Teenage inscrutability decoded

Some Cambridge academics at the Autism Research Centre have brought out a DVD of actors doing distinctive facial expressions, to teach autistic children to read other people's emotions.

I applaud anything which eases the barrier of incomprehension which autistic children live behind. I hope it helps. Being able to hear the intonation of the actors' voices probably makes it clearer.

However, I have to admit that looking at the stills reproduced in The Times, I got five out of six wrong. The right answers were "insouciant, hysterical, terrified, concealing, luring, brazen". What I wrote down was "smug, delighted, terrified, maternal, smart-alec, drunk". It is easy to see how you could mix up drunk and brazen, but a bit worrying that the face which was supposed to mean "concealing" looked to me like a mother gazing adoringly down at a baby, and that the "hysterical" face just looked like one of those pictures (so beloved by editors in late August) of pretty girls opening their A-level results and screaming for joy.

My failure reminded me, though, of one of the reasons I am not a teacher. Whenever I go to a school to do a group session - about radio, or journalism, or whatever - I find one of the hardest things is knowing what on earth they are thinking, and whether I am getting through at all.

Young children, of primary-school age, are easy: they have the beautiful transparency of babies, so I can quickly tell the difference between giggly, inattentive, frightened, worried, inspired, and bored, and adjust my routine accordingly. My own children, obviously, I knew well enough to read their mood all the way through their teens. Sixth-formers are nearly adult enough for me to make an educated guess at whether they are enjoying the session or not.

But with unknown children, between the ages of about 12 and 16, my experience is that unless you actually question them one by one, it is unbelievably hard to work out anything at all.

You look and look, and cannot know whether they are listening, whether they care, whether they understand, whether they are storing up mannerisms to take the mickey out of you later, or whether they absolutely hate you. The girls put on impassive, Siamese-kitten masks with big staring eyes and unreadable mouths. The boys all look sullen. Only if they actually jeered, stared out of the window all the time, or wrote text messages with little bleepy noises, would the situation be clear.

Since I generally only go and see nice groups of nice children, nicely filtered by canny headteachers, they don't do those things.

But until they can be coaxed to speak, I still have no idea what's in their heads. Perhaps it is a specialised form of autism: the inability to read teenagers' faces. Anyway, it would clearly never do for a teacher. You are experts, you have to know what's going on behind those masks, you have to spot incomprehension and unhappiness alike and decide who to focus on with a question and who to have a quiet word with after class. I asked some real teachers about this. One looked puzzled and said: "Oh, it's just practice, like with your own kids." Another said: "Well, I can do it better with pupils I really know, but I admit they do get a bit opaque in Year 9 and 10." A third, I regret to say, said: "Frankly, I don't care as long as they keep quiet."

Turning the situation round, and with the mellow hindsight which attaches to the first term since 1986 when I haven't had to buy anybody new rulers and pack them off to school, I realise that perhaps in the past I have been a bit unfair to some staff. It is natural for a mother to feel censorious about teachers who appear insensitive to the moods of her children. "Mr X is putting himher under such stress...surely ought to see how counter-productive all this anxiety is ... these remarks in class may be jokes at the time but they're really upsetting the kid...when I bring it up at parents' evening he doesn't seem to have the slightest idea."

"Insensitive pig" we chunter.

But perhaps this teen-related autism is widespread, and poor Mr X was genuinely unable to read the signs. He just saw the usual row of sullen, unreadable, unchanging masks. He meant no harm. He was doing his best. Perhaps a DVD should be produced for teachers showing a range of teenage emotions: insouciant, bored, hysterical, brazen, attentive, stressed, asleep, or doped up to the eyeballs. Student teachers could do a touch-screen recognition test, like the driving theory one. I'd fail. Real teachers would pass.

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