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!