Why am I so loud and frowny? An Asperger’s lament

In previous posts, I described some of the most common characteristics of Asperger’s and explained that people with the condition might experience some of them to a greater degree than others. But no matter how Asperger’s manifests itself in an individual, the common thread is a fundamental lack of self-awareness of how one comes across to the rest of the world.

This can seem trivial and even amusing on the surface, but it can have devastating consequences to the person. Especially in a world where first impressions are everything.

It is not only the actual things we say and don’t say to people, but the way we say them and the way we look when we do.

For me, there are two primary ways that this manifested itself: The volume of my voice and my facial expression.

Say it a little louder, they didn’t hear you across the street

I’ve been told all my life I have a loud voice. I always thought it was because I was raised by loud people. My grandmother, who worked over forty years in a textile mill and had to raise her voice to be heard over the machinery, practically shouted everything she said to everyone all the time. Her “inside” voice was a typical person’s outside voice.

So naturally, I concluded that it had to be that. There’s times I’ve caught myself speaking unnecessarily loud for the situation and modulated my voice accordingly. But generally, it’s something I haven’t been able to get a handle on because it’s second-nature, like breathing.

Then I learned that inability to adjust one’s volume or tone to one’s circumstances is a trait of Asperger’s. We’re a transistor radio stuck at the same volume all the time, so embarrassing things tend to get overheard by other people and, well, social cluelessness and failure often ensues.

I’ve also been told I talk too fast and excitably and been asked to slow down, although less often now than when I was younger. I always thought it was because I was from the Northeast.

In The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome (2007), author and Asperger’s expert Tony Attwood writes:

The…vocal tone of speech can be unusual, with some children and adults with Asperger’s Syndrome having a ‘flat’ vocal tone that is perceived as monotonous. The speech characteristics can include problems with volume, being too loud or too quiet for the context. Speech that is too loud can be extremely irritating for family members and especially difficult for teachers who are trying to encourage less noise in the classroom. The person’s speech may also be unusually high-pitched or have a ‘nasal’ quality that is quite distinct and distracting for the listener. The fluency or delivery of speech can sometimes be too rapid, particularly when the person is excited or talking about a special interest.”

Resting Bitch-Face

I’ve spent the better part of my life walking around in the world wearing a facial expression I had no clue I was wearing.

To put it as succinctly as possible, what I imagined was a neutral expression was really what comedian Wanda Sykes in one of her standup routines dubbed “Resting Bitch Face.”

So when I thought I looked like this to the world
In reality I actually looked like this

Never has this been driven home to me with more clarity than when I have suddenly glimpsed my own image in a security monitor or such thing. I’d be like: Who is that cranky-ass woman in the customer service line?

Oh, that’s me.

This realization led me to pity every professor in every classroom and every performer in any play who has ever had to face my miserable visage. I apologize profusely to all of you, here and now.

I began to understand why people who encountered me on campus or somewhere else often asked me if “everything was okay” or told me to smile or cheer up. This always puzzled me.

I can only imagine how I appeared at office meetings. Furrowed brows, intense expression. Like most people with Asperger’s and even many without it, boredom and other states of mind are written all over my face without my realizing it. But with me that was dialed up a few notches more.

Needless to say, many people with Asperger’s aren’t the most popular or successful in the workplace.

I’ve tried to become more conscious of this habit and correct it when I realize I’m doing it. But like with the speech volume and other idiosyncrasies, subconscious and developed over a lifetime, it will take a long time to unlearn.

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