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Learning to Read Facial Expressions

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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 “Nothing is wrong!”

However, before you jump in and begin teaching, it’s helpful to understand how difficult and complex this task is. There are approximately 3,000 different meaningful facial expressions with many of these expressions looking very similar. In fact, in some instances, it’s impossible to determine which emotion a person is feeling without knowing the context or what has occurred. The task is made even more difficult because facial expressions are constantly and rapidly changing. So, not only do individuals need to discriminate 3,000 different facial expressions, many looking quite similar, but they also need to do it very fast!

You can also better focus your teaching if you understand why individuals on the spectrum have difficulty reading facial expressions. There are a number of reasons, one simply being that individuals on the spectrum often don’t look at faces. When they do look at faces, they may not understand the emotion that’s connected with each expression or they may have difficulty discriminating slight, but crucial differences in expressions, such as the difference between a sincere smile and one that indicates ridicule or sarcasm. But perhaps the most important reason these individuals have difficulty interpreting facial expressions is they don’t realize that reading faces is essential to understanding what is being communicated.

You will also want to consider where to begin your instruction. Some individuals will be able to read basic expressions, such as happy and sad, but may have difficulty recognizing expressions that display different intensity of feelings or more subtle emotions. Informally assessing the student, by asking him to identify facial expressions in pictures and video, may be helpful in determining what the student already knows and where instruction needs to begin.

Breaking Down the Task
If our students could learn to read facial expressions by immersion, they’d already be doing it. So, begin first with the basics, then progressively teach more and more complex skills, always building on what has been mastered.

  • First, students learn to recognize and discriminate the facial expressions for the basic emotions: happy, sad, angry and scared. A neutral facial expression is included to provide a baseline for comparison. At this point the emphasis is only on recognizing the expressions.
  • Next, understanding the emotions behind the basic facial expression is taught. What does it mean to feel happy, or sad, or angry or scared? What type of events causes someone to feel angry and how is a person likely to act when he or she is angry?
  • Once students recognize basic expressions and understand the emotions behind them, they are ready to begin exploring other emotions. First comes recognizing the facial expressions that express different intensities of basic emotions (such as the difference between feeling pleased versus feeling ecstatic) and understanding the emotions behind these expressions.
  • Finally, other, subtler facial expressions and their corresponding feelings are introduced. Consideration needs to be given as to which facial expressions are most important to teach, as the list is virtually endless. The following emotions/expressions are the ones I found most useful: interested, bored, disgusted, sincere, insincere, embarrassed, shy, confident, sorry, ashamed, jealous, confused, surprised, doubtful and concerned.

Recognition of Basic Expressions
I introduce the basic expressions (happy, sad, angry, scared and neutral) one at a time using cartoon faces, as their exaggerated expressions are easier for most students to recognize. First a cartoon face is presented and named (This is a happy face.). Next, the bottom part of the face is covered, the eyes are analyzed and a description is written or drawn on a chart. Then the top part of the face is covered and the mouth is described. This is repeated with a sad face, then reinforcement activities provide opportunities to match, sort, find and name various examples of happy and sad faces in drawings, photographs, video and real life. The other expressions are added one at a time, with activities for reinforcement after each addition.

Once all five of the basic facial expressions have been covered, a variety of activities can be used to help students integrate what they have learned.

  • Practice facial expressions using small hand mirrors.
  • Take candid photos of students’ expressions or have students model different expressions.
  • Use structured learning formats, such as work systems and file folder tasks, for sorting and matching expressions.
  • Create collages and charts with pictures of different expressions found in old magazines, greeting cards, and picture books.
  • Teach students to draw cartoon faces, using one of the many ‘how to’ books for kids.
  • Use clips from commercial videos and DVDs or create ones by recording segments of situation comedies or commercials. Watch with the sound off and pause the video, or watch it again as needed to recognize the facial expressions.
  • Make copies of cartoons and comic strips to use with an overhead projector.
  • Adapt games to reinforce face-reading skills, such as lotto, charades, and Simon Says.
  • Involve all students by using response cards for naming expressions.
  • Find facial expressions in famous works of art. (Norman Rockwell paintings are great for this.)
  • Create facial expressions books, such as a flipbook or a mirror book.

Understanding Emotions
To help students understand the basic emotions, introduce each emotion using pictures that depict objects or events with familiar emotional content, such as a birthday party or a threatening dog. Discuss which emotion students associate with each picture.

Have students create a ‘Dictionary of Emotions,’ writing descriptions or drawing pictures to illustrate each emotion. Include a picture of the corresponding facial expression.

The following activities can be used for reinforcement.

  • Incorporate the activities listed in the section above. Include not only what the face looks like, but also why it looks that way. For example, look for clues in a picture to see why the character is feeling the way he does.
  • Turn the sound on while watching video clips. At this stage you want students to not only recognize the facial expression but also understand why the character is feeling that way.
  • During reading time, stop at key points in the story to discuss how the character is feeling, why she is feeling that way, and how she is likely to act as a consequence. Also, ask students to demonstrate the likely expression on the character’s face.
  • Use graphic organizers to help students focus on emotional content when reading independently.
  • Include short skits and role-plays that depict familiar scenes that involve different emotions.
  • Have students write about times they experienced different emotions.
  • Create books, posters or collages that illustrates the different emotions.

Intensity of Basic Emotions
I use a three-point scale to teach intensity of emotions and the corresponding facial expressions. The first step is to decide what descriptive words will be used for the different intensity levels. For young students, it may need to be as simple as, “a little happy, more happy, and very happy.” For others, it could be words such as, “pleased, happy, and ecstatic.”

Once the descriptive words are chosen, they may be written on envelopes and students can then sort pictures of facial expressions, placing each picture in the envelope that best describes that expression. Short scenarios can be sorted in the same manner. For example, would you feel pleased, happy or ecstatic if you found out you’re having hamburgers for dinner? What about if you were told that you’re going toDisneyland?

Students then add new pages to their Dictionary of Emotions for the new descriptive words and complete the same activities for different intensities of sad, angry and scared.

Many of the same activities used previously can be used to reinforce understanding of these emotions and recognition of their corresponding facial expressions. The following may also be used.

  • Teach students what synonyms are and see how many different words for happy (sad, angry, scared) they can come up with.
  • Have students use a thesaurus to find even more words.

Other Emotions
Next comes teaching other emotions and their corresponding facial expressions. Each emotion is presented using scenarios relevant to the student. For example, “You are sitting eating your lunch and the student next to you throws up all over the lunch table. How would you feel?” If necessary, introduce the appropriate descriptive word, in this case, “disgusted.”  Students then relate their own experiences and add a page for “disgust” to their Dictionary of Emotions.

Previously described activities can be used in teaching other emotions and expressions. The important thing is to thoroughly teach each emotion and facial expression, before moving on. As each emotion and expression is added, compare it to those already covered, look for it in video and stories, act it out in short role-plays, find examples of it in magazines, incorporate it into games and art activities.

As students gain a greater understanding of facial expressions their social understanding and communication skills will improve. We need to keep in mind that for many with autism, learning to read facial expressions can be like learning a foreign language. We don’t expect to land in a foreign country and immediately begin understanding all that is said. We learn it a word or phrase at a time, with lots of repetition and practice. The task of learning facial expressions needs to be broken down and taught one expression at a time, with ample opportunities to integrate what’s been learned.

Pat Crissey has worked as a special education teacher and autism specialist for over twenty years. She is the author of numerous special education and autism related educational materials, including her 2007 book, Getting the Message: Learning to Read Facial Expressions.

Crissey, P. (2007). Getting the Message: Learning to Read Facial Expressions. Attainment Company: Verona, WI. (www.attainmentcompany.com)

Duke, M., Nowicki, S., and Marin, E. (1996). Teaching Your Child the Language of Social Success. Peachtree Publishers:Atlanta,GA.

Gladwell, M. (2002). “The Naked Face.” The New Yorker, August, 2002, 38-49.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2008. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print is prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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  1. Awesome article packed with excellent ways to help children with Autism interpret facial expressions and emotions. I can’t wait to try them.