BRAWD AUTISTICO "Smile!"
Updated: Jul 7, 2021
“GWENU!” two boys shuffle awkwardly into position as their mother urges them to smile for the camera. The youngest of the siblings silently looks to the other for guidance, catching his every move with watchful eyes. If his brother crossed his legs, so did he. Hell, were he to stand on one leg and hop, he would surely do the same!
“Hey, hey… gwenu rwan, gwenu!”
It’s pretty obvious that they are on a family holiday- it’s summer in Devon and they stand there speaking Welsh, kids plastered in sun cream and the father waiting nearby, fiddling with his bum-bag.
“Barod… barod…” the mother, holding a roll-up camera, steadies her tone and prepares them for the inevitable flash of light. They must be still, or risk becoming nothing but a multi-coloured blur of bright shorts and even brighter legs. The eldest brother smiles appropriately, albeit with a toothless grin, but his younger sibling has one eye clamped tight shut, like a pirate, a look he exclusively pulls whenever he is subjected to a photograph.
“GWENU!” his mother urges him again, but his expression remains the same. With a defeated sigh, she takes the shot.
Every family photo, every school photo, every solo and every group photo… why?!
Mam would not get a decent photo until roll-up cameras became novel relics of the past and society took to using mobile phones to capture precious moments in their lives. The transition was swift, and so was my brother’s breaking of his... swashbuckling habit.
We just took it as a sign of maturity, something that he had simply grown out of… I can’t remember exactly when, but it eventually dawned on us that he had simply been copying the photographer’s facial expression the entire time, and with mobile phones came large screens, making squinting through tiny lenses a thing of the past, meaning that my brother, in return, didn’t shut his eye like a flippin’ pirate, like a photographer does!
I love playing mimicking games with my brother, as I will discuss in future posts. Indeed, most of how my brother and I played as children revolved around copying each other or someone else in some way, from re-enacting film scenes to slow-paced, ‘tutored turn-taking’ to kicking a ball to taking silly selfies. He will at times mimic my body language at the dinner table or when posing for a photo, as mentioned above, and we’re often seen sat mirroring each other when we’re together, be it at home or out and about. He isn’t exactly subtle about it, either!
Many people on the spectrum use echolalia or mimicry whether as a coping mechanism, or to simply fit into society, just like ‘neuro-typical’ people do; it is a natural trait of being human and we all do it, but we hardly notice it. For example; on a first date, people tend to mirror or mimic the behaviour or signals given by the other person in order to seem relatable and on the same level as them. We also mimic behaviour during a meeting at work, in classrooms as children and at big sporting events as full-grown adult louts.
We see a lot of strange stuff along the way, but most people learn which behaviours not to mimic, or at least know the appropriate times to mimic them; research suggests that this is something that many people on the spectrum struggle with. In the end, it’s about being able to comprehend and effectively mimic goal-directed behaviour, and learning not to automatically copy actions without an end goal to it.
Imagine, if you will, that you are teaching someone how to kick a ball into the net between two goalposts. You show them how it’s done, but each time you do so, you scream at the top of your lungs. When it comes to their turn, their brain has a couple of things to figure out; “I understand that I need to kick the ball using my leg in order to score a goal, but am I required to scream, as well? Do I need to scream in order to score a goal? Probably not, but am I expected to do so in this situation, even if it annoys me?”
One of the ways in which autism is presented is through ‘abnormal imitation’, with the general consensus being that it is simply the result of a developmental delay concerning social communication. One theory, called the ‘Broken Mirror hypothesis’, states that people on the spectrum have issues with their mirror-neuron system (MNS); part of the 'motor-neuron system', which helps us control how we move and behave. ‘Imitation tasks’, such as the ball game mentioned above, have been proven to activate this part of the brain.
In a nutshell, this would explain why my brother mimicked the facial expression of each photographer all those years.
But this is not to say that people on the spectrum don’t understand what is required to complete a task. On the contrary, many other studies show that, on the whole, people on the spectrum tend to do better in ‘emulation tasks’ than others (i.e. structured tasks with clear, end goals), but what remains is that they struggle more when required to react to or mimic someone’s actions spontaneously, such as, for example, in any social situation.
This was as shown in a study by the University of Nottingham’s School of Psychology, led by Antonia Hamilton, who said: “Our study showed that ‘typically-developing’ children copy everything an adult does, even when they know that some of the actions are ‘silly.’ In contrast, the children with autism only copied the useful actions—in a way, they are getting the job done more efficiently than the 'typical' children. These results show us that copying unnecessary actions is a social phenomenon, it is not just about learning how to use objects.”
Afterwards, however, the participants were asked to watch recordings of their behaviour, and decide if each action was “sensible” or “silly.” They all managed to complete this task, but the ‘neuro-typical’ children found it easier to do so, which means that the ‘neuro-typical’ children copied the ‘unnecessary’ behaviours even though they knew they were ‘silly’.
What this tells us is that there is a clear difference in how autistic children and ‘neuro-typical’ children mimic behaviour and in their perception of what is rational. Many people also argued that the ‘neuro-typical’ children were mimicking the unnecessary behaviours in an attempt to ‘fit in’, and that those on the spectrum were not so interested in “conforming to social norms.”
Unfortunately, only my brother could tell us what was going through his head all those years, but if you’re interested in learning more about the arguments for and against autistic children’s abilities in mimicking goal-based behaviour, do be sure to check out the links at the bottom of this post (under ‘References’) for two fascinating articles on the matter!
And so, by the grace of mobile phones and a new set of adult teeth, Mam was eventually rewarded her decent family photograph, and we may never really know why my brother spent so many years posing like a pirate in each photograph...
...either way, I’m not done with our ‘silly selfie mimicking games’ just yet, let me tell you- bless him!
Thanks for reading. I’m interested to know if there’s anyone out there with similar stories of an autistic friend or family member mimicking unnecessary behaviour, be it in a humorous way, tragic or dangerous…?