Mummy is not Happy: Reflection on the dictation of emotion by an autistic child.

Guanajuato mummy 01

Image via Wikipedia

Before we get started, “mummy” is the New Zealand version of “mommy.” I am not “the dead body of a human being or animal preserved by the ancient Egyptian process or some similar method of embalming”. But I some days feel like “a withered or shrunken living being” (thank you, and thank you wordpress for suggesting that a shrunken dead hand would go nicely with my post title.) I refuse to refer to myself as a mommy just to avoid the searches by people who want to find out why an ancient egyptian is feeling sad.


Mummy is not happy, despite the endless insistances and protestations by my five year-old autistic son. He frequently says to me, “mummy is happy now, mummy smile” if I dare to be anything other than happy. If I cry or get angry or look too serious, he will desperately try to order / convince me that I have made an error. If I tell him I’m happy, that used to be enough to calm him down to avoid him degenerating into a crying anxious mess. But that’s not enough these days; I have to force a smile too.

You try smiling when you’re actually really angry or sad or exhausted or stressed or sick. Yes, it can be done, but when there’s an objectively good reason for me to be something other than happy, it’s more than a little annoying to plaster that fake smile on and keep it on until he’s distracted enough to look away from my face. In fact sometimes, it makes you feel a whole lot worse to force a smile at those times. If I reply “no, mummy is not happy”, you can guarantee an escalation of his anxiety and a good chance that he’ll start crying.

I try to tell him that I’m allowed to feel other emotions, and that mummy can’t just smile all day everyday; it would hurt my cheeks. I’ve tried to get him to understand this by getting him to smile for ages, but as you can imagine he loves smiling and thinks it’s a great game, and then I get caught up in his smiles and laughter too. And maybe that’s the point; me being happy makes him feel happy, the same way him being happy makes me happy. If I’m sad or angry or serious, it makes him sad because I’m not happy? Or is he sad because he’s worried about the outcome of my tears or anger? I’m not a scary woman or a scary mother, so I don’t think that’s it, but it may be part of the picture; good things happen when mummy is happy, bad things happen when she isn’t..?

He has gone from a kid who was seemingly oblivious to my emotions and my facial expressions, to a child who obsesses over my slightest furrowed brow or narrowing eyes or downturned mouth (or the reverses when I show even the slightest signs of happiness). I very clearly remember the time he bit my breast during a feed when he was about 12 months old, and the time he bit down on my finger as I tried to get dirt out of his mouth when he was a bit older than that; both times I screamed in absolute tear-jerking agony because he applied full pressure and wouldn’t stop, both time he just gently smiled at me as if I was amusing. I have lots of memories of my tears, my anger, my happiness, my every emotion, being unacknowledged and seemingly irrelevant to him (particularly up to and including when he was three years-old). Even when he met my eyes, I felt like he was just looking at what I was doing with my face, not understanding what it meant.

I’ve written before about how we taught him to recognise and name emotions. I think I’ve also shared the story about when he ordered a woman (one of his therapists) to leave the house when he was four years old and barely able to string two words together, because she’d made me cry. So I can map the shift towards recognition and response to emotion. It’s just that now he seems to have swung too far in the other direction, with a hypersensitivity that elicits an anxiety response from him.

I understand from previous research that I’ve done into the topic, that part of what’s going on with his hypersensitivity and anxiety is that – though he now recognises the emotion – he struggles to understand what has caused the emotion in me. Emotion is confusing because he’s struggling with theory of mind; what is going on in my head that made me angry, was it something he did wrong, is mummy sad because she is hurt? Maybe he thinks by changing my outward emotion (sad face to happy face) he can actually change the emotion itself (make me happy)? We can just add those questions to the pile I presented three paragraphs back.

The fact I can’t answer them yet is arguably evidence that I lack “theory of mind” in relation to the autistic mind of my child, but I am trying, so very hard, everyday, to penetrate that amazing little mind of his. I know I can do it too; I have frequently made significant discoveries – initially with the aid of therapists, but I have the skills to figure these things out increasingly by myself now – about why he does what he does, that have allowed me to bring him out into the world. He interacts more with the world; he is more confident, less fearful, more interested. He is much happier. But even he isn’t happy all the time. Yet he expects that of me, demands it, requires it.

I sincerely wish I could be happy all the time. I would love to comply with his need for my eternal happiness. But sometimes, some days, and for very good reasons, mummy is not happy.

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6 Responses to Mummy is not Happy: Reflection on the dictation of emotion by an autistic child.

  1. Sharon says:

    Wow that’s really interesting. I was reading last night about mirror neurons and the theory that those with ASD have the same amount as NT’s but they are essentially ‘turned down’ , so dont work at optimum capacity naturally. What you seem to be saying is now your son has been taught the importance of recognising emotion in faces, he still does not have the cognitive capacity to then make sense of what it is he observes? Is this is a correct interpretation? This makes me wonder about how we teach our ASD kids emotions, and if there is perhaps a more productive, less anxiety inducing way to do so? Just thinking aloud.
    BTW your son sounds so beautiful. He clearly has a deep love for his mum.

    • Thanks for those words Sharon, that was sweet of you 🙂

      As to whether he understands what he observes; he does know what the different emotions look like, what they’re called, and what they “mean” at the basic level of “if you are shocked by something, you make a surprised face”, “if you are hurt, you make a sad face” or “if something is amusing, you smile” etc. As you say, the problem is quite possibly with making deeper sense of what he’s seeing, perhaps as to what may have made someone sad or happy, or the directional connection between – say – a smile and happiness (does a smile show you are happy, or make you happy, or both).

      I think the challenge with teaching emotion is to break it down into steps. We have successfully taught him to recognise, name, and basically “understand” emotions, which is an important first step of course. We used a variety of methods to teach this, mostly games and learning built into daily activities. Whether that learning provided a misunderstanding or future-anxiety response to emotion, is (I think, at preliminary thought) unlikely. But I think this does suggest that learning about emotions is a continual task with increasing complexities – I probably need to try to teach him how to understand other’s minds and the connection between emotion, facial gestures and what is being responded to, at a deeper level now that he understands the name and look of emotions. That might be a particularly tricky task, but I do think my son is capable of it ultimately, I may have to specifically investigate ways to teach that to him; (it might not be possible at his current stage and age too – particularly considering his still limited language?)

      I have no doubt other issues are tied in here too – such as his own perceptions of the link between my emotions and what he can expect to happen in the world that directly affects him (?)

      Lots to think about, no doubt. And thank you for your comment, it helped that thinking along a little further.

  2. Bill says:

    I am endowed with Asperger’s.
    I’ve never seen this problem before, so I am not an expert; I’m just throwing out some logical ideas from my own twisted mind. You could try buying some clown or Halloween masks and play with instantly changing emotions.You could also try a simple dust mask, which would obscure the “smiley” part of your face.
    You could, of course, simply ignore his emotional state too; if you place too much importance on his emotional state, then logically wouldn’t that be training him to pay too much attention to your emotional state? (I would not worry about him having lingering memories of mummy abuse; I have no recollection of any relationships in my youth before roughly age 12.)
    (Since I have realized I have Asperger’s, I have taken to asking about my wife’s emotions when I suspect she is unhappy, but sometimes I get the impression she can be as annoyed about me asking about her emotional state as she was annoyed when I used to not notice her subtle emotional states.)

  3. KWombles says:

    Interesting post and dilemma on how to teach him it’s okay when you experience different emotions; you could try social stories that deal with it and ways he can handle it, that it’s okay if someone he loves expresses their feelings just like it’s okay that he gets to feel what he feels (while reinforcing that our feelings are always appropriate, some displays are not–boy, that’s a really important lesson many of us could stand to learn!). I hope it works out soon.

    • “while reinforcing that our feelings are always appropriate, some displays are not”.
      I like the way you put that! I think a lot about emotions and reactions to emotions, you’re absolutely right that the expression/display of those emotions deserves equal consideration. Such as, “it’s OK to be incredibly angry at your child, but it’s not OK to hurt or abuse them as an expression of that anger”, as a different claim than “you should never get angry at your child and such anger is always inappropriate”.

      As for the social story, that is something he responds quite well to (it doesn’t always work, but he does love his social stories!), I might just give that a go today – sit down and write and illustrate one for him, see how he reacts to it.

      Thanks! 🙂

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