your arms that way.
    But looking at pictures of myself, when I don’t realize anyone’s taking a picture of me, I look quite autistic. Most people wouldn’t notice, not knowing what to look for, because I talk well and my voice sounds pretty normal, but I’d certainly pick myself out as autistic in a crowd by how I move (by the way, lately I’ve been seeing possibly autistic kids everywhere).

  22. I think I look a lot more ‘autistic’ in motion (and in some circumstances, in comparison to a bunch of non-autistic people who are all engaging in a completely different kind of collective motion than I am) than I do in a still photograph. What was interesting to me, though, was how these comparatively still shots were used to convey something that I was neither feeling nor acting.

    It does seem that a lot of what is seen on people’s faces has to do with projecting the entire idea of what the circumstances are onto someone. So, if you look at someone with the exact same facial expression, but in one scene they’re watching television, in another they’re staring at a wall, in another they’re about to jump up and do something exciting, and in another someone’s died, the same facial expression is going to be used to “mean” several different things.

    (In my case, facial expression is a pretty crappy thing to judge things by anyway. There are subtle differences of movement that are way more useful to watch.)

  23. To wax political and devilish, Ettina: Why, do you think, did the mother of that kid feel compelled to tell you he was autistic, even though all you asked was how old he was? “My kid’s five and neurotypical” would sound a bit weird, don’tcha think? So why? Why oh why, do you think? Aargh. Aargh. Aargh. I’m a pain in the ass . . .

  24. Okay, I confess. My first impression was ‘blank’.

    However, because I’d read your blog and seen your description of yourself in various photos, I was able to keep that impression from turning into a stereotype. It’s obvious from reading this blog that you’re a person, with a full set of experiences, perceptions, and opinions of the world around you, so I knew that when I saw ‘blank’, it didn’t mean ’empty’. I hope I wouldn’t have made that asumption anyways, but in this case I knew it wasn’t true.

    I also knew by your descriptions of your state of mind when the photos were taken that there was no connection between what I saw as ‘blank’, and you being lost in thought or daydreaming, or being in a certain mood, or necessarily thinking of anything particularly profound. So ‘thoughtful’ and ‘serious’ are out. They would be projecting.

    The answer I hit on, something I’ll try to remember when I see someone looking ‘blank’, and I’m not sure why, is this; I am not recieving your signals. I don’t get any message from your facial expression, because I don’t know how to read it. So presumably, if I were dealin with you, or someone else who’s expression I couldn’t interpret in person, it would be important for me to be aware that I didn’t understand, and make a point of relying on forms of communication that I could follow.

    Hopefully this doesn’t come across as offensive. I was just trying to show how examining my assumptions taught me something useful. I think “I can’t read your expressions.” is a more useful and equitable way to look at it than “You’re not expressing anything.”, and is a valuable lesson in its own right. After all, no one tells us NTs that we’re not expressing happiness because we don’t flap.

  25. I hope that you don’t think that I am being facile, but what a beautiful child you were Amanda. And you’ve grown to be a beautiful adult (in more ways than one).

    Maybe it’s just me, and loving the way my daughter looks, but I hope that everyone else sees the beauty in Amanda’s face in these pictures.

  26. Jennifer, I agree.

    J, a reverse example: sometimes I see a lot of “blank stares” in the classroom and I have to tell my (mostly NT) students “I can’t read your faces. Are you bored, confused, or just tired?” after they get used to someone being so blunt about that, they answer me, with what I think is some degree of sincerity.

    Amanda, I would have guessed wrong about your expression in pretty much all of those photos. I wonder if I could read you in 3d, but I don’t know. Probably as bad at reading autistics as I am at reading NTs.

    I still can’t tell whether my (unofficial AS) husband isn’t listening to me becos he’s mad, or doesn’t hear me becos he’s programming. I’d have to look at the screen. And if he’s mad AND programming, then I still could get it wrong. (this is meant to be funny, but it’s based on what actually happens)

    [Evonne, you’re right about classifying people, including oneself. I would like to see a “human spectrum” instead. But… for now, it helps me try to figure stuff out.]

  27. on the subject of blank stares, my father tells me I do that alot too. especially when I am getting scolded loudly. I know I don’t really move my face but most of the time I don’t feel like smiling even though I might be happy. There are other ways to let people know my feelings if I wish, other than facial expressions. I learned in my speech class in college last semester, that most people use facial expressions to communicate nonverbal cues. I did a mini-speech on my autism, and I told the class that a lot of what we were learning, about facial expressions, eye contact, body language, and things related, were very difficult for me. I never got an A on a speech because of these difficulties, but I’d told my teacher beforehand….I know this is off-topic but I can’t help but recall this event.

    I’m here because I’m not leaving today, I’m gone tomorrow, and heck I can’t resist this blog. It’s only the truth, after all.

    Jennifer, I agree with you about the photos.


  28. I don’t believe photographs at all, but then I wouldn’t I am a photographer :)

    One thing I noticed in my DVD is that I have an annoying tick when I talk I seem to jerk my head to the right which looks like a discontinuity in the film. I was showing the DVD to a very old friend, who has not seen it yet, (her DVD broke down before we got to the end) but she told me, she knew about that tick years ago.

    I think I am probably at my most inscrutible when I am laughing, you never know what it betokens because I laugh in the most inappropriate of situations and to be honest I sometimes don’t even know myself why I am laughing. Another autistic friend would break out into fits of laughter whenever I attempted to smile.

  29. I thought you were fully verbal at a child, and developed language with no delay, and that you were a verbal communicator in your childhood?

    Do you have this film you mention in your above post? Can you put it on Youtube or a clip here to show your functioning level.

  30. You thought something very inaccurate then, or at least distorted (I lost speech in infancy then regained speech in an atypical manner, although I did use more typical-sounding speech, in an atypical way (and with highly atypical comprehension) as time went on — my mom has a bit of a description of it near the bottom of this post). I don’t have a copy of the video online and don’t intend to (nor do I have a means to). And you can’t tell a person’s “functioning level” on the basis of a video, no matter who they are, that’s just strange (and contrary to the point of this post).

  31. Pingback: QOTD: Empathy and projection « Urocyon's Meanderings

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