Looking through the window at holidays

Most of the time I feel like I’ve blended in to nypical society pretty well, but the holidays always come to remind me that I’ll always be an outsider in certain ways. This Halloween was no exception.

One problem with holidays is that it produces millions and millions of images, many of which by the poses and expressions serve to remind me of my own differences. I’d like to pose and smile like the people in the photos, but I can’t quite do it. Most of the time, I hardly notice how I look and carry myself relative to others, but at times like this I can’t miss it, and it kind of hurts.

Now that Halloween has passed and the parties are over, I see photos of people bunched together in groups, cheek to cheek and smiling big smiles, and I think . . . that is something I could never do. Not for lack of desire, mind you; I just don’t know how to accomplish it, or perhaps I don’t know how to get away with it without offending everyone horribly or making a fool of myself.

Here are two examples from the stream of pictures that passes my Facebook account every day. My apologies to the people depicted in these shots as I’m sure you never meant them to be used in this way . . .

How do you smile on command like the females in these shots? When people ask to take a picture of me, this is the usual result:

I felt like I behaved just fine with the photo of me and Kevin was taken. I think he was okay too. But look at the difference between me and those three females, or even between me and Kevin. Such a difference of expression, and I know I'm weak in this area so I was trying to compensate!

We all smile on command to some extent. I smiled for Kevin, but it’s barely recognizable when held up against the females. Some people smile so naturally. I thought I was smiling when my picture was taken, and indeed you can see a hint of it on my face. But I can’t do those big smiles on command, no matter how I try.

And the expressions aren’t the only thing that sets me apart. There’s also the posing. I look at photos like the one of Jackie pressed up against her friends and I ask myself, how do you know when it’s appropriate to pose like that? When, and for how long?

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a photo of myself like Jackie’s, even when I was a kid. I just don’t know how to get that close to someone else and pose. I think other people must have an instinctive sense of how to hold themselves and act; whatever it is, it’s missing in me.

What feeling is conveyed in Jackie’s pictures? Perhaps the fact that I don’t know explains why I can’t imagine being in shots like that, even though I know millions of other people posed just like her lat weekend, and had fun doing so.

Most of the time, people say I’m a serious looking guy, and that’s okay. But there seem to be times when others lighten up in appearance, and I don’t seem to have that figured out. I think I’ve learned how to fit in really well, and then I see images like these, that show how different I really am in some ways, and I know it will never change.

I’m glad I’ve at least earned the respect of many people, and my serious demeanor is acceptable 99.9% of the time. The pictures will fade, and I’ll still be here just as I always am. I don’t know where I’d be without that knowledge . . .

Still, I sometimes think I’d be happier in a world without cameras. I cringe to think this is only the beginning. We have Thanksgiving coming, then Christmas, and finally New Year’s. Two months of stress, at the worst possible time – when the days are dark and cold. I can’t wait till it’s all behind me.


JoJo said…
Well if you think about it posing for the camera is so fake, so phony. One of the things that I appreciate about people on the spectrum is how authentic they are. So John, small when you are happy. Just be yourself. In order to get my daughter to smile for the camera in a natural way I have to ask her to say something that she finds hilarious like "poop". Thanks again for sharing.
Woof !
John, your picture looks very normal, even nypical, to me for a male - no forcing of the smile, or near-grimace, a comfortable distance for the relationship.

I remember your analysis of "inappropriate smiling" in your book, and I think maybe, if this all concerns you, just don't worry what's going on. Don't think about cameras or being recorded. Think, "I am glad to be here with my friend(s)" and see what the pictures look like then. However they look, you'll be recording the real you, and that's what anybody who wants your picture really wants. :) Woof!
John Robison said…
I hear what both of you are saying with regard to "fake expressions" but I think Jackie was genuinely happy when the example photos were taken. While I think she may have smiled bigger for the camera, the "real" smile was always there at some level.

So I take your points, but I think the difference in someone like me remains.

And I do appreciate that folks like you recognize a genuineness in people like me because that means a lot when we (I) see things that make us feel isolated or different.
EquiisSavant said…
That's why I generally only pose for pictures with my Autism horse.
michelle said…
I will have to agree with JoJo and just say be yourself. Personally, when I see pictures of people the images that I enjoy the most are the candid ones, not posed. Everyone has different comfort levels with those things.
mama edge said…
I always think you look very handsome and mysterious with that hint of a smile in your eyes.

Don't change a thing.
pixiemama said…
It's OK to be you, John. Something else you might not realize? Many, Many nypicals hate to see themselves in photos for various reasons, too.

And that comment about wishing away cameras? C'mon now. We know how much you love photography!
Jay said…
#1 - you are not female
#2 - you are not as young and free spirited as they are right now (now you will say you weren't that way when you were their ages - refer to #1)
#3 - refer to JoJo - be yourself, you are helping educate us all and BELIEVE ME we are so VERY appreciative
#4 - differences are what makes the world go around
#5 - the grass is ALWAYS greener on the other side, *but i promise - it isn't*
You should take a whole new outlook on the holidays and try to enjoy them John, please, see your family, laugh about funny past antics and hug when you feel like it and when you don't - DON'T!

I will pray you have peaceful holidays like they are intended to be. You are supposed to worry about the house being clean and everyone liking the food and your gifts....... ;)
Stimey said…
I think the thing is that if you look at the photo of you without comparing it to the other photos, you look great and amiable. It's really hard to not compare ourselves and others, but everyone does it. And everyone (almost) always thinks they stack up as less.
vicky said…
John you should have posted photos of males hugging. Males don't usually press their faces together, so it would have been a little more helpful for you. Although any photos of males 'bonding' would mean, likely, that they were drunk, as otherwise males have difficulty bonding, also.
The main thing, in your photo is that your eyes are smiling, and that is important.
I have AS.
Anonymous said…
I agree with the above comments you look good in that photo. My son has the same kind of issue, there is usually a space between him and anyone else - unless I am in the photo and then he lets me pull him near me. As long as I can get a smile it's ok - he is a boy so people assume it is a boy thing.
Only you can notice that missing emotion in the photo, to everyone else it looks good.
DJ Kirkby said…
I think your face looks fine. But, I know what you mean in your blog post. I can't smile on comand, not a real smile but I've practised shaping my lips over my teeth so that it looks like a smile on demand for photos, sort of. It makes the nypicals happy anyway which makes life easier at work where my boss is forever seeking out local photo oppourtunities for our team and wants us all to 'look happy', arrgggh...
jess said…
i'm so sorry for the pain in this post.

i too love the lack of pretense in you, john. it's the same quality i adore in my daughter. when you do smile, i know it's real. when you laugh, it's because you found something funny. there's no guile, no bullsht. i relish that.

i won't try to explain away the differences that you see, though as the commenters before me have pointed out, many of them CAN be explained.

what i will do is offer into evidence one of my all time favorite photos.

middle of the page ..


woof, my friend.
Optimus Primate said…
This is a trick that took me forever to master. If you look at group photos of me over, say, the past twenty years, it's like looking at the evolution of a smile.

It still feels so fake, and I still get a twisting feeling in my stomach every time the cameras come out, but hey, at least my friends are happy and have photos of me now.
The Novelist said…
Thank you for this post. I have very few pictures of myself. Not because I can't smile, but rather, because I hate pictures of myself. My sister has even teased me that if I die she won't know what to do for a picture in the obituary because there really are no recent pictures of me. When I see pictures of my face it bothers me so bad because I think my face looks distorted and weird.

It is a strange problem I have, I know. But there it is.
Ms. TK said…
John, I think you have a what performers refer to as the Little Judge - or as I call him, Dirty Ol' Bastard.

You look appropriate. You look like yourself.

And no one here would want you any different.

I would like to honor your feelings, and the pain it brings you. I understand.

Your honesty in naming it and owning it - well, it's what makes you a true original. And as Jess pointed out - you are indeed "true".
Jax said…
hey it's me! I think we're always happy to get together, so we smile like goons for the cameras.

But yes indeed, many of the female species are well practices at "camera face". Hey, it's important, especially when photos end up on facebook and authors with thousands of followers post them on their blogs! ;)

cheers, woof j
Darci said…
Your smile is the extent of the smile I am able to muster. If I smile any more it looks like I am baring teeth like a threatened dog. When I look at your photo my interpretation as an Aspergian female is I am "OK" right now.

It makes me recall your articles/blog on the "look" of Aspergers. My husband recently repainted our hallway and hung up some more pictures one of them including me at the age of about 2 or 3 . If I saw the child in the picture today I would recognoze her(me) as having the "look" as well not anywhere close to NT smiling.
Morriss Partee said…
I hear you on this John. While as a nypical, I have never felt the degree of alienation or separation that you express, I have felt similar things as you when I see photos of joyous people, especially at times when I am not in a relationship with a significant other, and especially at holiday times. Us nypicals (wonderful word! I forget the derivation?) certainly feel similar things, even if not to the same degree.

A couple of further observations which some of your other readers have touched on: women tend to pose in this way much more than men in general. It's interesting to me, looking at people's photos in Facebook and other social sites, how many women's profile pictures either include someone else in them, or else it is clear that they were next to someone else (often a male), who is cropped out of the photo. I haven't done any scientific analysis, but my observation is that for men, it is very rare that their profile picture has someone else in it. The only exceptions seem to be for significant other, children, parents, or other family members, and certainly there is almost never someone else in the photo who is cropped out. This suggests to me that men usually like to have their photo taken by themselves. It's interesting that this gender difference manifests itself in this way.

For even nypical men, it's not clear how to pose for the camera with either men or women. If it's not someone that you have a special relationship with, then shoulder-to-shoulder, such as your photo, is the right way to go. If you want to convey a deeper friendship, then put your arm on your friend's shoulder.

Also, now that we have digital cameras with instant feedback, I too sometimes feel like I am smiling big for a photo, but looking at the playback, realize that I am not smiling as big as I thought. Usually I see that my mouth is closed, and then retake the photo with an open-mouthed big grin. For many people, they are not as demonstrative as they think they are being.

I echo what several readers have said: genuineness is what we appreciate, so be yourself rather than force a fake-looking smile. The main thing is to relax and enjoy yourself, don't worry too much about the camera knowing that there will always be a next time.

Another thing I've noticed is that for younger folks who have grown up in what I sometimes call the paparazzi generation, they grow tired of the typical happy smile photos, and really enjoy hamming it up with all sorts of OTHER expressions for their own photos. They're not afraid of how others will perceive it. This level of abandon often translates as vivaciousness no matter the type of expression.
cath c said…
you, mr photgrapher, would not be happier in a world without cameras.

my aspie son is either honest in his expressions in phots or overcompensating, in which case, he looks pretty nutty.

i say best to be honest in your expressions. i still see your grin. it's a bit sly, but it's there.
smauge said…
Hey! At least you get your photo taken! My 7yo usually won't go near a camera (was that ever an issue for you?). Conversely he is an exceptional photographer - go figure!
The other day his best friends mother wanted to take a photo of her son with his friends and, knowing my sons anti photo stance, asked him if he wanted to be part of it. He politely declined, but just before she pressed the shutter button he jumped in. It's the most natural relaxed smily photo I've ever seen of him. Maybe you need to try that technique. Less thinking, more spontaneity!
John Robison said…
Thanks for all the supportive and insightful commentary. Once again, you've shown me reason to be proud to be different.

I wish I could smile big smiles on demand, but I understand your point that a genuine expression - subtle as it may be - has a certain value.

I was also glad to hear from Jackie whose picture I cribbed . . . she had put it in the public stream on Facebook so anyone could see it but I don't guess she expected I'd hold it up to a few thousand people in quite this fashion!

She's a nice person and a good model for smiling a genuine smile on command. I'm sure her smiles are real and they're sure more expressive than anything I can do.
I'd take your expresion over the fake smile of my husband, his father and my son. Three generations of fake canned cheese.

I have to trick my son with a poor taste joke to get him to smile authentically. Same with my husband.

I have yet to try that on the father in law. Perhaps over the holidays. ; )

My 6 year old son has Asperger's and every one of his school pictures looks so "forced," they almost don't even look like HIM. He is a funny kid who laughs a lot and loves to tell jokes. So, to comply with the nypical standard of smiling on command for photos, I figured out that by telling him to think of something HILARIOUS when he hears the words, "Smile!" or "Look here, son!" he does "ok." (He told me he thinks of a Storm Trooper wearing a bathing suit which makes me giggle, too.)
Unknown said…
I feel so much the same way I avoided photos for a long time. I've been working on it. Blogging about it:

I'm notorious for looking ridiculous in photographs - awkward, tortured, blinkingly ill at ease - it is a family joke. She noted that I do fine if either of my children are taking the picture, probably because I'm looking at THEM and not the camera. I'm a sucker for my kids."

I sense you are really not alone in this - I think more of us simply need to admit it, and stop looking at photographs as a beauty contest.
Unknown said…
My son has AS and is 13 years old. For every picture he smiles from ear to ear making crazy faces with out-of-control arm movements and wacky neck contorsions. I always tell him to relax and just smile, but he can't help himself. That's just my son...and it makes me smile. If I did see a picture of him that looked "normal" I would wonder what was wrong with him! So let's all just be our own "normal" and love it.
Anonymous said…
my son Avery had this same issue.. so we practiced smiles in the mirror :)
He has his perfect picture smile and what a handsome young man he is!

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