by Nanny Aut
Emotions seem to be a very different thing for autistics and NTs. For most of us there are differences in the ways we pick up emotions from others, we experience emotions within ourselves and the way that we display emotions. This leads to giant misunderstandings and miscommunications. The reason we do this differently comes down to our processing and sensory differences. Where NTs streamline their processing by filtering out background input and short-cutting decision making, we streamline our processing on communication and emotions.
It’s these differences that give rise to the false beliefs that we lack empathy or emotions, or that we are angry and violent or that we are emotionally volatile. For the outside observer it is very easy to mis-label an emotional or processing overwhelm as a ‘manipulative tantrum’ or someone shutting down from emotional overload as ‘cold and unemotional’. These false beliefs and misinterpretations are based on a complete lack of understanding as to what is going on from our side.
It can also cause problems when we are asked to express what we are feeling because there sometimes isn’t a clear match to the emotions we observe in NTs or that have been described to us.
Picking Up Emotions from Others
NTs rely on body language and facial expressions and vocal tone to understand the emotions of others. Countless social skills classes incorrectly believe that an inability to read these emotions properly is the reason that we do not always respond appropriately, and try to coach us in what emotions look like – in NTs. And try to teach us to mimic NT facial expressions, body language and vocal tone to make it easier for us to be understood by NTs. In other words, teach us how to mask.
The majority of autistics, however, rely on words and emotional mirroring to pick up emotions from others. If someone says they are fine, then we believe they are fine. If they say they are angry, then we believe they are angry. It does not need body language, facial expression or vocal tone to interpret that. Using emotional mirroring is just an added bonus to confirm the words.
Emotional mirroring is more complex. Much like when you see someone suck a lemon and your mouth experiences that sour, puckering sensation without actually eating the lemon, emotional mirroring is experiencing someone else’s emotion as if it’s your own, without experiencing the cause. Sometimes we’re aware it’s someone else’s emotion we are experiencing and sometimes we aren’t. If we’re in a group of people experiencing different emotions, we can feel a bit like a chameleon who has walked onto a flashing tartan rug. We feel all the feels but have no idea where any of it originated. However, if you’re in a group where one uniform emotion is being felt by the group, your emotional mirroring is amplified – the volume turned to 1000. Fantastic, if the group is happy, not so great if they are angry or anxious.
Whether we are aware that we are mirroring or not, our brain relies on it to gain an emotional read. Some autistics whose sense is low around emotional mirroring will emotionally ‘stim’ – deliberately provoking intense responses in someone else in order to get sufficient feedback. Generally, this drop in sensory pick up occurs when we are severely stressed as the severe anxiety can create a lot of interference in the signal.
If we aren’t aware that these aren’t our emotions, we can wrongly attribute our feelings. Assuming we feel under threat when we are with someone who is anxious or that we feel good whenever we are around someone who is happy or calm.
If we are aware, it doesn’t get much easier around NTs, particularly if we have taught ourselves to read facial expressions, body language and vocal tone. This is because the reads don’t tally – the words and the presentation often don’t match with each other, and really don’t match with the underlying emotion we are picking up. And it is taboo to ask to clarify. So, what are we supposed to respond to? The genuine emotion? The words? The emotion that they are trying to communicate through their facial expression, vocal tone and body language.
One common situation is when a parent is upset and frustrated. They put on their calm face and their calm voice and try to rationally engage. And are told to ‘stop shouting’ by the child. It is the intensity of the emotion that is shouting not the voice – but we don’t have the language to express that.
Another common situation is when a parent is anxious or worried because they are concerned an environment is going to be triggering. A child can pick this up and experience the same feeling themselves, triggering the fight/flight response, even though the anticipated trigger hasn’t yet happened. The parent has been taking care to hide these emotions and so is bewildered by this angry response coming apparently from nowhere. In addition, the child now learns that this is an adverse event for future reference and will start to want to avoid it.
This is why self-care for parents and partners is so important when you are living with autistics. Your emotional well-being very much becomes part of our emotional well-being. When you feel calm and relaxed, so do we. When you feel stressed and anxious, so do we. Looking after yourself is an act of care for those around you.
However, on the flip side, emotional mirroring can create a very powerful bond, particularly between two autistics, where each picks up and resonates with the other’s emotion. It can allow autistic parents to connect with and ‘read’ their children pretty much from birth. We can become highly responsive to our child’s distress because we can feel it as our own.
Feeling another’s distress isn’t always a good thing. Emotions for many autistics are a highly visceral feeling – a whole body sensation and we can often experience them at intense levels, with the emotion needing to overflow into physical expression to prevent overwhelming entirely – full body expression. If we can’t physically express the emotion and we want to avoid overwhelm, some of us can trigger a learned response of shutting off our emotions entirely – dissociation.
One situation where this happened: I was on holiday, we were packing up to go home. The person I was with is an anxious flyer and their anxiety was increasing as the departure time got closer. As their anxiety increased, they started losing things and dropping things, ramping anxiety further. At the start, I had attempted to help but only succeeded in making matters worse. So, I retreated. The mirrored anxiety was now unbearably intense and I could feel an overwhelm on the horizon with the thunderclouds of a meltdown close behind. Dino brain was geared up and ready to ‘ride to the rescue’. I had two choices – physically express the anxiety and terrify the other person or switch off. So, I switched off – I started to play a game on my phone to regulate and disengaged completely. For the other person, this was absolutely the worst thing I could have done. Instead of successfully empathising, I had retreated and shut them off. To them it showed that I clearly didn’t care. The thing is, I did care, very much, I very much wanted to help them feel less anxious. It upset me very badly that they were going through this and I didn’t know how to support them. However, if I let that wall down and engaged emotionally in the way that they needed, I was going to have a meltdown – and that would definitely have made the situation ten times worse. And because I was managing my overwhelm, I did not have the words to express any of this.
And this feeling too much and retreating to prevent a meltdown is very common, leading us to be labelled as cold and uncaring or aloof.
The other time many of us can switch our emotions off is when we are problem-solving. NTs often short-cut decision making by letting Panic Monkey decide based on past emotions around similar events, and the NT Panic Monkey is, on the whole, pretty good at pattern spotting. Our Air-Traffic Controller, on the other hand, is the pattern spotter of the team and is very wary of letting Panic Monkey anywhere near the controls. Our Panic Monkey is all too keen on calling out a five-alarm alert and setting Dino Brain loose. So, our Air-Traffic Controller prefers to do it the hard way, calculating all the parameters involved and projecting potential outcomes into the future to identify the most effective and safest route. And they can’t focus on doing that if Panic Monkey is highly activated with the emotions coming in. So, they hit mute on the emotions in order to focus. Once the situation is dealt with, emotions go back full volume. It means we can be very cool and calm in a crisis and completely fall apart afterwards.
As a child, we usually don’t develop this ability to disconnect until seven or eight. This means that, if we cannot physically express our emotions, the intensity sends Panic Monkey careening around the control room eventually releasing Dino Brain to take charge. And the intensity of the emotion, by itself, triggers a meltdown. And at that age, emotions are often very intense anyway, which increases the frequency of this happening.
Alexithymia is where there is no sense of emotions at all and is considered common in autistics. One theory as to why alexithymia occurs in autistics, is that experiencing emotions becomes strongly associated with the trauma of meltdowns and so the brain switches off emotions altogether as a protective mechanism. While I have met autistics who genuinely experience this, it is more common that the emotion is still experienced, it’s only the naming of the emotion that is problematic. Which, when you consider how often NTs mislabel our emotions based on external observation, is no great surprise.
Anxiety is the hardest emotion to read. There are a number of reasons for this. First, we may experience it as a physical illness – migraines, headaches, stomach pains or nausea are common. Second, if we do recognise that we are anxious, this feeling is often dismissed as not being real, that we are ‘over-sensitive’ or ‘over-reactive’. Third, it can be mis-labelled as anger or a volatile temper. Fourth, because of all the processing and sensory stressors we experience 24/7, high anxiety is our day-to-day emotion and can become background noise. We don’t ‘feel’ it anymore, although it continues to erode our nervous system and deepens our trauma response.
The main reason that our emotions are mislabelled by external observers is that the way that we present emotions is very different to NTs. Research has shown that autistics do have facial expressions that link to specific emotions – only they are different to those used by NTs – so it doesn’t ‘translate’. One of the most common misread expressions is the stress-smile and stress-laughter. When we are badly upset by something, we can smile or laugh as an expression of severe distress. This is then misinterpreted as us smirking or finding a terrible situation funny. And it is assumed that we lack empathy.
We tend to express our feelings through our bodies much more than our faces – happy flapping and jumping is the stereotype for a reason and the same way that smiling releases feel-good emotions for NTs, happy flapping does the same for us. NT children do this too – ‘jumping for joy’ but it is trained out of us as not being an ‘adult’ or ‘mature’ thing to do. Whole body listening, not the abusive ‘sit like a statue, eyes on me’, but feeling and expressing music through the whole body and letting the body ebb and flow without any conscious control is a thing of joy. Sadly, full on physical expression it is a thing frowned on in outside society and we are encouraged to extinguish our ‘louder’ body language, by well-meaning but misguided adults, in favour of the more muted NT style.
This leaves us with words as our primary form of communication – by themselves. In the same way that we take the spoken expression of emotion at face value from others, we expect others to take our words at face value too. If we say we are really upset – then we are really upset, even though there is no vocal intonation, body language or facial expression to confirm it. And if we say we are happy, then we are happy – we don’t need to perform a smile to prove it. Where this becomes really problematic is when we do not have words available to communicate either. Then, that intentional extinguishing of our physical expression silences us completely.
Unfortunately, NTs often don’t understand this, without the subtle signals they are innately looking for, they don’t respond appropriately to our expressions of emotion. This failure to empathise, also relates to the intensity of emotion. For the same experience, they wouldn’t feel an emotion as intensely and so do not offer an appropriate level of response. Some autistics resolve this mismatch by ramping things up when recounting our experiences because we are looking for a resonating emotion in the listener that matches our experience. We may unconsciously escalate the story to a level that provokes that level of response. For instance, we are about to cross a road and a car whizzes past. Our brain sends an extreme threat signal, even though the car was metres away and we were still on the pavement. If we report it as metres away, with us still on the pavement, NTs are going to go – what was the big deal? So, our brain revises the story to properly express the terror we felt, so the NT understands the intensity involved, and say the car was millimetres away from us. We are expressing our emotional truth to get an accurate emotional response. And NTs who witnessed the event assume we are lying for show or being a drama queen and over-exaggerating to be the centre of attention. And we learn, once again, that our emotions don’t count and aren’t ‘real’ – and we learn to doubt and question our emotions.
Presenting emotions in the NT way is a skill that is externally learnt. In order to try and fit in and belong, many of us learn, or try to learn, to mimic facial expression, body language and vocal tone. A lot of us spent many hours in our childhood practicing our smile in the mirror, so it comes across as ‘natural’. And still not quite getting it right. And because it is a learned skill, it takes a lot of processing to direct these unnatural ways of expression. One of the reasons that masking is so exhausting.
The fact that this NT presentation is not internally driven by our emotions, but externally created as a representation means that we can often fail to successfully achieve an ‘authentic’ or accurate representation of our internal emotions. This means we are often mislabelled as being fake or play-acting. It also means that we struggle to calibrate the presentation of the intensity of the emotion that we are trying to communicate. Either we pitch it too low and the NT doesn’t pick it up, or it is too high – which then reads as over-the top. Everything from mildly annoyed to homicidal rage tends to read as either ‘I don’t care at all’ or ‘I want to kill you and dance on your grave’.
In addition to our emotional presentation, there is one final barrier to appropriate response when we pick up someone else’s distress. Even if we haven’t dissociated because it is too overwhelming, we are often completely unsure as to what the appropriate response should be. Are they looking for empty sympathy words? Are they looking for a solution to the problem? Are they looking for offers of support? Are they looking for genuine connection and understanding through sharing a matching story? Given the highly negative response that happens if we pick wrong, we may choose to do nothing and hope they tell us what they need. It took a while for me to learn to ask. People are usually surprised by the question – after all, you are supposed to know by instinct. However, it does mean that you can be effectively supportive instead of accidentally throwing a grenade into the situation.
When both sides understand the disjoint and make allowances for the other, we can build connection and secure communication. Where it’s seen as an autistic ‘failure’, a deficit that needs to be fixed by teaching to present as NT, then there will always be this gulf of misunderstanding and misinterpretation. On both sides.
It’s really important that parents understand, honour and accept our way of picking up, experiencing and expressing emotions in the home. That they recognise the overwhelming intensity of emotions as a legitimate response, not a ‘manipulative tantrum’ or being ’over-sensitive’. That they don’t seek to repress or restrict our full body emotional expression within the home, instead learning to understand what that expression communicates. And that they take the time to explain why our way of expressing emotions may be misunderstood by others, teaching how to advocate for understanding and help alter expectations.
I would like to say that parents should allow us full body expression at all times, and maybe in the future, it will be safe to do that. Right now, though, ignorance, stigma and discrimination are rife in the wider community and full body expression at the wrong place and the wrong time can result in restraint, being sectioned, arrested or even shot. So, until the world becomes more accepting, full body expression needs to remain a private thing. Not shameful, just private.
And for us adults who have lost that connection and forgotten how to feel emotions through the whole body, I highly recommend taking the time to reconnect. Especially happy flapping – whole body joy is something no one should miss out on. I do it – it’s fun.