A typical aspie-NT conversation about feelings:
NT: What’s wrong?
Aspie: I don’t know.
NT: You look upset.
Aspie: . . .
NT: Are you sad? Angry?
Aspie: I don’t know.
NT: It’s okay. You can tell me.
Aspie: . . .
NT: Fine. Don’t tell me. I was just trying to help.
When an aspie says they don’t know what they’re feeling, it’s a literal statement. We aren’t trying to dodge the conversation. We aren’t withholding information. We aren’t being rude, mean, cold coy or vindictive.
I’ve had variations on the above conversation many times and it’s as frustrating for me as it is for the person who wants to know what’s wrong. The reason? I have difficulty identifying my emotions and even more trouble verbalizing them. Working through my emotional constellations has helped me identify some of the specific issues I–and many autistic people–have in processing and identifying feelings.
Predictably, I’ve grouped the issues into three general categories:
- modulation (moderating the strength of my own emotions)
- determination (identifying emotions in others)
- discrimination (separating emotion directed at me from general expression of emotion)
Modulation: The Glitchy Volume Control
There is a common misconception that autistic people are unemotional. You’ll often hear this refuted by autistics themselves, who say they are too emotional. So which is it? For me, it’s both. My emotions gravitate toward the extremes of muted or intense; few emotional experiences fall in the midranges.
My default emotional state is neutral. I don’t feel especially good or bad. I’m present in the moment and content to be so. Externally, I may come across as serious or subdued, but reduced expressiveness shouldn’t be confused with a negative state of being or a lack of feeling.
The feelings are definitely there. Most of the time they quietly mind their own business and I need to consciously check-in to see what they’re up to. When they decide to fully surface on their own, however, they’re intense.
Unlike most neurotypicals, I don’t have a lot of ability to modulate the strength of my emotions. Imagine a radio with an on/off switch and a glitchy volume control.
If you think about this in terms of the weak executive function associated with Asperger’s, it makes sense. Humans use reasoning, rationalization and labeling to modulate emotion. All of these methods fall under the umbrella of executive function. Labeling emotions, in particular, seems to be hard for aspies.
Determination: The Broken Mirror
Just as I have difficulty labeling my own emotions, I have trouble identifying what others are feeling. I struggle with interpreting facial expressions and body language. I’m weak at perspective-taking. Basically, when it comes to reading emotional clues, I’m like one of those old-time detectives who had to solve murders without any forensic evidence. There’s only so much information you can gather from what people tell you outright.
This difficulty determining what others are feeling is a big contributor to the stereotype of the empathy-deficient aspie. If someone is giving off “I’m sad” cues that I fail to recognize, when I don’t console them, they’ll assume I’m cold and unsympathetic.
For neurotypical people, emotional interaction is like looking in a mirror. They expect to see a reflective emotion looking back at them and when they don’t, they assume the mirror is broken.
This isn’t to say I’m oblivious to other people’s emotional states. I get the obvious ones and the ones that I can derive from contextual clues. What I tend to miss are the subtle or unexpected emotional states.
Discrimination: Missing the Target
I’ve always been disturbed by confrontation and conflict, even when I’m only a bystander. By default, The Scientist is in charge of “confrontation with others.” If something needs to be argued over or complained about–a botched repair job or an over-cooked restaurant meal–that’s his department. While he’s making that phone call or waiting for the manager to appear, I go off and hide.
As an adult, I’m not proud of this. Why do I desperately need to flee a situation to which I’m nothing more than an observer?
Because, I recently realized, I don’t discriminate between anger that is aimed at me and anger in general. When someone is angry, I invariably feel like I’m the cause or the target, even when I rationally know that I’m not.
If The Scientist calls me after a bad day, I hear how upset he is and immediately feel distressed. Not distressed as in “I should console my husband because he’s had a bad day.” I feel distressed in a “this is incredibly stressful and I want it to stop” kind of way. My brain immediately goes into “fix it” mode, searching for a way to make the other person feel better so I can also relieve my own distress.
Of course, a conversation with an upset spouse is upsetting to most people. But what about a conversation between two strangers that I’ve merely overheard? Twice in the past two weeks I’ve witnessed one person berating another for an etiquette infraction at the swimming pool. (Yes, we take our lap swimming seriously around these parts.) Both times I felt my heartbeat skyrocket, as if the anger was directed at me. In reality, I’m sure neither of these people even noticed I was standing nearby.
Even now, as I’m sitting here in Starbucks typing, the woman at the next table is telling a story about how mad she is at her sister-in-law; I can feel my blood pressure rising at the tone of her words. Words that are completely irrelevant to me. Words that, thanks to my funky brain wiring, I find impossible to tune out.
Yes, not only does my autistic brain not know how to interpret the emotional content of other people’s conversations, it also refuses to tune them out. And people wonder why we aspies like to spend a lot of time alone.
It took me a long time and a lot of thought to figure out why I respond to secondhand distress like this. Why should I feel emotionally assailed when the angry words are aimed at another person?
In part it’s related to my upbringing, but there is also an element of weak executive control at work. In theory, I should be able to rationalize away my overreaction by telling myself that I’m observing generalized anger (or frustration or sadness), not anger directed at me. I should be able to put myself in the other person’s shoes and direct my emotions at the target of their distress, rather than feeling like the target myself.
The three areas where I have difficulty–modulation, discrimination and determination–are actually core traits of alexithymia.
Alexithymia (literally: having no words for emotions) is impairment in identifying and describing emotions. Specifically, it’s characterized by:
- difficulty identifying feelings
- difficulty distinguishing between feelings and bodily sensations related to emotional arousal
- difficulty describing feelings to others
- impoverished imagination and fantasy life
- a stimulus-dependent, externally oriented cognitive style
When I look at the list of alexithymic characteristics, I also realize that when I’m emotionally uncomfortable, I’m more likely to have physical complaints. I’ll be feeling frustrated or sad, but complain that I’m uncomfortably cold or intolerably sleepy. This isn’t a connection I would make on my own, but once I see it described as part of alexithymia–like so much about my autistic self–it suddenly makes perfect sense.
There is a lot of overlap between alexithymia and ASD, both in the perception of emotions and the difficulty in verbalizing feelings. Not only are autistic people very likely to exhibit the characteristics of alexithymia, their parents are as well. However, many non-autistic people also have alexithymia, so it isn’t exclusive to ASD.
Alexithymia isn’t a clinical diagnosis like autism. It’s a construct (theory) used to describe the traits of people who have difficulty verbalizing emotions. It’s also a helpful way of thinking about some of the challenges that aspies have with processing feelings.
More on Alexithymia and ASD:
- Next Tuesday, we’ll be doing the Alexithymia Questionnaire for Take-a-Test Tuesday.
- Alexithymia and Grief at Unstrange Mind is a challenging and insightful piece about the mourning process
- Great example of an Alexithymia cheat sheet in the form of a flow chart at Radical Neurodivergence
83 thoughts on “Emotional Dysfunction: Alexithymia and ASD”
Wow! When I read these posts it makes me want to have all my friends and loved ones read it and then tell them, “THIS is what I’m dealing with! This is why I’m act like this.” Not all of it is exactly like me but enough of it that I feel like I’m reading about myself. I suspect that some of the stuff which I think doesn’t relate to me really does and I just haven’t realized it yet. I’m so thankful that I found your blog!
Your comment made me smile. Thank you. I’m glad it’s helpful and I feel the same way when I read everyone’s comments. It’s good to know that there are other people out there who feel similarly or share our experiences.
Yes many of the comments explain a lot about self consciousness. I get so anxious when somebody insists on taking my photograph. The mere thought of speaking into a microphone leaves me so tongue tied that it defies explanation. When somebody bullies me or someone in close proximity to me, I feel as though I am under personal physical attack. Doctors tell me I have extreme social anxiety. Placing labels on people solves very little though! Thanks to all participants for their insights, Jacqueline
Thank you for an awesome post!
I used to go around in circles with my ex: he would be mad at an inanimate object (his computer, his shoes, the car, whatever) and start yelling at it. I’d cringe and ask him not to blow up like that because I can’t handle it. So he’d say (still in that angry tone of voice!) “Why are you upset? I’m not yelling at YOU!” And I’d squeak out in a tiny breath, “now you are.”
I think it’s impossible for people to really understand the way emotion can bleed off a target unless they experience it happening first hand. I’ve finally gotten to the point where I can identify what’s happening and ask my husband to change the way he’s speaking about something so it’s not distressing to me. It seems to help him as well, because just paying attention to that deescalates his level of upset.
Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention — the example you start your post with? That’s one reason that people with ASD end up traumatized by psychotherapy from people who don’t understand autism. I spent most of my childhood in therapy sessions, being told that I was being evasive and not cooperating with the therapeutic process and stuffing and all kinds of other things because I was unable to say how I felt about something. That was damaging.
Very important addition!
I think a lot of people also miss their diagnosis or don’t get any help because of this. And the ones who DO get “therapy” get the wrong advice, and get told they’re not doing enough.
You both make a great point here. I think this is why I’ve been so reluctant to pursue the therapy that’s been recommended to me.
This has provided me such insight into the working of my 14 year old daughter’s mind. Thank you
I’m so glad it helped!
This. “I don’t discriminate between anger that is aimed at me and anger in general.” Yup. That’s me. Totally get it. The conversation between the two women who just happened to be sitting within earshot? Yup. Blood pressure rising. Feel sick. Can’t eat. And that’s how I felt just reading about you hearing them!
Conflict of any kind instantly puts my stomach in a twist. Finally getting to the point that I consciously know what’s happening has been a big help. One step at a time . . .
I feel sick and cannot eat. So if a conflict arises while eating or right before a meal, I can’t eat.
I have recently learned that I show high alexithymic traits. I had never heard of alexithymic before, but it makes sense. I have a active imagination and fantasy life, but I have a lot of trouble understanding emotions. I often find myself trying to describe what I am feeling to my husband so he can give me a label so I can call it what it is. It is really annoying not understanding the sensations that you are feeling. It can drive you crazy. I don’t feel that people are angry at me necessarily, but I feel a lot of guilt when people direct their frustrations toward me. I always think that I have done something wrong and I can’t figure out what it was. It is just weird and frustrating.
I also know what it is like to have the wrong therapy. I had gone in for counseling due to PTSD and this was before we knew I had Aspergers. I was bounced around between five different therapists and I was labeled difficult and unresponsive by more then one. The therapy actually caused me to go backwards. It just made things worse.
I’m sorry you had such a terrible experience with therapy. That seems to be a common problem. I’ve had several people (including 2 medical professionals) suggest that I get myself into therapy but I can see myself getting labeled at difficult and unresponsive pretty easily.
Alexithymia is so frustrating. Your system of getting your husband to help with label emotions sounds like a great idea. I’ve found that being aware of it and working within the confines that I know I have makes a little less so.
I can really relate to this. Almost all of the alexithymia traits describe me perfectly, except for the “impoverished imagination and fantasy life” part (I have a HUGE fantasy life, to the extent that I could probably be considered a maladaptive daydreamer). It sounds like your therapy experiences were much worse than mine, but I’ve also had trouble with therapists who place tons of emphasis on asking their patients to describe their feelings.
Thanks so much I don’t know what I’d do without this blog! I also have a active imagination and fantasy life, but when it comes to labeling my emotions there are always so many running frantically through my mind so I freeze up and can’t just name one. When I was younger around the age of 9, I had to go to a counselor for learning how to control my impulsiveness with my ADHD. When they’d ask me my emotion and I couldn’t name it they’d start naming all the emotions and then ask me my emotion once again. After several times of this they’d give up and everyone just told me I was very immature. I have also always been told to “suck it up” and be tough when you want to cry, so for a long time I thought I had become numb to pain and happiness and other emotions. But now i realize it’s just the opposite.
Oh, wow. I have this. Wow… wow. I didn’t even realize that I had this. Wow.
XD Sorry, a little incoherent. Too many thoughts coming to mind right now and they just. Won’t. Leave. Me. Alone. I may leave another comment when my thoughts organize themselves. :3
Oh, I hope you’re doing okay. Please come back and write some more when you can. I was really surprised when I found out that I have it as well, but also relieved because it gives me a way to make sense of all of the confusing emotional stuff that happens in my life.
Thank you. 🙂 I’m fine, it was just… shocking. See, this has been a problem for me my whole life, and I was just dealing with this exact problem earlier today. It just makes so much sense.
I am constantly guessing at my own emotional state. I know the names of emotions (blame my inner writer), so I try to label myself with them… only to find that they do not actually fit too well. I, too, am usually rather neutral until I feel some sort of strong emotion, and I have no emotional regulation whatsoever. When I am upset, I usually can’t identify why, and I usually just guess that it has to do with something that it doesn’t have to do with. It can be very confusing, but it was even worse when I was younger. Now, I can usually identify why after I really, really think about it.
I have a lot of issues with this as well; I know I’m feeling something but I’ll be damned if I can articulate clearly what it is. I also feel secretive about my emotions; not sure if that’s a by-product of not knowing exactly what they are or whether I don’t get good reactions when I’m honest or a combination of both or something else entirely! I wonder where the non-imaginative part comes in though, because while I identify with everything else on here, I’m very imaginative.
I sometimes feel secretive about emotions too. Like they’re mine and I don’t want to share them? Or it’s too private to talk about? I’m not sure how to describe it, but I think I know what you mean.
The imaginative part is puzzling to me too. I write fiction so I know I have some imagination. 🙂
Yes this is the same with me, I always know that there are thousands of emotions inside of me but I can never find the words to tell someone about them. So instead I just smile and when someone asks me how I am doing or feeling I just say good or fine. I also always seem to find myself in a different world. I’ll spend my night laying in bed imagining things or just running through my day like a movie but I have found it more difficult to do this recently. At night I have trouble sleeping because it’s like I’m calm but my brain doesn’t want to sleep like it’s waiting for something to happen (very frustrating). I just really wish there was a cure to making this all go away. I always just think back to when I was younger and when I was happy and I was fine with life. Also my parents say that they don’t have time to deal with any “disabilities” like alexithymia that I might develop so the choices of people I do have to express emotions to are pretty limited and life gets really lonely. Now more than ever I just find myself trying to label and find the exact answer to my problems without telling anyone, because I guess I feel like it’s going to solve everything but I know that in all truth its really not; it’s just helpful to know. Also does alexithymia have anything to say on not feeling love. Because even when I know I’m “in love” I don’t feel it I just feel numb. I’m not married and just graduated eight grade but Is this normal?
Geepers you’re smart! 🙂 Love your categorical brain. It’s wonderful to see patterns, make and understand processes, to take the guess work out of as many things as possible to free up our brains for that which we do have to figure out. Does that make sense or did I just write a sentence you have to try to figure out??? When I read your section on Determination i thought about how I wish people would let down their defenses and just be more straightforward and honest with others, less afraid to express their feelings. Why must we attach shame to certain feelings? So, it seems, people hint at some feelings rather than just come on out with them. I don’t like a lot of poetry for this reason. I don’t want to work that hard to understand something, to decipher another’s meaning. If you want me to know something then spit it out, and then I will understand. 🙂
That came across perfectly! 🙂
There is a lot of reading between the lines required when it comes to figuring out other people’s feelings and I suck at that. I’ve gotten to the point where I’ll just ask outright if I need to. Also, I’m with you on the poetry thing. I love Walt Whitman and Pablo Neruda and beyond that I’m at a loss. All that symbolism! Too much work required.
(and my daughter the published poet is probably cringing right now)
Another fantastic post, I can see myself pointing several friends and family members at this one! 🙂
There is absolutely no doubt that I have incredibly poor emotional awareness, especially for negative or complex emotions. I mean, the first time I realised that there was a difference between sadness and the sensation of crying or trying to stop oneself from crying was when I read Tony Attwood’s book about 10 months ago aged 32!
However I can’t relate at all to ‘impoverished imagination and fantasy life’, if anything I spent much of my teens escaping into elaborate fantasies about parallel universes and the paranormal! I read somewhere the last time I researched this that people with Alexithymia supposedly have boring dreams and prefer non-fiction to fiction. Again, can’t relate to those at all! I wonder if that’s a difference between autistic Alexithymia and the type caused by other reasons?
It’ll be interesting to do the test for this on Tuesday, I wonder if the frequency with which I feel positive emotions might put me into the ‘impaired’ category (that apparently 85% of people on the autistic spectrum fall into) rather than ‘severely impaired’ (which was still almost half).
Thank you! It always gives me a little thrill when some says they relate enough to want to share a piece of writing.
I don’t understand the impoverished imagination aspect of it either and I’m starting to wonder if there is an ASD subtype of alexithymia. Or if the NT/ASD experiences of alexithymia are different. One of my hobbies is fiction writing. I would generally much rather read fiction than nonfiction for pleasure. My dreams are vividly detailed. All through childhood I had imaginary friends with whom I had elaborate interactions. And yet, I fit the rest of the alexithymia criteria like I fell out of a textbook definition.
You aren’t aware of any alexithymia tests online that are modeled on the TAS-20 are you? I was only able to find the Online Alexithymia Questionnaire and I have some reservations about it.
Fantastic post, as ever. Really looking forward to trying this Alexithymia test on Tuesday! I can definitely identify with the “emotion on/off” thing – I can’t force myself to express sadness/anger/excitement “properly” when I’m expected too, even if that is how I actually feel, but when the reactions DO happen, it’s really over-the-top. I also can’t stand conflict between family/friends, even if it’s just “minor” bickering or talking behind each other’s backs rather than a full argument. This tends to lead to a rather, um, negative reaction… and then I’m called over-sensitive. 😛
Thank you! 🙂 The Tuesday test should be fun (well, you know, relatively speaking). This seems like a subject that so many of us relate strongly to.
Conflict. Ugh. It makes me want to run away.
Yeah, same here. One of those things I didn’t realise was autism-related until very recently. If I can’t leave, I’ll just apologise incessantly like that’s somehow going to make it stop. XD
Excellent post… I love this phrase:
“They expect to see a reflective emotion looking back at them”, I think you are very right about that….
I can see that I have some of the mentioned difficulties as well, but not at all. Difficulty identifying feelings – Yes, often. Difficulty distinguishing between feelings and bodily sensations related to emotional arousal – Yes, very much so. Difficulty describing feelings to others – Sometimes, but I can also be really good at it, especially in writing (assuming the feelings are identified). Impoverished imagination and fantasy life – Totally the contrary. A stimulus-dependent, externally oriented cognitive style – Totally the contrary, I need very few external stimuli and easily become over-stimulated.
And as for your detailed descriptions: Modulation: Yes. Determination: very similar to what you describe. Discrimination: very much the contrary! I’m usually relatively unaffected by anger outbursts that are not directed to me, apparently less affected by most people. I primarily just observe and reason according to my inner flowcharts of making sense of people: 1. The person is obviously angry. 2. Why is the person angry? 3. Who/what is the target? 4. Is the person mentally unstable/dangerous, and am I in danger? 5. How to minimise the danger/impact/shock on surroundings? (observe how other people react, are they loosing control?) 6. What is the key to actually solve the problem? 7. Can it be solved? What can I do? …
Even sometimes when the anger is directed at me, I don’t even get upset … if I am representing someone else (e.g. an employer), then I don’t necessarily take the anger personal. In the best case I just calmly follow my inner problem solving script and update it with the new experience. Just 2 days ago I had an obviously mentally ill lady screaming at me. I still came back, because she had not given me the outright, explicit rejection I need in order to tick the ‘refusal’ box, write the reason and close the case. I wasn’t happy to go back, but I wasn’t emotionally upset either, just like ‘I don’t like when people scream at me’ (especially not if they’re loud!). I’ve experienced similar situations when I worked as an in-home carer … someone totally attacking me with all sorts of complaints directed towards my employer. I knew already she was like that (I had been warned) and did not get upset, and it actually ended with her becoming sort of friendly.
but not at all = but not all. (Why do I only see the typos after I click on ‘Post Comment!’… )
apparently less affected by most people = apparently less affected than most people.
Sorry… my English skills or attention is not up to scratch today!
I would think that on the job, the ability to stay calm when others get angry is a big asset. It sounds like you’re able to rationalize away the negativity via internal dialogue, which is one of the coping mechanisms I read about as I was researching this. Perhaps I need to work on that.
I did some more reading about the “stimulus dependent externally oriented” thinking style and apparently what this actually means is that a person things in concrete terms and is not introspective (doesn’t spend time thinking about their thoughts and feelings). Not sure if that changes your view of whether it fits you. I do think in concrete terms but I’m also introspective so I guess it somewhat applies to me.
Also, no worries about the typos. I have a problem with missing words too – sometimes I see words that I didn’t actually type! 🙂
Yes, it is.
I don’t think I actually have an internal dialogue (it would be a monologue if anything) The 1., 2., 3., etc sequence was to convert my reasoning to a list others can easily relate to in writing, but that is not actually how I think it. My thinking is more like neutrally studying a lab animal acting out a specific pattern of behaviour in order to categorise its components and sequence, and then each category corresponds to a sequence of correct (= works well) responses which I don’t precisely know in advance, but I’ll try with a sequence from a situation that is as similar as possible, and then adjust it according to the feedback I get (‘update the script’). I don’t like the way this sounds… it sounds rather callous… but I don’t think it is bad. Responding calmly and rationally to emergencies/conflicts is in everybody’s best interest, and this is learned behaviour. I have been in many situations through my adult life where an adult behaved ‘off the scale’ erratic/angry/emotional, and I do remember feeling totally off my feet and in a state of shock and like ‘loosing it’ after such incidents until long ago, so my current non-emotional reaction is a well adapted coping strategy. Albeit it could maybe also be dangerous in some situations because low emotional distress = no urgency to get out of a situation of potential danger. Even though I don’t feel like I’m the target, the reality could be different.
(Maybe I should ad that it doesn’t always work that way for me… I do loose my temper sometimes when provoked on a bad day … What I describe is the ‘best case scenario’, and I do mostly respond like this)
OK, that is different. I am very introspective, but also very concrete in how I perceive what others say (I know, that’s not fair) so I can’t answer that one clearly either then.
The way you analyze a situation doesn’t sound callous at all. It sounds very rational and practical and quite useful. 🙂 I think you’re right that you’ve developed a coping strategy for dealing with emotional situations and one that serves you well, so I don’t think you feel negatively about it. I’d like to get to that place at some point, in fact.
Ps. I am so impressed with your conscientious reply to every single comment you get! Considering that there are quite many, on both new and older posts.
Oh gosh, perseveration plus mild OCD = replying to every comment. 🙂 Not sure how long I’ll be able to keep it up though!
Thank you for writing such a great piece! This post is exactly what I would like to tell the people around me but cannot find the words to describe it, you did it for me 🙂
“My default emotional state is neutral. I don’t feel especially good or bad. I’m present in the moment and content to be so. ”
BINGO! I sometimes blamed myself for not feeling happy when I should be, but was made guilty by others because I wasn’t showing it… It is a huge relief to know that I am not the only one feeling this way.
For point number 3, Discrimination: Missing the Target, similar to your Starbuck experience, I recently left a job because I kept picking up nervous energy/vibes from the person sitting next to me (also my boss/friend). Though the anger/angst she felt was not directed at me nor came from me, I couldn’t block them out, from the physical – desk vibration and keyboard noise while she was typing away furiously on her keyboard – to the invisible, like I was being stalked by the creepy dark storm clouds that circling her. I ended up having a meltdown in the office and couldn’t talk or look at her, it’s embarrassing and I felt guilty afterwards.
Thank you again for sharing 🙂
It’s hard to feel happy on demand! People can have such rigid expectations when it comes to what emotions are appropriate.
I’m so sorry to hear that you had to leave you job because your colleague was giving off all those negative vibes. I had a coworker like that once and being around her just set my teeth on edge all day. It’s easy to imagine how the constant overload pushed you to a meltdown.
Yes! I’ve had the above conversation above SO MANY TIMES! I’m definitely pursuing a diagnosis now. I don’t think I’ve ever had as many “aha!” moments as I’ve had reading your awesome blog. Thank you so much
Your comment made me all bouncy and happy. I know exactly what you mean about those aha moments because I’ve had them reading other blogs and talking to other autistic folks. It’s quite an experience. 🙂
Great information! I deal with many aspects of this personally. My partner is also an Aspie and every time I have a generalized emotion, anger, sadness or whatever he personalizes it! This hit the nail on the head of what is actively difficult in our relationship. Will be sharing this with him and our relationship therapist!
Oh, I’m so glad you found it helpful. Since I’ve started to figure this out, it’s really helped my husband and I avoid what were common uncomfortable situations for us. I hope you’re able to put it to use in your relationships as well!
My sons are 13 & 15. They both deal with this a little differently for each. Please write a little on how this can affect them in school! My thirteen year old shuts down! When he is overwhelmed he thinks he is going to throw up, he gets pale, goes into a cold sweat, gets weak in the knees, then he has to lay down. He will lay down anywhere because I don’t thinks he has control over it! Then he sleeps……..for a long time!
I understand this! School not so much! This usually revolves around homework and he saves it until He gets home. I think he does not process his day until he gets home, when the teachers speak to the whole class he takes it personally. Then there are the threats over homework. He has 3 big triggers homework, staying after, and now the math teacher for all of her not so wonderful teaching methods! He works so hard all day! He is super smart most times he doesn’t need the homework! He knows the material! I hate school too! Frustrated because they Teachers are not taught about my son different operating system! Torn between what I know is right for him and what society demands! I wish there was a better school for him! Sad that what they are making him learn is a big fat wate of his time! Thanks for listening!
It sounds like your son is experiencing classic sensory overload. When I get overloaded, I get an incredibly strong urge to sleep, so I completely understand. Is this something you can work with the school on? Perhaps if he had a quiet place he go during the day to escape the sensory overload for a while? Or have you tried scheduling a period of downtime for him right after school so he can recover? Perhaps he could spend and hour or two of quiet in his room or indulging in a special interest and then do homework when he’s recovered a bit? Or maybe his teachers would allow him to do less homework if he’s able to keep his test and other grades up? A lot of homework just amounts to “practice” it seems and if he’s got the concepts down, why waste time on the extra practice, right? Sorry lots of questions and not many answers. I really feel for him though.
It’s so hard when kids are on a constant “treadmill” having to run just to keep up with the demands of their day.
“When I look at the list of alexithymic characteristics, I also realize that when I’m emotionally uncomfortable, I’m more likely to have physical complaints. I’ll be feeling frustrated or sad, but complain that I’m uncomfortably cold or intolerably sleepy. This isn’t a connection I would make on my own, but once I see it described as part of alexithymia–like so much about my autistic self–it suddenly makes perfect sense.”
This makes so much sense to me, and isn’t something that I’d ever thought of before. I’ve been so frustrated when trying to explain to my husband why, when I try to tell him, “I’m so tired,” that I don’t mean that I have to sleep. That I’m trying to explain some strange internal weariness that comes from an emotional state that I can’t entirely verbalize. Instead, I wind up trying to explain what my “tired” is, he tries to be helpful and offer to let me take a nap, and then ends up upset when I throw my hands up in frustration. I feel badly, because he is trying to help…but it just isn’t in a way that I need it.
Even though I know I do this, I still have trouble remembering that if I’m feeling unusually cold, I need to check my emotional state too. Maybe if you explain that version of tired, your husband will recognize it and suggest that you take some time alone (or do some activity that you find relaxing/recharging) rather than suggesting a nap. My husband and I have found a lot of little things like this where by changing one element in the chain of communication we both feel better. It does take some practice though. Still lots of spots of frustration.
I’m 25 and have only now started to suspect I may be an Aspie. As a teenager I had been diagnosed with first ADHD and then depression, but I never felt like those things quite fit, and therapy and medication never did anything. I had always suspected my dad fell somewhere on the autistic spectrum, but for some reason never considered it for me. Now I just don’t know, but it all makes so much sense. I’ve recently changed schools, got married to the love of my life (who entered the military right after our marriage), and moved out of my parent’s house to live more than half-way across the country. The stress has gotten to me and although I’m happy with my situation, the change overload is doing quite a number on me. Anyway, I’ve always had issues with modulation and discrimination. In fact, my family walks around thinking that I must be unhappy because I have a problem expressing my happiness, especially in public. Other times, I am unable to feel empathy for those I care the most about, while other times I break down crying over a stranger’s misfortune. I have meltdowns, which usually comes from long stretches of me not consciously expressing my stress. I can’t bear to hear yelling, it feels like I’m being yelled at and I break down. When my husband is upset over his day at work or something, it feels like he’s upset at me (although rationally I know he’s not) and I start to make it about me–which makes it hard for me to help him through his stress and makes me appear/be self-centered. I’m definitely going to read into this condition more, since I also score above average on all these aspie quizzes online :p The funny thing is, the more I apply these things to myself, I realize how they apply to my husband as well. I guess that’s why we have such an easy time understanding each other, but are often perplexed by everyone else. Thanks for your awesome blogging!
Wow, that’s a lot to cope with in such a short time. I can see how it would trigger the realization that you might be on the spectrum. Big stressful changes have a tendency to do that in undiagnosed adults.
As I’m reading your comment, there’s a mother and child in the apartment upstairs from me yelling at each other and crying and it’s making me want to go out for a drive to get away from them. Alexithymia is one of the aspects of being on the spectrum that I could really live without. And I know exactly what you mean about how difficult it can make a marriage. At least your husband has a lot in common with you in other ways. It’s great that you understand each other so well.
Good luck with your continued exploration and thank you for letting me know that you’re reading!
Thank you. In regards to alexithymia or empathy in general, I was wondering if this is common at all or if anyone else can relate….
The few people I am close to, I have trouble feeling empathy for when they unload their burdens on me. Of course I recognize they are sad, angry, distressed, (or even happy) but I have a hard time feeling those things with them. I can’t think of a time when I was able to feel with them at all. I may feel a level of sympathy for them, because I care for them and their well-being, but I cannot relate to their emotions (though I know I’ve felt those myself towards my own situations). I have trouble displaying sympathy as well–sometimes all my mother wants is a hug to soothe her tears, but I can’t bring myself to do it and if I do, I am so horribly uncomfortable. Usually, my form of sympathizing with some one is to attempt to find a solution to their trouble (which is why many who consider me a friend actually seek my style of sympathy, because often I can help them find a way out of their problem). On the other hand, if I see a homeless person on the street I randomly break out into tears. Most of the time, I have to flee from watching those god-awful animal rights commercials for fear of crying. I’ve even been know to feel empathy for criminals of the most heinous kind. So my empathy springs up a bit lop-sided. A while back, my coworkers were telling me about a woman in the company who had just recently been diagnosed with cancer, and I burst out laughing. I laughed so hard I couldn’t stop and even became teary. My coworkers were horrified, and quickly mumbled an excuse or another. I really have no idea what I found so funny. I have no idea what that’s all about, does anyone also deal with this?
I have a similar experience with people I’m close to. I think in some way I’ve learned to harden myself against those feelings because if I don’t, they’ll overwhelm. But it’s not something I do intentionally so I’m still not quite sure what’s going on. But yeah, I can sit nearby and watch someone I love be emotionally devastated and I’ll basically turn into a stone. And a big yes! to finding a solution to people’s problems as a way of sympathizing. I have to actively make an effort not to do it sometimes because I know that often people just want someone to listen.
The inappropriate laughing is something I’ve heard others talk about but I’ve never experienced it myself. I think being alexithymic means we have very unreliable (uneven?) emotional reactions and often there isn’t really an explanation for why they happen.
It feels good to know that i’m not alone in this.I was unable to cry when i lost my parents..i so much wantd to cry with every1 else but i felt nothing.A friend lost her dad and i was supposed to console her..i lacked words..watching her sobb was funny..i wanted to laugh out loud but held myself.
You know I think you’re right about hardening yourself to overwhelming feelings. As a child/tween my emotions were completely unchecked and would have crying fits that lasted hours. Often caused by the slightest things. Its what prompted my parents to seek a psychologist, and I was diagnosed with depression. I was completely unable to explain what I felt to my psychologist though–not due to lack of motivation (I actually looked forward to our sessions at first, hoping I’d figure myself out), but there’s just a block. I can’t explain it. I guess eventually I learned to just harden myself against those things, for fear of having to experience another fit. They were exhausting, embarrassing, and made my parents fight a lot.
It’s all so weird, I can fake empathy in a socially acceptable way to acquaintances and colleagues just fine (most of the time!). Maybe I just feel too comfortable around my loved ones, and expect too much from them. Expect them to know and understand what’s really going on in my head when I don’t show it. All of this is just so interesting! Time to continue binging on your blog!
Those unchecked emotions sound a lot like meltdowns, actually. I had some horrible ones when I was a teen, probably for the first time. I don’t really remember meltdowns prior to puberty.
I think this explains why I feel so distressed around most social justice activists and when within listening distance of Judge Judy. The general hostility and conflict give me that feeling of extreme stress that you describe. (Ironically, “trigger warning” has become a trigger itself.)
I have the same issues with confrontational TV shows (especially reality shows) and online discussions. They make me want to run in the opposite direction.
I had to go to the dentist, and I was perfectly calm – until I realized my hands were shaking badly, and my stomach hurt, and my heart was racing. Oh, yeah, I took this easily, sure.
I run from conflict. I never know how the other person will respond to my complaints, if he/she will get mad, ignore me like I’m invisible, challenge me, whatever.
When people are angry at someone, my heart beats faster. I can’t help it. I have a horrible feeling something terrible is going to happen, and I don’t know what it is. Just that the situation is out of control. A door slamming makes me imagine the house falling apart, walls collasping.
When the vet called me to tell me my cat was going to die, I felt nothing. I went to his office, and then it hit me. I cried for years. I’d step into a room and forget why. I walked down the street and forgot where i was, where i was going. I barely ate and lost weight. I grieved horribly for that cat, now long gone. But upon hearing the news I was completely indifferent and couldnt care less.
Really, I don’t know how I feel and can go for days depressed or angry without noticing.
The “impoverished imagination and fantasy life” element doesn’t ring true to my experience. Many Alexithymic individuals have a very vivid fantasy life.
What I suspect is going on is rather different. Because Alexithymic people find mid-level social imagination hard, and they can’t use fantasy easily in day-to-day interactions, it gets re-routed. An Allistic and non-Alexithymic person uses their imagination and fantasy on a daily basis to imagine and fantasise about the emotions and personality of the people they meet. This enables them to make guesses about the appropriate way to greet, react towards, and propose suggestions to others.
Because an Alexithymic person can’t easily do this, I suspect that their imagination/fantasy function is used at the extreme ends of the spectrum. Either they don’t use those abilities, or they develop hugely imaginative fantasy worlds which are so far removed from the real world that they don’t have to seek cross-over.
I suspect a lot of fiction writers (esp Sci-Fi) have some autistic and alexthymic traits.
I’m not sure if I have aspergers (I recognize some traits but not all), but this definitely rings true with me.
For example: I seem to start overheating when I’m frustated. I have some levels of health-anxiety (which are now reduced thanks to serotonin-based medication) I would interpret it as a symptom of physical illness -> get anxious and distressed and start worrying and panicking -> get more physical symptoms.
Example 2 (I’m in an ‘early rehabilitation’ to help with my anxiety etc): I have several things that need to be done that day that I usually don’t do (prepare food, go to a strange place) in addition to not having slept the previous night (which might be due to subconscious worrying about the next day) and I find that I’m feeling kind of woozy as well as having an upset stomach. I assume I have some kind of stomach illness. Only later in the evening going over the events with one of the nursepeoples I realize that I was actually getting emotional symptoms.
One thing that interests me is that I can do a lot of analysing and rooting through my emotions etc when explaining my feelings to other people, but I kind of feel like I’m studying an animal’s behaviour rather than myself. (I have been told that I am good at language and good at explaining how I feel, which is rather weird as well…) In addition I have a lot of uncertainty whether I’m actually recognizing real emotions or whether I’m injecting assumptions into myself. :c
Echoing Melanle I also spend a lot of energy coming up with fantastical worlds and concepts, so I’m not sure…
I honestly just want to say that I feel that a lot of this is like me. Because even as I write this, I don’t know what I feel. I could say I feel nothing but I don’t think that’s true. Whenever something bad happens in real life, say death or something, I honestly cannot identify what I feel. Sadness? Anger? Depression? I never know. But if what happens isn’t real and is a simple book or movie or something, I feel a lot easier than ever. It’s a mystery to me. Why feel for something like that in a movie, fan fiction, anime, manga, series, book or anything else but not real life? I have no idea. But now that I know why I’m this way I think I feel slightly better to know I’m not just some emotionless heartless freak.
the thing about other people’s anger really applies to me, this is the first time I’ve ever seen anybody word it and you did so well.
Lately it’s been odd at home as my 10 year old sister often misbehaves and gets into trouble with my parents.They will often discipline her and end up with her being almost indifferent when you compare it to me in my room, overhearing, curled up sobbing and afraid.
I had already suspected I had alexithymia, but I had not known that extreme sensitivity to others’ anger was related! Wow.
It’s so nice to know that this isn’t just me.
This is a great blog I have an eight year old son I have been trying to figure him out and understand he just does not get it emotionally
there are many things here that make sense
but not many answers as to their best way to help more suggestive help please
Hi I would appreciate any comments or just someone taking the time to read this and tell me what you think because up till now I have not been able to find any understanding to it and believe me I know somethings not right..I give you a insight into my life and then you can tell me if this is a genetic or just a result of bad experience or maybe both??
I’m 45 male I grew up in the 70s my early childhood not bad I have good memory’s come from a fairly poor(no different to most others)mum and dad fought quite violently sometimes and dad was heavily in cannabis growing dealing there are further dealings but my main problem was I was a very introvert kid I lacked the ability to communicate and interact with kids from an early age almost scared of rejection rather lonesome but too afraid to confront this problem and this continued into my teens were inevitably I got drawn into making friends with some undesirables which caused no end of trouble resulting in me being arrested and almost put in detention at 16,it was around this time I met a girl..she was a troubled person herself coming from an Irish gypsy family we had much in common but that was to end in disaster when she became pregnant and was taken into care until she had an abortion..we never saw or spoke to each other from then and that kind of deepened my mistrust of people which I already had.
All this time I am feeling alone and unable to express my thoughts..
18 I meet a lovely girl ..perfect in every way really me her first ever,great job,lovely family in most ways the girl next door..we stayed together bought a house done a bit of travelling and yes I ruined it,I felt inferior to her not because of anyway she treated me but because of myself and set about ruining everything.
23 we split and I met through family a women who was to become mother to 3 great children I have,
8 years older herself from a broken home adopted at 11 we became an item she became pregnant very quickly and then our first heartbreak when due to medical problems she had an abortion at 18 weeks it was awful..but we carried on and soon after she became pregnant again..I think with everything that went on before we became closer and and I loved her very much and even to this day and countless things that have gone on I still have a love for her as mother of my children(I’m not with her now btw!)
Anyway we had a healthy little boy and then 2 years later another(I’m insanely proud of them all)
During this period I have got to know my father who left my mother for someone 2 years older than me and unfortunately I developed a cannabis addiction which withdrew me further into myself..
My other half at the time fell pregnant again in our last together and we had a beautiful daughter unfortunately my paranoia and lack of communication and being able to express must put an end to the relationship there is more to all this but your getting the general gist of things
Thing is to bring you up to speed over the years it has been discovered my 2nd born son has been diagnosed with autism he went to a boarding school were I am happy to say diagnosed this and he has gone on and left with a great career ahead of him,he happens also to have one of the greatest personalitys you could wish to meet a total success I’m very proud,my daughter has been withdrawn from school and his home taught and I am convinced these are the result of me
There is so much more to this but what I can’t go on and on I am trapped unable to express myself I feel like I am trying to put on a I don’t care appearance a kind of toughness but inside I am the little kid from the 70s unable to communicate and scared to do so
Who do I go to and am I just being an oddball?
Sorry for going on.
Brilliant post 🙂
Michael…why not try one of the online autism tests? It may give:you some insighf. I believe i’m autistic ( thanks to wonderful sites like this which helped me so much as it is so informative and helped me realise that maybe i’m not just a piece of sh*t.) But i also have had a difficult early life. It’s a lot to untangle. Read this blog and other sites as the better informed you are thd better you’ll be able to make some sense of your life and yourself. Good luck
I have actually taken a test called the leibowich I think it’s called and answered as honestly as I could and scored very highly..which funnily enough gave me a kind of inner comfort just knowing that what I have and do experience is an actual condition and not just an imaginary defect in my personality ,
This site has also brought me a lot of comfort just knowing I’m not alone and being able to share my experience with others,I hope it brings the same to yourself and other members alike.
Thank you so much for posting this. I didn’t know what was wrong with me and I’m constantly trying to fix it. I believe I developed this as a defense mechanism when I was 11 and I can’t escape it. I usually feel emptiness, nothingness or simply calm, and then I can’t really tell anything else I’m feeling until they are intense emotions. When I do feel those I usually have to suppress them because of who I’m around though.
I have a question,
What is it like for your friends? Do they have to explain how they are feeling, just straight up say “hey I’m upset?” Or would you be able to identify it? I don’t know I have a friend with autism and I’m just trying to understand her more
I tell my friends to tell me directly what they are feeling. It makes things far easier! Friends used to expect me to guess their emotional state… which is difficult for me. This tactic is actually better for everyone, even neurotypical people, as misunderstandings happen in many areas relating to emotions.
A groundbreaking article! I’ve recently realised that I’m blind to emotions of intensity 0 to 6 (out of 10). This means my Emotional Early Warning System (as I call it), isn’t very early for me. This makes my emotional functioning similar to someone who only corrects a car steering wheel, once they’ve crashed into something… it’s a bit late by then 😦
Alexthymia fits some of my experiences, but I don’t fit the bit about imagination – in that regard its more over-active than under-active. I have bouts of maladaptive daydreaming for example.
But other than that? Pretty close.
I seem to be able to identify a lot of what I am feeling, but not necessarily able to communicate that to others. Or at least not in a way in which they seem to understand.
I have ASD (recent diagnosis – last month!) and also bipolar disorder (and PTSD, but don’t have an actual diagnosis on record of that because the people I’ve seen have a “lets deal with one problem at once” outlook which is incredibly unhelpful when my conditions are heavily intertwined) and when I attended a support group last year for bipolar disorder, they talked a lot about CBT concepts and Mindfulness, both of which I struggled with immensely.
According to CBT, you are meant to be able to change your behaviour or change your thoughts (or both) and this will have an effect on your feelings. I kept saying that it doesn’t work like that for me – my feelings and thoughts feel very very distinct from one another. I was told that they weren’t talking about emotions when I explain physical sensations to describe my feelings. I was told that feelings have a thought element to them – are somewhat conscious, and therefore can be changed. But to me, ALL my feelings are physical. I can tell the difference between feeling irritated and very angry (for example) because different parts of my body experience different sensations. They would say if you are irritated then you’re thinking about something, so if you stop thinking about something or change your behaviour so that you don’t come into contact with that something, then you will no longer feel irritated. The problem is, I can experience all the physical effects of being irritated WITHOUT a clear source of irritation. So if someone tries to ask me what I’m feeling and why, I won’t know. If they ask both questions at once, I’ll end up answering the “why?” and it comes across like I don’t know what I’m feeling! I do, its just that I don’t know why I’m feeling it, so am confused about if I’m feeling it or if it might be something else, or if its something that can be fixed and they might be able to help, or if its something that they won’t be able to do anything about, in which case I won’t bother saying anything as it is only more frustrating to have someone try to fix and unfixable situation.
I also really struggled with mindfulness because they were wanting you to be “in the moment” and said that the reason you feel all these things is because you are either focussing too much on the future or too much on the past. I said that honestly, there is so much sensory input going on that I find it hard to focus on anything but what is going on right that moment. How can I possibly be worrying about something that might potentially happen when the clock is ticking so loudly and making me feel anxious and worried *right now*? They wanted you to focus and feel certain body parts – to notice them because apparently we don’t notice them enough. They were confused when I said that I feel everything all the time – they said its like how you forget you are wearing clothes after a while and were shocked when I said that I always feel the fabric against my skin intensely. They wanted us to sit in silence observing an object and taking time to notice various characteristics without judging them. I felt like I was sitting doing nothing for ages because I very quickly noticed so much sensory information about my object (and those of everyone else in the room) and the rest of the time felt redundant. They used it to try and calm thoughts and focus instead on bodily sensations. I asked if there was a way to turn off all the sensory input so that I could focus on my thoughts and they just said “that’s not how it works”. So why is it called mindfulness and not feelingness?
I realise now that I have my diagnosis, that the reason I was experiencing everything so differently was likely my ASD at play.
Also wondering if other find it very easy to identify certain emotions, but then struggle with others? Like I am super super quick to notice and respond (whether positively or negatively) to “negative” emotions such as when other people are angry, or sad, etc. But I really struggle with others such as happiness. I don’t know how that feels. I can tell if I’m excited about something, if I’m passionate about something, I can tell if I’m enjoying something. But I can’t tell if any of that makes me happy or not. I don’t understand “content” either and I see “calm” as a lack of feeling anything at all because I don’t really know what else it could be. So I end up assuming that nothing makes me happy and I’ll never feel happiness. But it could be that I’m feeling it already at times and just don’t recognise it or know how to process it or communicate it. I don’t know if that is an ASD thing, or more to do with PTSD from childhood trauma. But its hard for me to think back and find happy memories. I can find pleasant ones and funny ones and things like that, but none jump out at me and say “you felt really happy then”. Having experience extreme elation whilst manic, I know that happiness is not simply pleasure in something but is more complex, because I can be over the moon levels of elated when manic but not being happy.
I have kinda lost my train of thought right now. But anyway, I think this article was interesting and it was good to read something that is offering some kind of explanation behind things. I like it when I know *why* something does whatever it does. When I know why, I can accept it no matter if its negative or positive because its no longer a puzzle to be solved.
The other day I was in huge trouble and the next day after my parents were done yelling at me my mom asked why I looked so calm I was just in handcuffs and I kept a normal face expression when she asked this I had no idea I thought maybe I have a problem with needing to be masculine but when I read the articles I noticed I do experience not feeling bad for people even when I want to like if a best friend is going through a rough time and I get sad sometimes and have no idea why can someone please tell me whats wrong with me
Its almost as if my feelings are clouded over when I’m in trouble I feel bad about what I did but at the same time a huge part of me feels numb to the emotions like I don’t feel horrible Im more like well that was stupid
It’s not just recognizing emotions that’s an issue between some of us and neurotypicals, though. It’s the reactions we have to the emotions we see.
If I notice that someone’s sad, my instinctive reaction is to ask what’s wrong and if I can help somehow – not stand there staring at them with sad!face, nodding my head like a bobblehead-doll and repeating inanities like “oh, I’m so sorry” and “gee, that’s terrible” (although I might voice such comments at some point, I certainly don’t *stop there*.
Apparently, trying to acertain the actual problem and maybe solve it is unsympathetic. And expecting someone to outright *tell* you “I just need to vent, would you mind listening to me for a while until I can calm down and feel better?” is the height of bad manners.
I also have a slowly-developing theory that it’s not so much that we all can’t recognize emotions via facial expression, though some probably really can’t. But that some of us see the actual expression, but not the projected socially-acceptable expression people use to indicate how they want people to react to them at the moment. For example, seeing someone look sad but not seeing (or not clueing into the indicator of desired response with) the fake-cheerfulness being projected when the other person doesn’t want others to either notice their sadness, or at least they don’t want others to comment on it (aka “pry”).
The projected (vs authentic) emotional expression, if seen, may simply not trigger the common (neurotypical) expected response of “going along with it” and instead the autistic individual persists in asking after the source of the problem. They are assumed by the NT to be deliberately ignoring the signals sent by the projected emotion and therefore to be quite rude.
Think about how exceptionally perceptive characters are described as seeing both the projected emotional mask *and* through it to the real emotions of the other characters around them. Maybe I’m onto something here?
Emotions confuse me not because I don’t understand them, I do. They are biochemical responses to internal and external stimuli that are an evolutionary adaptation designed to optimize survival, bonding, and procreation for our species and our over-articulated brains.
That’s easy; what is less easy is understanding the stimuli.
Why should I be sad when someone dies? I understand death as a logical process, but why does it hurt so much? My father died two months ago and I have been preparing for his death since 2007 (and, really, longer ago; my mother died when I was 14).
I knew he was going to die and I would have conversations about it with myself and relatives and friends. Yet it still hurts, and often surprisingly so as it seems to come out of nowhere. This I don’t fully understand. This, in all its forms, ultimately confuses me.
Emotions make me uncomfortable when I do not understand the stimuli, and I don’t always understand them. There is always a logical answer, I don’t accept “innately mysterious” as an appropriate “answer” to our psycho-biological processes.
I loved my father, he died, and he is no longer in any pain or discomfort. This is a good thing (he was chronically declining and had vascular dementia) so I am not truly grieving for him; grief is for the living, so I must be grieving for me. For my loss, not his (though there is a sense of anger and sadness that his life was never fully realized or actualized; he was a child of trauma and his healing had been compromised by his social context).
They confuse me at another level because I never know what to do with them. I know that not all emotions are necessary to act upon or to even acknowledge; sometimes the biochemical responses are random, inconsequential, aggravated by artificial inputs (like caffeine, sugar, certain foods etc).
For example, there is an individual at work who elicits a biological response from me that is typically described as “attraction”. I don’t know why this person should elicit this particular response when another person doesn’t.
I don’t trust emotions for this very reason. They are compounded by an almost impossible amount of seemingly random, tangled errata and make analysis difficult. I understand emotion at an intellectual level but I don’t on their own terms, and this is why I don’t trust them entirely. Not all of them, at least.