‘I Be Happy’

When my autistic son was about 5 years old, it was suggested to us that we should teach him how to “recognize emotions.” Autistic people can’t read other people’s facial expressions, we were told, and this can lead to all sorts of social faux pas, improprieties and general troublesomeness.

I suppose it was a similar kind of reasoning that, a couple of years earlier, had prompted someone from a local autism team to cheerfully tell me that when the mother of an autistic child she knew had died, the child had missed her mother’s blue T-shirt, rather than the actual person, and that the absence of said blue T-shirt was the source of the various behavioral problems which arose on her part. My son had only just been diagnosed at that point: clearly she had not considered the impact of such a crushing and confusing remark.

Anyway, we bought a set of “emotions” cards and a certain amount of angst ensued, given that no one could agree on what some of the cards were supposed to represent. “Worried” looked very similar to “sad,” for example, and it was quite difficult to distinguish “shocked” from “surprised.” “Embarrassed” was particularly tricky. Fortunately, we adults had a key on which all the answers were listed, otherwise we might have been rather “puzzled.” My son, who didn’t have such an aid, proved to be rather good at the whole exercise and so the whole idea fizzled out.

I am aware that a number of people can struggle with emotion recognition (via facial expressions) and that some of those people might be autistic. The autistic speaker Paul Isaacs, for example, describes himself as “face blind” and says that he has had to find other ways to monitor his audience’s engagement than reading their facial expressions. Even so, what concerns me is not only that our interpretation of other people’s emotions is a matter of huge variation and subjectivity at the best of times (and that’s without factoring in ethnic, cultural differences, etc.) but that it’s only a short hop, skip and jump from thinking that someone who can’t read emotions or express emotions can’t actually feel emotions either.

“How does your child react when you cry?” is the question that many parents – especially mothers – are asked when their child is being assessed for autism. The “right” answer, presumably, is that s/he becomes upset, or even better, tries to comfort the weeping parent. The “wrong” one, a “marker” for autism, is that the child doesn’t react or simply walks away.

These are complex issues but also dangerous ones too, because the presumption is often made that if someone doesn’t react or respond in a way deemed to be correct, the underlying emotions are somehow deficient or even absent altogether. And the impact of all of those elements of life which affect us so deeply — love, death, disappointment, fear, hope, despair etc. — are coolly assumed to be irrelevant to a person who doesn’t respond physically or verbally in the required manner.

Our autism assistance dog, Wanda, returned recently after a seven-week absence while she had an operation on her leg. I asked my son a few times if he was glad she was back or if he was happy to see her etc., with very little obvious (to me) response on his part, until the second morning when, after stroking her on the tummy in a rather lovely way, he said, “I be happy.”

“What?” I asked not quite hearing, “You want the iPad?”

“I be happy” he said, smiling and moving in for a hug. “I be happy.” He’s 10 now, and that is the first time I have heard him express an emotion verbally.


I don’t know for certain if my son was commenting on Wanda’s return or was simply expressing a joie de vivre on a sunny, summer morning, or something else entirely — it’s not important. But what does matter is that if you care about someone who also happens to be autistic, you don’t let anyone, either directly or by implication, even begin to suggest that your loved one does not have the same emotional needs as anyone else. That we all challenge the skewed logic which can dehumanize a child perhaps wanting to hold onto the texture and smell of an item of clothing of a deceased parent. That we remember that we all need and seek the same thing: to “be happy.”

This post originally appeared on The Talk About Autism Blog.

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