Welcome to day six of the A to Z Challenge, in which I focus on autism. Sorry for being a bit late – I have been quite tired lately again.
As I said yesterday, today I will focus on autistic people’s experience and expression of feelings. It is a common yet tragic myth that autistic people do not have feelings at all. Autistics, especially the ones who are very much in their own world or who seem very self-absorbed, are often thought of as not having emotions. The truth is, everyone experiences emotions, we just experience them different from non-autistic people.
An example is the fact that I did not feel particularly sad at any of my grandparents’ funerals. However, I did not have a particularly strong bond with any of them so did not naturally feel sad, and I indeed wasn’t aware of the social requirement of displaying emotion. By the time my maternal grandma died in 2007, I had rationally learned the appropriate emotional response, but none of my family members showed it so I felt a little confused.
I also sometimes will focus on a detail in a situation and respond emotionally to that. For example, when a fellow patient in the psychiatric hospital told us that he had been diagnosed with incurable cancer, I did rationally feel sad for him. However, I ended up laughing out loud when someone used a funny nickname for a nurse. This emotional tesponse to a detail in a situation rather than to the big picture, may be one reason autistic people are accused of lacking empathy.
I for one have very strong feelings, but I do not always identify them correctly. Until I was in my late teens, I used “good” and “bad” only when talking about how I felt. Even now, I mostly register primary emotions – anger, sadness, joy and fear -, and even confuse sadness and anger sometimes.
Some autistic people, like myself, feel very intense emotions. In some, these emotions might spiral out of control so that fear becomes panic and anger becomes rage. This is particularly true of autistic people with a condition called multiple complex developmental disorder. People with this condition also often have thought disorders. For example, they might make illogical leaps in thinking. I do not have this diagnosis, but it is very similar to the combination of autism and borderline personality disorder, which is my diagnosis. For this reason, I will illustrate this problem with a recent example from my own life.
At my husband’s grandfather’s funeral, I did not display much emotion as I didn’t feel particularly attached to the deceased. I must say here that, in the days prior to the funeral, I had turned my phone off for an unrelated reason. In the night following the funeral, the emotions of the funeral caught up with me and I began to think that my father had died and I hadn’t heard my mother’s call about it because my phone had been turned off. At first, this was just a scenario playing in my head, but I rapidly grew very upset at this scenario and had to take some emergency tranquilizer. I also became very angry, which shows the confusion between anger and sadness I mentioned earlier.
In short, autistic people do have emotions, some very intense ones. They however may have trouble identifying their own emotions and expressing them appropriately.