“Let us always meet each other with a smile, for the smile is the beginning of love.” – Mother Teresa
I have a girl in my class who always has a bright, bubbly and infectious smile on her face. She loves to dance, embrace her creativity and has many random outbursts of excitement. With immaculate dress sense, she often wears bright pink hair accessories to match her sunny disposition and takes pride in her appearance. Although this young lady prefers to interact with adults, if she’s in social situations with her classmates, she’s notably quiet, but always appears upbeat and confident. When asked how she’s feeling her rote response is “I’m fine” or “I’m happy!”, even though in her eyes she may actually look tired or feel sad.
The truth is, her cheeky smile and vibrancy are a mask she uses to protect herself from her emotions. After getting to know her, I came to realise she had underlying anxieties and put a lot of pressure on herself to be socially perfect. My student has trained herself to use a masked smile whilst imitating socially appropriate behaviours as a coping strategy and defence mechanism to conform. Being autistic she finds it hard to express her own emotions and often feels overwhelmed in situations, so she reverts to a fixed smile and well versed behaviours in a bid to fit in and be accepted.
A person on the autistic spectrum may have “social-interaction difficulties, communication challenges and a tendency to engage in repetitive behaviours” (Autism Speaks). A masked smile is a communication challenge and behaviour trait that people with and without autism use to cover up their real feelings.
In some shape or form, everyone puts on a mask at work, school, home and in other social situations. This is because there are different social demands set upon us in different places and a mask can help us function in society. For example, many of us wear a mask of control and professionalism at work, even though we may be experiencing upheaval in our personal lives. On the other hand, when a person permanently wears a mask to cover up their emotional state, they lose a sense of who they really are, what they are feeling and where the boundaries lie between themselves and others. This could result in anxiety, smiling depression, low self-esteem, panic attacks and intense confusion.
“Look into the eyes because they can’t hide the heartache behind their smile.” ― Karon Waddell
The British Psychological Society state there is a gender imbalance in the diagnosis of girls with autism because girls tend to be better at camouflaging their diagnosis by masking the symptoms. Due to my student’s masked smile and overall appearance she’s often unnoticed amongst other children who experience a range of emotions and behaviours a regular basis. That said, last year I had a boy in my class who had a similar condition and would simply smile through and deny his true feelings, even though we could see sadness and confusion in his eyes.
So what can be done to help children learn to understand themselves and let go of their masked smile?
- Emotional regulation. Developing a child’s emotional intelligence is a vital step towards understanding that it’s okay to experience a range of emotions, including sadness and anger. Through child-friendly emotional regulation techniques like the Zones of Regulation, children can develop self-regulation tools to help them manage their own emotions. By showing positive representations of how different emotional states can be expressed and by learning how to regulate their emotions, it can teach children why bottling up their true feelings can be unhealthy.
- Counselling & psychotherapy. By working with a trained child therapy professional in a safe space, it can help uncover underlying issues affecting the child’s emotional and mental well-being. Simple but effective methods, including emotional literacy, creative therapies and role plays, can be incredibly beneficial.
- Mindfulness. Teaching a child mindfulness techniques like deep breathing, yoga and light meditation, can help them focus on the here and now and live in the present moment. By living in the present moment it enables them to slow down and start to learn how to feel what’s going on inside of them.
- Love and Acceptance. For any child with a masked smile, it may take a lot of time, energy and determination to help them be true to themselves and understand that it’s okay to NOT always have a smile on their face. A child with autism may need ongoing nurturing and support to access and process their emotions. With persistence, compassion and a flexible approach, love and acceptance can be their emotional safety net.
“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.” ― Helen Keller
I hope this post inspires you to really look into the eyes of the people in your life, and not just at their smiles. If something doesn’t feel right, approach them with compassion, for there may be a deeper meaning to the smile on their face.
Miss H ♥