Unmasking the Truth.

Elizabeth Obih Franks, has a beautiful, non-autism, inspirational blog called Mirth and Motivation.   Every day, Elizabeth provides a wholly refreshing perspective on different subjects, writes with philosophical artistry and provides inspiration to all who read her posts.  Recently, she posted about Masks.  Truthfully, at first, I thought- meh – actors use masks.  Why would I be interested in this subject?  Oh, if I’d only turned on my brain!  At least I knew enough to know that Elizabeth’s writing is powerful, and so I read.  And, as usual, I was humbled by her prose.

Elizabeth got me to thinking.  Masks are phenomenal tools to teach a young ASD child the beginning of the complex nature of social interaction.  A lack of social interaction is the primary deficit often discussed in describing a person who lives with autism.  Part of the gap an autistic person faces, according to everything I’ve read, is an inability to recognize non-verbal cues and to tune into and understand the emotions of others.  Masks can help provide a visual link with the concept.

As I first began to ponder the idea, I stumbled.  Masks are about hiding.  Hiding means you represent one thing to the public while believing or feeling or understanding something else inside.  Would I be trying to teach him the complexity of misrepresentation?  Of lying?  Would I be teaching him not to trust?

Well, yes to all of these things.  But, lying is bad, Karen, you say.  Why would you teach a child about lying?

Lying and trust are intertwined opposites.  Once you have been lied to, you tend not to trust the lier a second, third or more times. (Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice?  Shame on me!)   While I don’t want to teach my son to lie, I do want to teach him about lies.  I want him to know that people lie.  He must learn to, at least, suspect a lie.  He must pull off the mask and see underneath.

Naivety leads to victimization.  Not just for autistic children but for any naive child. Since ASD children tend to take things literally, they must be especially aware of lies to avoid bullying and pain. To coddle and coo is nice as a baby, but when they become old enough to go to school, children should learn basics of what to watch out for in order to avoid being hurt.  I want to promote my own son’s growth, his development and his strength.  Not his naivety.

I must step up to the plate and teach him about the ugly things in life as well as the good so he learns it in a safe environment.  If I do not do so, I set him up for a hard slap in school and in life.  It’s nice to pretend that childhood is innocence and beauty but if I do not give him the whole picture, I do him a disservice to preserve a falsehood of my own.  That is not fair.

My son is learning about recognizing emotions through facial expression.  This is one of the very first building blocks to learn about social interaction.  Clearly, he knows what can make a person happy, sad, angry, sleepy, or scared, even if he is unable to articulate it well.  He knows this information from his own experiences.

Now, when I add in a mask, it gets more complex.  But I cannot give up on teaching him here.  He cannot believe by seeing a smile, all faces will be happy all the time.

To me, to ignore the complexities of socialization is like teaching him numbers and how to count and never teaching him math.  While the layers get harder once you master the basics, learning goes on.  It should go on from recognizing faces to understanding the use of emotions in social interactions.  I think mostly this happens in the form of stories.  Children are asked questions during story time to help issues of socialization.

But are these children really learning?  Or are they simply answering their teachers with what they innately know.  NT children, for the most part, can pick up the nonverbal social cues without actually being taught.  My child needs a class or two or ten.

And thus, I am back to the concept of  masks.  Masks can be used to teach small children that what is on the outside is not always what is underneath.  That people can tell you something but not mean what the words say.  I want to explain what could happen if one does not express himself in a true way but, instead from behind a mask – what the result of one understanding versus another can mean.

I can think of lots of ways to look for multiple meanings in a simple action. Sure, I can’t protect my son in every social scenario but I think I can teach him some basic tools that could help on a regular basis.  We can do this in a variety of ways including books, stories, pictures and masks.  We can give our kids so much more awareness of their own in settings with peers.  That kind of awareness will give our kids confidence and self-esteem.

Unmasking the hidden meaning in social situations during the early years may do wonders for an ASD child.  If it is done with slowly, with increasing complexity, it may be absorb easily and much quicker than it does with adults.  Masks may provide a visual way to teach a child about a very difficult subject.

[Maybe this has already been done.  It just struck me as a very useful tool! One that is easy, inexpensive and a hands on representation of some otherwise, difficult issues.]

About solodialogue

I'm a lawyer and the mom of a 6 year old boy with autism. I work part time and spend the rest driving here and there and everywhere for my son's various therapies. Instead of trying cases, I now play Pac-man and watch SpongeBob. I wear old sweaters and jeans and always, always flat shoes to run after my son. Yeah, it's different but I wouldn't change it for anything. The love of my child is the most powerful, beautiful and rewarding aspect of my life.
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11 Responses to Unmasking the Truth.

  1. An interesting idea, Karen! I look forward to seeing how this experiment works out for you and and your son!

    (It’s also a very interesting follow-up choice from your post yesterday on innocence… did you plan it that way? 😉 )

    • solodialogue says:

      I really am going to try this. It is complicated but I think his functional level might be able to grasp it. We shall see.

      I did not plan it- it’s weird how life works out that way!

  2. Lynn says:

    We’ve used hand puppets to this end, but that is a different and more distinct abstraction of self. This also reminds me very much of the robots being used for autism therapy. You’ve probably read about those somewhere…there are seemingly endless studies being done at various universities and in various countries with these kinda creepy looking robots that are able to show rudimentary emotions for the kids to interact with. Interesting concept!

    • solodialogue says:

      I’ve seen articles on the robots and yeah, they are cool. I’m crazy and delusional so I want to see if I can get beyond the basics and go to the more sophisticated interactions. I know – but I’m going to try anyway. We’ll see.

  3. Lizbeth says:

    We’re using the little emotion faces. I’m not a big fan as they don’t show all the intricate movements/details on an actual face. I’m working on taking pictures of myself (yay, me!) in all sorts of states (happy, angry, confused, content, etc) to see if that will work better. I’ll keep you posted!

  4. Big Daddy says:

    “Teaching” social skills has been, by far, the most complexing part of my journey with Griffin.

    Btw, not sure if this is relevant, but, at various times during my life I’ve been told wearing a mask (literally) would help me fit in to society. Just thought you should know.

  5. Kelly says:

    Hey Karen – interesting idea! We seem to have taken giant leaps backwards this past week or so. Some, I know, a result of our house hunting trip. Others, because I truly believe that is how Ted develops. We see growth followed by regression, wash, rinse and repeat. This is a very interesting idea to explore, however. Thanks for bringing it to our attention!

  6. TMBMT says:

    I’ve seen a lot with emoticons and pictures but not with masks. Teaching and learning social skills is so very very important, and those of us who made it to adulthood without them know it can take years and years just to get to a point where we’re halfway competent (if we manage that). It’s great that you’re considering this entire subject so carefully. It’s also refreshing to see you taking the lead on this kind of stuff instead of just trying to find therapists to send him off to.

    The masks thing is an interesting concept. It could work but, like you said, it could also be confusing. You’ll want to make sure to do it in a way that he doesn’t get the impression that people will always be feeling something different than they show… don’t wanna make him paranoid… this is a real risk because of the black/white on/off viewpoint we tend to look at everything with.

    So if you’re doing examples you’ll want to mix in some “happy mask, because I’m really happy” examples along with the “happy mask because I’m trying to hide my pain” type of examples.

    And I agree with you on the lying thing. I’m vehemently against the mindset that lying of any sort is ever a good thing, but you’re right. Part of learning social skills is realizing that not everyone thinks or acts the way we do or the way we think they should, and learning how to deal with situations that arise because of that.

    It might be helpful to make the “masks” as simple emoticons at first, and then graduate to actual photos of the faces (his or yours or others he knows).

    You’ll have to let us know how this goes.

  7. Penny says:

    I love your blog, the stories of your son are awesome. I wish you all the luck with using masks, as I think ” Masks are phenomenal tools to teach a young ASD child the beginning of the complex nature of social interaction”-there is so many different faces of masks-that would make a wonderful teaching method.

  8. eof737 says:

    Oh Karen, thank you for the reference… I just wanted to add that masks for be used to teach the positive too…. You can use them to express a wide range of emotions and play acting with your son will give you insights and ways to connect… 🙂
    Thanks again,

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