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.
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!