How do autistic people experience emotions?

There is a persistent stereotype that autistic people lack empathy and cannot understand emotion. Often we are described as unfeeling or emotionless and there are even suggestions that those with autism are incapable of feeling romantic love.

But we know that this is very far from the truth.

According to Psychology Today, one of the great misunderstandings about autistic people is that they lack empathy. In fact, people with autism tend to only struggle with one type of empathy: cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy involves trying to determine what someone is feeling, based on their body language and other means of expression, and trying to work out what you would feel in a similar situation.

Affective empathy, by contrast, is where we “feel with” someone else. It’s a deep sense of connection and emotional response. Imagine you’re with someone you love who is deeply upset and crying. You may feel yourself becoming deeply upset, too. Or you may feel deeply moved by the plight of an animal and feel as if you’re feeling their distress.

(My personal example is that I can't watch sad movies with the kids. They get very worried when their normally stoic dad starts crying while watching a movie.)


Feeling Too Much

Autistic people often find that they “feel too much” and have very strong reactions to emotions, feelings and particularly how others react to situations. This is known as being an “empath,” and it is a much more common trait in the autism community than you might think.

This idea challenges many of the accepted wisdoms of autism, but several of the characteristics of a melt down or shut down can simply be due to “feeling” far too much all at once.

According to Professor Tony Attwood, probably the world's leading experts on Autism and Autism Spectrum Disorders, neurodivergent individuals are susceptible to emotional contagion (the tendency to absorb, catch, or be influenced by other people’s feelings) and can distinguish very subtle cues that others would not.

He describes this as autistics tending to have a 6th sense: empathic attunement. Autistics have no defense against other people’s feelings, causing us to feel other people’s emotional states. Our oversensitivity to others’ feelings, in turn, results in autistics having difficulty differentiating their own feelings from other people’s emotions—for the autistic, there is just a fog of emotion.

It probably makes sense that many of us would experience emotions in an overwhelming way, as many of us experience senses in an overwhelming way. When we are swamped with other people’s emotions, it is difficult to help because we are drowning in their emotions. And so, because we do not respond as expected, we are interpreted as having no empathy.


The Intense World Theory

In 2007, researchers Kamila Markram, Henry Markram, and Tania Rinaldi developed an alternative theory for what autism is, called the “Intense World Theory.” They believe that autism is not some form of mental deficit, but that the brain is actually supercharged and hyperfunctional. This makes stimuli overwhelming to people with autism, causing them to socially and emotionally withdraw as a mode of self-protection.

 According to the Autistic and Unapologetic blog, this theory explains why many of us are able to think the things nobody else can and see the things nobody else does. It also, supposedly, explains why we have brains which can be up to 10% larger than the average neurotypical (which is true). As such, the Intense World Theory chooses to rename and redefine the common signs of autism, binding our thoughts and behaviours to completely different traits:

  • Hyper-perception
  • Hyper-attention
  • Hyper-memory
  • Hyper-emotions

This means that, like the candle that burns the brightest, we tend to burn out the quickest. When there is a lot around us to process, it doesn’t take long until our minds hit a brick wall and we either shut down or go into meltdown.

Of course, there are multiple concerns with the Intense World Theory, as the Markrams saw it as a method of “treating” Autism. Their theory centers on drastic suggested “treatments” for individuals with autism, such as withdrawing stimulation during infancy. And they do not merely hint at such interventions, but explicitly spell them out. Yet if the theory is incorrect, such treatments could be very damaging. As several studies have strikingly shown, insufficient stimulation and impoverished neuronal input in early development are damaging to children’s social, cognitive and emotional functioning.


 How we Express Emotions

In the article “The Other Side of the Mirror – Explaining Autistic Emotions”, Autistic Village explains that the main reason that our emotions are mislabeled by external observers is because we present emotions very differently from neurotypicals. Research has shown that autistics do have facial expressions that link to specific emotions – only they are different to those used by neurotypicals – 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 – the same way that smiling releases feel-good emotions for neurotypicals, happy flapping does the same for us. Neurotypical children do this too – “jumping for joy” but it is trained out of us as not being an “adult” or “mature” thing to do. 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 neurotypical 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, neurotypicals often don’t understand this, without the subtle signals they are innately looking for, they don’t respond appropriately to our expressions of emotion.

There are many other aspects that can affect our emotional expression, such as alexithymia (read more here), interoception (read more here), and extreme male brain theory (read more here) so it is much complex than this very brief post. Whatever the answers turn out to be, one thing is certain, emotions play a big role in the lives of people with Autism. Though autistic people may respond to emotions and social cues differently than neurotypical people, this does not mean they lack empathy.

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