I have a secret. A guilty little secret. It’s something I try to do when GC is not home, not because it’s wrong per say, but because he makes fun of me if he catches me, and I’ll admit, I am slightly embarrassed. I’m hooked on a soap opera. Totally cliche for a stay-at-home mom, I know, but stay with me, this is autism related.
The Roc, like so many people with autism, has trouble reading facial expressions. I truly believe that this struggle is a big part of his anxiety about people, especially strangers. Strangers are unpredictable anyway, add in not being able to read facial expressions, and it must be terrifying for him when strangers approach him while we are out around the town. Early after the diagnosis, I was told that reading facial expressions was critical and I should try to help the Roc any way I could. GC and I wondered, how do you go about teaching someone to read facial expressions? It was our first foray into the world of teaching our child the things that come naturally to others.
When the Roc entered preschool we started small, drawing a simple happy and a simple frowny face, and taught him the difference. Not long after I bought a set of flash cards with photographs of children all making different faces on them at a teacher supply store, and I would go over them any time the Roc would let me. We added sad, tired, surprised, scared, and angry to the original happy/unhappy faces he learned, with the added bonus that these were photographs of people instead of drawings. GC and I also would make faces at him and have him guess what emotion we were trying to portray.
Then during a break, while the Roc was home from school for a long, long week he watched part of a soap opera with me and was memorized by what he saw. I realized right away the teaching potential in the overacting. Technically you do not even need to have the sound on to know what is happening during a soap opera. I started pointing out the most easily read/identifiable emotions and after awhile the Roc chimed in. It became a ritual during that school break and he really got the hang of identifying the variety of emotions (during a soap opera.)
The Roc is currently on another school break, and after a day of packing and playing we sat down to eat dinner together, GC had plans after work, so it was just the Roc and me. I decided to put my soap opera on low while we ate, figuring it would be a good way to get the gist of what happened that day. The Roc kept turning around to see what was happening and eventually he started asking questions.
“Why is she upset?”
“I don’t know baby, she’s upset though, I can see that, look at her face” (she’s upset because the man she just kissed is married to her sister! Yikes!)
“Is there a reason?”
“Yes, there is always a reason when someone is upset. That is a great question! When you see someone is upset what could you do?” (she kissed her brother-in-law! and he asked her to have an affair! Eww!) also (HOLY CRAP, did you catch that question from the Roc?)
“I don’t like that Mommy. I don’t like when people do that.”
“I understand sweetie, but it’s a part of life. You get upset right? Sometimes Mommy and Daddy get upset. Everyone feels angry sometimes.”
Then he changed the subject by asking the question he always asks me as soon as we start dinner, “Mommy, is it a dessert night?” and we moved away from discussing the lady on the TV. But the whole exchange reminded me of where we started, how we would go over the facial expression flash cards, pointing out different emotions, to now him asking questions about the emotions, wanting to know the cause, giving me a insight to where he is and what we need to be working on next.
I never thought watching a soap opera with my son would 1) ever happen, and 2) turn out to have so many teachable moments. It’s definitely an unconventional teaching tool, not something a therapist or teacher would ever point me towards, but it has potential!
(p.s. I always fast forward through the kissing scenes, and anytime girls start to fight, as inevitably one of them calls the other a bitch, not something I want the Roc to repeat.)