I have learnt to accept that trying to think about your emotions and work out what you are feeling to an autistic person is like trying to contemplate the size of the universe and its meaning, if not harder. The more you try and imagine the more frustratingly distant and confusing the concept seems. Whereas if you let the notion loosely drift above yourself and your thoughts, without trying to grasp hold of it, however tempting it may be, it becomes less foreign and more connected to yourself. But you don’t have to consciously understand something to experience it, it is a bit like a religion.
When I try and think about what I am feeling I draw a complete blank. Like a black blind has just been pulled down connecting thought from feeling. I can’t access it, computer says no. Yet I definitely have feelings and the ability to experience emotions. I know this because of the physical manifestations of those; I know I am anxious because I keep needing to check I have turned things off, I know that has made me sad because I feel very tired and do not want to do anything, I think I am angry as I am having fantasies of smothering that person with a pillow. It is a complicated and tiring route to access emotions, but where there is a will there is a way, and it seems like an important part of being a human to accomplish.
A kind anonymous person recently left a very interesting article on my desk at Uni, which addresses these issues. The official term for not being very good at identifying and describing your own emotions is ‘Alexithymia’, which are thought to lead to reduced empathy and an impaired ability to recognise the emotions of others. Just like someone with Dyslexia struggles to interpret works, those with Alexithymia struggle to read feelings. The review by Bird and Cook examines this condition in Autism and Asperger’s, where a lack of empathy is a typical impairment associated with the disorder. Empathy arises ‘when the perception of another’s emotional state causes the empathizer to experience that state’. So in an individual who struggles to even identify their own emotions, identifying those of others seems like a bit of a tall order. What this review proposes is that Alexithymia is in fact a separate condition to Autism, but that a greater proportion of those on the spectrum have it. As such it should be viewed as separate, something autism is associated with rather than it being a part of autism. The condition is also seen commonly in other menta health conditions, specifically Schizophrenia, eating disorders, Parkinson’s disease and social anxiety.
Emotions are abstract entities, you need more than a literal, black and white mind to interpret them. That is not to say that those with autism cannot experience and interpret them, but it is fair to say that the process of this causes a lot of anxiety and the occasional ‘meltdown’. Which is why finding ways to channel emotions and experience them ‘safely’ is such an important technique to teach a young person on the spectrum. For me I found my comfort in music, for some reason emotions are much more salient when in this form. Choosing what type of music I want to listen to is also a great indicator of how I must be feeling, as soon as Elliot Smith starts blaring out my speakers I know I am descending into a dark place. Many people find an emotional connection with animals, or even with objects. There are certainly objects in which I have invested a lot of emotion in, and sometimes it may seem I care more for those things than for people. Free form art is also a fantastic method to channel feelings, particularly ones hidden beneath the surface. Whatever hits the spot, all these methods are essentially the same tool; they transfuse emotions like a filter, creating a physical entity which are much easier to interpret and work with. The key to accomplishing emotions is really to accept them for what they are, and to tease them out, pulling the plaster off the emotional block slowly, rather than attacking your brain to give them up against their will.