About Face

Clenched teeth and narrow eyes? Angry. Tears streaming down face? Sad. Smile? Happy. Open mouth and wide eyes? Scared. Furrowed brow and tight lips? Not sure.

Over the years, Nigel has learned to read the cues of basic emotions and identify them, but he has yet to do the same for emotions that are less easily recognized, such as worry, relief, disinterest, embarrassment, confusion, and disappointment. They talk about these in his social skills class, and we talk about them at home, of course, but it’s hard for him to catch on. And it’s always difficult to apply the situations of Social Skills Class to the real world, although it’s certainly worth trying. Today, however, I stumbled across a more effective method.

It’s Disaster Movie Weekend here at Chez Nigel, during which he watches everything but the 2008 parody/spoof called Disaster Movie, which, he says, is not a real disaster movie. After cleaning his room more thoroughly than ever before, he was rewarded with a full movie weekend while Mom works (mostly) unhindered in her office, appearing only to make dinner (that was the plan, anyway). Nigel began with various Godzilla flicks, moved on to Deep Impact, Core, Volcano, and finished with his favorites, Twister and The Day After Tomorrow.

I’ve never been able to figure out why he enjoys these types of movies so much, but he has for a long time. He first saw Twister at the age of five, and has loved it ever since. He’ll rarely go more than a few weeks without watching it. Then a few years ago came The Day After Tomorrow, and all I can say is at least we now have an alternative to Twister. DAT has everything he loves about disaster movies – imminent destruction and earnest people trying to either stop it from happening or survive it. He doesn’t care about the writing or the acting. He doesn’t care if the movie got bad reviews. He’s just concerned with the main idea and the special effects (although he lets that slide for the old Godzilla movies he holds so dear).

So he’s watching The Day After Tomorrow out in the living room, and I venture out of my office in the early afternoon to facilitate lunch. I come and stand beside the couch, watching a scene near the end in which the father is reunited with his teenage son, for whom he had been searching. I’ve unwillingly watched this scene (and the whole movie) several times before, but something – my frame of mind, the loving energy that filled our home this weekend, something – makes it affect me differently this time. I stand there watching the scene, feeling emotional and trying to fight it. I think that I’m keeping it low-key and don’t think my appearance is that noticeable.

Nigel looks at me and says, “Your face. It’s making some sort of expression.”

And then I about lose it. My breath catches in my throat, and I have to turn away as tears pool in my eyes. He noticed! He didn’t know what the expression was for, but he noticed a subtle facial cue! I dab my eyes and compose myself, then turn back to my son.

“Yes, Nigel, it’s an expression of emotion. I was just feeling how the father felt in the movie when he found his son and hugged him. He was happy, but all the anxiety that he felt while looking for him just built up in that moment and made him emotional. Does that make sense to you?”

“I think so.”

I tell him how great it is that he’s starting to notice the subtle expressions of emotion that people show, not just the more obvious ones of anger, sadness, happiness, or fear. Like talking, like writing, like learning to be polite, this is probably something that will take him a long time to develop. But the fledgling ability is there, and I am pleasantly surprised.

I am equally surprised that I got choked up over The Day After Tomorrow. Next thing you know, I’ll be crying at life insurance commercials. I may have a harder time explaining that!

14 thoughts on “About Face

  1. Fearless Females

    Ha! I cried at Charlotte’s Web. But so did Nick, in a way… Nick has learned to express emotional scenes with “sad and beautiful” for this sort of thing… it helps him understand the difference. So Charlotte’s Web was sad and beautiful? etc..

  2. mama mara

    Rocky is also getting better at recognizing faces. But his face doesn’t show emotions in a typical way — for example, when he’s really angry, he contorts his face into what he thinks shows his rage, but it looks more like a goofy grin to everyone else. Does Nigel do this?

    P.S. Rocky is a fellow disaster-movie enthusiast. He’d exhort Nigel to add Armageddon (Deep Impact with better special effects) and all the kitschy 70s flicks (Poseidon Adventure, the Airport series, Towering Inferno, etc.)

  3. Cheryl

    Wow – that’s a great post! It’s funny when certain movies catch you by surprise…I experience the same thing this weekend when we took the kids to see “Up”…who would’ve thought. :0)

  4. pixiemama

    Oh, how I dread the movies of teenage boys…

    It’s amazing the things we celebrate, isn’t it? The day before I returned home, Foster talked nonstop about how I would be home the next day and it was a good thing, because he needed to hug me. Sure enough, first thing he did when he saw me – HUG!

  5. Kate

    Hey, it’s interesting that you commented on my blog that I help you understand your son but conversely you help me understand myself, or at least how the world percieves me and NT/AS differences.

    Also interesting as I was writing about trying to understand my friend’s emotions and facial expressions you should write this.

    I often notice that people’s faces are doing funny things. But I NEVER KNOW WHAT THEY MEAN, and that drives me crazy! And most of the time I’m worried they’re mad at me.

    I wish I could understand …. well….sometimes I do when it’s very obvious but I still feel left behind and shut out when I can kind of get it but not really.

    But enough about me – it’s a great step in the right direction for Nigel! Congrats!

  6. Kate

    PS i saw a huge article about the oregon caves in i think it was the portland paper in the ice cream shop today and i thought of you 🙂
    didn’t get to read much of it though

  7. M

    “Your face. It’s making some sort of expression.”

    Exciting. What’s great is that: this is the hard part. Identifying change, recognizing that it indicates some internal feeling…that’s step one. Everything else is just learning the details…but that step one is awfully hard. And yet…Nigel is there, learning it, beginning to make it. Step one: conquered. With his very sharp intelligence, the rest is just a matter of time.

    Japan…along with Godzilla…also makes some fun disaster movies. They’re into that sort of thing. There’s one popular one…I can’t remember what it’s called. Either “Japan Sinks” or “The Sinking of Japan”…I haven’t seen it, but if you have access to lesser known films (Netflix or something like that), it might be a good fit. Possibly. Maybe I’ll see if I can find a copy, watch it. Sounds like the usual sort of disaster thing. Anyway. Hi.

  8. Michelle S

    This is wonderful. I recently went to a conference regarding aspergers and they talked a lot on this subject. They suggested watching soap operas, with the sound off with your child (in short amounts) they so over do their facial expressions it is a good exercise in learning some of them. Like, you could say, what do you think she’s feeling right now etc. just a thought!

  9. Tanya Savko Post author

    Mama Mara – yes, Nigel often makes exaggerated faces when he’s angry, and also starts spouting random movie echolalia. I think it’s because he just can’t regulate the strong emotion so his usual coping mechanisms fail him at those moments, and he reverts to his old ways of expressing himself. And yes! Thumbs up from Nigel on all the movies you listed! The only ones I’m not sure he’s seen are the Airport movies, but he loved the others.

    Jess – thanks for the book suggestion and link.

    Pixiemama – yay for the hug!

    Kate – the fact that you try so hard speaks volumes.

    M – so nice to see you back! I’ll have to find that “Sinking Japan” movie for Nigel – he’d love it.

  10. Tera

    This made me think of an evening when Kaeden and I were watching Extreme Home Makeover Edition…I was in tears (I am a much too emotional person and when teh timing is right I DO cry over life ins commercials) and Kaeden was noticing, wondering why? He asked me if I was sad, why I would cry if I was happy, that doesn’t make sense…I could tell he was nervous about my reaction. And then, 2 minutes later tears were falling down his cheeks. He told me he was happy for that family but had to cry! haha

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