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: