Discussion-Emotions and Empathy

Greetings Earthlings! 🙂

Today I’m going to talk about one of the most prominent stereotypes for people with autism- that we don’t feel emotion.

We struggle to empathize, and as such, we are often perceived to be emotionless robots.

Nothing could be further from the tru-

Kill….Aoife must KILL…!’

So sorry about that… I don’t know what just happened! Now where was I?

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Ah yes- murder…I mean emotions! 😉

The notion that autists are incapable of experiencing or showing emotion is entirely false.

In reality we feel too much, so much in fact that we have difficulty processing what we are feeling.

When I’m feeling something, I have a tendency to get overwhelmed by the emotion. Where a normal person may demonstrate no physical response to their feelings, I will likely dissolve into tears.

This may sound normal enough in certain emotional situations…but not for all!

Exhausted? Tears!

Frustrated by maths homework? Tears!

Holding a puppy? Tears!

Just hearing the Disney overture? Tears!!!

The smallest of emotions can completely trigger the waterworks because I simply feel the emotion on a much greater scale. Going to musicals can be a real problem- from the moment I hear the first note I have to catch my breath and swallow hard to keep the floods at bay! 😛

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As you can imagine, I’ve spent much of my life as a blubbering mess, but you gradually learn to get a better grip on your emotions 🙂

This past year in particular must be a new record for ‘least amount of time spent crying for no good reason in public‘! 😛 😉

Advice for friends and family: While this behavior is normal, try not to be too dismissive of it. With this emotional hypersensitivity can come a lot of mental anguish. I was branded a drama queen so often that when I was genuinely suffering, very few noticed.

In addition to emotional processing, autists can often struggle to identify and/or describe the emotion that they are feeling.

This is known as alexithymia.

You find yourself gripped by emotion, knowing that you feel something but haven’t the slightest clue what that something is! It can take days, months, sometimes even years to pinpoint what the emotion is in my experience.

Alexithymia makes it difficult for us to not only identify or describe our own emotions, but also to distinguish and appreciate the emotions of others. This is why we often struggle to show empathy. We are not incapable of empathy (scientists have found our emphatic response to equal that of normal peers in areas of moral dilemma, showing even greater responses at the thought of harming others), but we find it hard to correlate your emotions with our own.

For me personally, I often find that in order for me to effectively empathize, I must have firsthand experience of the emotion.

Certainly this has been my experience with grief.

Growing up, I was quite fortunate in that I didn’t lose anyone close to me. As a result, I never really understood how to show empathy or relate to someone going through this experience. Sure I had been to my fair share of funerals, but I never had to interact with mourners.

This caused a lot of problems as a teenager at school…

Tragedy struck, and I did not respond appropriately. I didn’t know the parties involved and as such I carried on as normal with my schoolwork, much to the chagrin of my peers. I knew that the situation was sad yes, but I felt no impact. To my mind I saw no reason to stop the world.

I was branded heartless and widely criticized by teachers and pupils alike, all because I simply couldn’t understand what I had never felt.

It took the death of my dog Oscar to help me appreciate how others felt. For much of my teenage years, I felt as though he were my only real friend, so naturally I was devastated when he died.

Okay, I know he wasn’t human, but that didn’t diminish my experience of grief.

Now when I see other’s grieving, I struggle not to cry to seeing them in pain. Even watching old films from my childhood that never made me cry in the past now leave me in floods of emphatic tears!!

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But even with this newfound understanding, I still struggle to convey empathy.

I can see that you’re upset, but I’m never sure of what the appropriate response should be. Do I hug you, hold your hand, touch your arm etc.? One person may want me to hold their hand, another could shove me if I try to comfort them in the same way.

It’s extremely confusing!

I want nothing more than to take your pain away, but I just never know how to show you that.

Sometimes it’s just easier to do nothing rather than the wrong thing.

We may appear cold and aloof, but it’s a very different story on the inside (like a reverse baked Alaska! 😛 ).

Proof if ever there was that you can’t judge a book by it’s cover! 😉

Aoife

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