Learning to Read Facial Expressions

By Pat Crissey
Autism Asperger’s Digest | July/August 2008

Check almost any list of common characteristics for individuals on the Autism Spectrum and you will find difficulty reading facial expressions and body language among the traits listed. Those of us who know individuals on the spectrum recognize this to be a common characteristic and one that contributes to many misunderstandings and difficulties with social interactions. As a special education teacher and autism specialist struggling to find ways to address these deficits with my students, I decided that the first step was to break down the complex task of teaching facial expressions into teachable components and next, create a variety of learning activities appropriate to students of different ages and ability levels. This article will describe the curriculum and some of the activities I developed.

How important is it to teach students to read facial expressions? Without an understanding of nonverbal signals, which includes facial expressions, effective communication is simply not possible. Research has shown that only 7% of emotional meaning is conveyed through the actual words we speak, while the remaining 93% is communicated through nonverbal means, with 55% through facial expression, body language and gestures and 38% through tone of voice. (Mehrabian, 1987)

Yet, what do we observe with many individuals on the autism spectrum? They attend almost exclusively to the words being spoken and take those words very literally. At best, they are receiving only part of the message. At other times they are getting a completely erroneous message, as in the case of the individual who is obviously fuming, but states that