The Masking Theory of Flat Affect on the Autism Spectrum

One of my theories of flat affect on the autism spectrum is our attempts at masking our autistic traits through emotional suppression.

Flat affect includes an expressionless face, a flat tone of voice, and a lack of body language and gestures when we should be expressive.

Seven years ago, I had a new job which was probably my first one through a formal job interview. It was a tech job. The people there were friendly, and the position was a good fit. It made me feel optimistic about the future of my career.

I remember that as a new hire, shortly after a tech meetup when I was about to take the bus, I showed that I was happy and a lady asked me whether I was okay.

This is one example of how someone on the spectrum can stand out in an undesirable way. I often feel the need to monitor my facial expressions which includes positive ones.

Autistic People Stand Out More When They Express Emotions

I feel that because we express emotions differently, it’s common for those on the spectrum to mask to look normal at all cost.

Some of the ways we stand out when expressing emotions include:
Producing atypical facial expressions
• Stimming when expressing emotions such as happy hands flapping or rocking while others tap their feet or dance while enjoying music publicly
• Having special interests, which look more like an obsession than a hobby. When we share special interests, we naturally have improvements in eye contact and flat affect

One hypothetical example of an autistic person unmasking is someone who passed a job interview for the first time and feels safe expressing emotions. They might rock their body and flap their hands in a happy manner. This could be an autistic equivalent of a happy dance, and it can happen whether the person is considered mildly or severely autistic.

Alexithymia, which affects our ability to recognize our own emotions, is also common on the spectrum. If we greet someone with a smile of victory that we would use if we received a promotion at work, I think it would make us stand out.

Suppressing Emotions Causes Flat Affect

When we suppress emotions, there will be some signs of flat affect even for non-autistic people. For example, when we want to avoid giving away hints while playing a game of poker, many of us will suppress our emotions to make a blank face. This shows that it’s possible that masking autistic traits cause flat affect.

Even if we learned to mask as an expressive neurotypical, flat affect can still be there. Normally, our body language, facial expressions, tone of voice, volume of voice, and eye contact. For example, your tone of voice and face may not be expressive at the same time.

That’s the reason why I said masking makes it a little easier to unmask! When we wear a face mask, our facial expressions effectively get toned down, as others are left with reading our emotions through the upper part of our faces, and other social cues. We’ll feel more comfortable being expressive when it’s unlikely to surprise others.

When a person wears a mask, you can still have an idea what the person is feeling by reading their eyes and other social cues.

Possible solutions to help autistic people unmask

If we know what we look like when we unmask, it will be easier to unmask. Candid photos taken during childhood before any masking habits became ingrained could give clues on what unmasking looks like.

Drawing attention away from autistic traits can reduce the need to mask. One life hack for doing this is to dress sharp. Dressing like you work for or you’re applying for your dream job could draw attention to your special interests and hobbies when you share them.

If I was wearing a suit in my previous example, maybe things would have turned out differently so that I could continue showing how I felt about starting a new job.

Social gatherings and trade shows can be opportunities to unmask. When everyone else is preoccupied, your autistic traits need to stand out more to catch their attention.

Carrying a camera when you do visual stims is another solution as it’s discreet and you can find good sceneries whether it’s winter, spring, summer, or fall.

Addressing sensory needs can help us blend in by reducing the need to stim. One reason we stim is to regulate sensory input. For example, if someone’s clothing is oversized or undersized, they might fidget more. This is similar to like turning on a white noise generator to mask undesirable sounds.

For autistic people, addressing sensory needs can include noise cancellation and sensory friendly clothing.

There are likely many other ways to help us to unmask.

Masking can cause flat affect

Because autistic people often feel the need to fit in, masking via emotional suppression may contribute to flat affect.

What are your thoughts about this theory? Please share by commenting below!

Six Life Hacks for Overcoming Motor Skills Challenges on the Autism Spectrum

Motor skills challenges are common for those on the spectrum.

As an autistic person, I struggle with motor skills to some degree which affects body language. Here are some life hacks for overcoming motor skills challenges.

Protect your eyes from the sun

When the sun is low in the sky, sometimes we hunch our back to look away from the sun but if it’s prolonged, it can become a habit without you being aware of it. By protecting your eyes with a pair of sunglasses or a hat, it will keep you from having to hunch to avoid the glare. Over time, this will help you build muscle memory.

For many years, I needed to be reminded to correct my posture. Even though I tried to sit and stand upright, it kept drifting back. I think this technique played a role in improving my posture which some people noticed.

Use your backpack’s waist strap

By using the waist strap, it reduces the amount of weight on your upper body.

Use proper techniques

Interestingly, research found that autistic people rely more on proprioception instead of visual information when learning how to use a tool. This suggests that there is a possibility of improving motor skills on the spectrum. One way of learning proper techniques is through online resources such as video demonstrations for various sports such as running and cycling.

When cycling and running, I usually pay attention to my form which includes trying to use all the muscle groups of my legs if possible. At the same time, I try to avoid putting out power during the upstroke of a pedal stroke.

The right form also applies when using hand tools. For example, the proper way to use a computer mouse is to use your arm instead of your wrist to move it as it protects your wrists. Since moving your arms involve your large muscle groups such as your shoulder and chest muscles, it will also improve your strength and endurance.

Get your bike fitted

When a bike is properly adjusted, you will find it easier to pedal smoothly which is a sign that the use of your leg muscles are balanced. This helps you develop muscle memory. A right sized bike frame is important for achieving a proper bike fit.

A proper bike fit also improves comfort and performance, and your posture. You should be able to ride longer as well because you can target more muscle groups.

Bike fittings can be done at home or by a professional bike fitter. I had one done at MEC a couple of years ago.

Other options that may improve your posture include a more relaxed bike fit, a bike frame with a relaxed geometry such as a hybrid or cruiser bike, and carrying your cargo on your bike instead of your back.

Wear proper footwear

When you wear comfortable shoes, it will allow proper form which helps you develop muscle memory.

Dress for the weather

A closed-off posture is one way that our body conserves heat. When you add layers in cooler weather, it prevents a closed off posture which helps you develop muscle memory.

An umbrella is another way to improve your posture as it allows you to keep an upright posture while keeping the rain out of your eyes.

Correct visual problems if necessary

Visual problems can affect our posture because it causes us to hunch closer to the screen to see more clearly. Over time, this affects your posture outside of work.

If you have visual problems, correcting them will eliminate the need to hunch forward to see clearly which helps you form muscle memory.

Other options include adjusting the height of your screen, using a larger screen, increasing the font size, and properly illuminating your work area.

Do you have any tips for overcoming motor skills challenges for autistic people? If so, please share by commenting below!

Learning Social Skills from the CEO of the Sluis Academy as an Autistic Adult

Many of you may know that as someone on the autism spectrum, I needed to improve my social and communication skills, so my parents decided that I should try out some sessions with the CEO of the Sluis Academy.

A BCIT alumni introduced him to my parents while networking.

For the introductory session, he came to my home. He taught me what to do when socializing. I learned that when socializing, we should gradually introduce something we want to talk about rather than be too abrupt. He reminded to keep my back straight and have eye contact.

One technique of eye contact involves looking near the person’s eyes, but not directly at their eyes. Autistic people often find this method more comfortable.

I had at least a Skype session after classes while I was studying at BCIT.

For one of the sessions, we went to a restaurant, practising what I learned by interacting with the servers there. It’s one thing to know how to socialize, and another to be able to socialize properly in real-life situations.

He gave me tips on how to do small talk, and when I drift, he gently pointed it out by gesturing. I liked his method because it’s much easier to correct problems early before they become habits.

Many, if not most, of us would benefit from getting feedbacks from other people. Encouraging feedbacks are especially effective!

For the later meetings, I practiced job interview skills with sample job interview questions.

Updates on my Employment

After almost a year of getting support for employment, I was hired to work doing vehicle upfitting.

If you know me on social media, you’re probably aware that I’ve been sharing autism posts, which is an easy way of supporting those on the spectrum.

I was getting job search support from Jobs West and other organizations that support autistic people.

Some positions I applied for include Bike Mechanic, Electronics Assembler, and Programmer.

I showed my job coach some of my electronics projects and they included some of them in my portfolio. Sharing our hobbies is one way of showing your strengths and interests. If we can’t do something, we should find alternatives to make it possible instead of giving up.

sunrise simulator image
Custom made sunrise simulator without its diffuser.

Sharing hobbies can help you find a job. For example, while I was waiting for bike service at a local bike shop, I demonstrated my bike setup with electric horns to a bike mechanic and he wanted them on his bike. Shortly after, I got hired on the spot for a summer job!

During the fall,  I volunteered at Bike Kitchen for a while.

Around December, I accepted the vehicle upfitter job position. Once in a while, my job coach kept in touch with me.

tool box
My toolbox at work.

It’s now almost a year of working there.

Update on my Helmet Light (Reduced Weight Design)

This is my newest helmet light for safety while commuting. It’s similar to my previous one but was designed to be lighter.

It was powered by 3 rechargeable AA batteries. The unused battery slot was used for the circuitry. It used AMC7135 LED drivers so that 3 AA batteries could be used instead of 4 for stability.

The front light was warm white for preserving night vision and had a narrow beam pattern.

The rear light was wide-angle and installed on a self-levelling mount to make it consistently visible.

It weighed around 175g. With less weight on the helmet, it should be easier on the neck and back. It’s possible to go even lighter by using 3 AAA batteries instead, but you’ll need to recharge them more often.

The light was programmed to have four settings in total. It has two settings for being seen during the day, and two for seeing at night. On its lowest setting, it lasts around 40 hours, and on its highest setting, it lasts approximately 6 hours which I think is reasonable.

Here are some pictures of the older helmet light. It used 2 18650 cells and had more LEDs. It weighed about 350g, about twice as heavy as the newest version!

Do you have any suggestions for improvements? If so, please share by commenting below!

Updates on Using Noise Cancellation for Sensory Overload at Work

I’ve been using noise cancellation to concentrate better at work and would like to give an update about it.

Doing my best at work was important so I had to do what I can. I even went as far as wearing both earmuffs and ear plugs.

Around this August, I reconfirmed my need for hearing protection. My supervisor noticed that I was distracted by background music. That day during lunch, I wrote a letter, showing that I needed it.

After lunch, I timed how fast I could work. For one task, I usually complete it in 45 to 60 minutes wearing earmuffs only. After wearing dual protection, I cut it down to under 25 minutes, which puzzled my supervisor!

One issue with regular ear plugs is that you can only wear them comfortably for so long, so I experimented with custom-fitted non-vented ones from Nextgen Hearing. My understanding was that the performance gains are well worth the extra cost. During the custom-fitting process, they put silicone in my ears to get an impression.  The ear plugs arrived in almost a month.

Once they arrived, I tried them out, and the good news was that I could wear them all day.  However, there were excessive vibrations from simply walking, so I went back to disposable earplugs.

So far, I have other options, including turning down the music and only wearing them when the task requires more brain power.

VO2 Max Spreadsheet Calculator

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You may not need a lab test to estimate your VO2 max. You can use a calculator to do it. You’ll need to know your age, resting heart rate, waist circumference, exercise frequency, intensity, and duration.

Once you have the information you can use this VO2 max calculator.

The formulas were based on the HUNT Study in Norway.

Here’s an article about it: https://www.runnersworld.com/sweat-science/should-your-doctor-check-your-vo2-max

Here’s the link for the study: http://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/fulltext/2011/11000/Estimating_V_O2peak_from_a_Nonexercise_Prediction.2.aspx

Minoura M80 Trainer’s Power Curve at its Maximum Resistance Setting

This chart was made using LibreOffice Calc. The power was measured at different speeds. There was a big gap between the last two points because a high power output was required even though I used the minimum resistance to do the test.

Since it’s linear, you can use a speedometer to estimate your power. You should set the wheel size so that the numbers are close to those in the chart. This is useful if you don’t have a power meter.

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Comparing Different Trainer Selections in TrainerRoad

In TrainerRoad, it’s possible to use virtual power even though if your trainer isn’t supported.

I tested the wattage readings from the selections of Minoura’s trainers at different resistance settings. The speed was around 25 kph and the cadence around 53 RPM. The Minoura M80 trainer was used at the lowest resistance.

Minoura M50/M80/MAG850L

  • Level 1: 53W at 25.0 kph and 53 RPM
  • Level 2: 105W at 25.1 kph and 53 RPM
  • Level 3: 128W at 24.9 kph and 53 RPM
  • Level 4: 146W at 24.9 kph and 53 RPM
  • Level 5: 199W at 25.1 kph and 53 RPM

Minoura 850

  • Level 5: 206W at 25.4 kph and 53 RPM
  • Level 6: 218W at 24.9 kph and 53 RPM

Minoura M80-R/M70-R/B60

Level 0: 121W at 24.9 kph and 53 RPM
Level 1: 143W at 25.0 kph and 53 RPM
Level 2: 161W at 25.2 kph and 53 RPM
Level 3: 185W at 25.1 kph and 53 RPM
Level 4: 194W at 25.0 kph and 53 RPM
Level 5: 206W at 25.1 kph and 53 RPM
Level 6: 218W at 25.0 kph and 53 RPM

The highest settings seemed to match.

I also tested virtual power for my trainer at 46.6 kph and 83 RPM. The power reading was 466W.

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