An unfortunate myth about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is that diagnosed individuals have no emotions; that they are somehow like that famous Vulcan, Mr Spock from Star Trek: analytical and logical, but really not emotional. Research From the Autism Research Group at City University London, and that of many other acedemic sites across the world, matches my experience, and shows that this is definitely not the case.
Although individuals with ASD are often very good at analytical problem-solving and express, as well as experience their emotions differently. It is really not the case that they lack emotions altogether. In fact, a very large proportion of individuals with ASD (about a half, although estimates vary) suffer from symptoms of anxiety and depression that significantly compromise their quality of life. This is something that I can attest to, and covered in an earlier podcast about suicide. Unfortunately, very little is still known about the underlying causes of these difficulties or about how best to alleviate them.
Although I t has often been said that people with Asperger’s don’t feel emotion, anyone who’s known me through the years can testify that that is absolutely not true. As with many others with Asperger’s, I feel emotions, and feel them intensely; sometimes more so than a person who does not have Asperger’s. I just don’t know how to process them like neurotypicals do.
There is often quite a stark difference in the styles used to express and communicate emotions between those with ASD and— neurotypicals, which doesn’t mean that aspies don’t feel empathy, sadness, compassion, happy for others and so forth. I often feel way too much, though this is usually not very evident. It’s also true that a lot of the “way too much” that I do feel is usually kept as part of my own inner-world experience and is not shared with others. I do need to be asked what I’m feeling often. I rarely seek to share outwardly, because it doesn’t occur to me to do that. People that get to know me come to understand this is not something that should be taken personally, and that all they have to do is ask and I will answer.
Having a different ability in this aspect of expression is usually where the myth that we feel nothing comes from. There are more aspies who feel a tremendous amount of empathy, compassion, sadness, happiness, and so forth than those who don’t. It becomes an issue when we are reluctant to express it or talk about it. It doesn’t come naturally to us to communicate and to express our emotions in a social or relational way, as it does to NT’s. It feels foreign. It’s hard work and requires effort and energy, which is why we often don’t do it
Another area that can badly affect relationships is emotional regulation. Our neurological systems can be as inefficient in handling sensory input, as emotional input. This means that a person with Asperger’s may feel raw emotion, but is not able to immediately identify which emotion it is, or its cause. Not only does this cause breakdown in communications in common, everyday situations, it can also be very dangerous. It can lead to extreme sadness or upset to be processed as anger,and the source of the emotion can be identify incorrectly
This inefficient processing of emotion can be very draining for us, as when the emotion temporarily takes over, it can interfere with awareness and rational thought. The emotional warning signs that are meant to protect you from difficult or harmful situations may malfunction, or work with such a delay that they lose effectiveness. This means that we may be less than prepared to defend ourselves verbally (or, in bad situations, physically) if the situation deteriorates into an argument or conflict.
When I think of this, I think of the old stereotypes that are often used in movies and sit-coms. There are some good and bad representations of ASD and emotional responses. One I keep coming back to, and I know a lot of the autism community has an issue with, is Jim Parsons’ portrayal of Dr Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Thoery. Another is the hauntingly brilliant Freddie Highmore with his portrayal of Autistic savant surgeon Dr Sean Murphy. This is something I will cover in more detail at a later date