Neurotypical people like to cling to the idea that ‘autistic’ and ‘emotional’ exist in an unbreachable dichotomy. Autistic people lack empathy, they say with certainty; we are emotionless when we should be emotional, cold to the feelings of others and unable to share in the same emotional experiences as the rest of the world. I’ve come to realise that the desperation with which they dig their nails into these ‘facts’ – other than ignorance and hard-headed ableism – comes from a place of not wanting to confront the complexity of reality.
The emotional experiences of autistic people cannot just be taped neatly into a box and shipped out as universal. It is called a spectrum for a reason – we stretch across the sky, encompassing a myriad of singular colours and blends of several more, with no reachable beginning or end, no matter how straight a path you tread to find it.
When it comes to emotional experience, the argument that we do not feel it falls flat. From the way some of us fall completely in love with certain things, from the way small changes are so bubbling with anxiety for us, from the fear that many of us feel when forced into certain social situations – whilst it may not present itself in a way people understand, emotion is something many of us feel acutely and sincerely.
If you were to ask me to provide you with a list of my sensory sensitivities, you would find, tucked alongside ‘noise’ and ‘touch’, the word ‘feelings’ bolded violently in yellow highlighter.
Emotion is something that I cannot filter out – as every single noise in a room is like an individual pinprick in my ear, so every single emotion is like blanket wrapped around inside my skull. It rushes over me in a tidal wave of hot, cold, salty, freshwater, clean, polluted emotional ocean – an emocean, if you will.
When this churning mass hits me, I have no armour. I have no way to pick apart the separate seas, to block one in favour of another, or to arrange them into neat little cups to tackle in a logical manner. I know that a lot of neurotypical people struggle to figure out their emotions – this seems to be more of a human thing than an autism thing – but in the same vein that what is just an annoying noise to a neurotypical is headsplitting pain to me, so some emotional turmoil for them is akin to me being locked in a barrel with spikes sticking inward and then rolled down a bumpy hill.
Of course, this isn’t only the case with difficult emotions. When I am happy, I am unstoppable. I will chatter on, a verbal machine gun, flapping and jumping and cranking the volume up to an almost window shaking level. I’ve had to learn methods to tone down my excitement in certain situations, but even after years of practice it’s like trying to put the stopper back on a vigorously shaken champagne bottle.
However, I can jump so quickly from euphoria to despair that it gives the rest of the world whiplash. One moment, I am hopping around with the goofiest of grins in my face, and my family is trying to talk me down to conserve oxygen, and the next moment I am silent, withdrawn, unable to communicate and wrapping myself in the safety of my duvet burrito.
I can flip from exuberance, to despair, to terror, to anxiety, and back to exuberance at the drop of a hat. Different emotions battle for dominance within me but, unlike in regular battles where there is a winner, they each pop their head out of the melee at different times with a fist raised in momentary victory.
The only way I can explain my experience of emotion is that it is sensory. I can feel it physically: hear it, taste it, smell it, see it. Emotional overload is no different to me than sensory overload, and the tactics I have in place to calm it when it gets too much are pretty much indistinguishable from one another. I take deep breaths; I try and focus on one thing (if it’s noise, I put on a song; if it’s emotions, I’ll read or watch something with a specific emotional core); I get out a soft toy or a fidget toy; and I try to ground myself in one moment, in a solid reality.
The same goes for my experiences of other people’s emotions. I don’t always understand what the tone of their voice means, or always get that the subtle inflections in the face crease actually mean something completely different to what came out of their mouths – that stuff just doesn’t make a lick of sense, and I’ve decided that neurotypical people are incredibly odd for believing it does. But I can feel something. If people are angry, cross or having open conflict one another (or, worse, with me), it’s like I’m being constricted with anxiety. If I see pain or suffering, it wrenches within me. If I see social injustice, it puts me on a boiling point of anger. If I see someone enjoying themselves (unless I’m already in a bad mood, and in which case my brain thinks no one deserves to be enjoying themselves), then it makes me want to laugh and join in, however silly the activity.
It’s like I feel everything, from everybody, all at once – whilst, at the same time, being completely oblivious and unable to interpret what people are thinking or suggesting. I should probably make myself a T-Shirt that says: ‘Hi, I’m a walking contradiction, please just nod and smile!’
I think this explains why I fall so deeply in love with certain forms of media. People on the television, in film, or in books, are often easier to work out (or the narrator tells us what they’re thinking, in which case, yay!), and the emotions are inevitably heightened in order to enhance the drama. As I’ve mentioned before, I was so emotionally connected to one particular character in one particular show that I actually had to take a day off school when they killed him off. I can get so invested in some stories that I will talk and think of nothing else for long stretches of time. I feel it so intensely. This is undoubtedly something I will talk about in more detail at a later date, but, suffice to say for now, when I get emotionally attached you might as well be talking about superglue and cast iron nails.
I know that not everyone on the spectrum has the same experience of emotions as I do. That’s why it’s so fascinating to sit down and talk to other autistic people, or to read the stories of their lives – I drink in the familiarity, I gulp down the difference, and end up full up in that happy, dozy, contented way.
When people accuse me, or any autistic people, of not having any emotional empathy – and it is always an accusation, have you noticed that? – I have to bite back the urge to scream: Have you seen me recently??? I feel so many emotions I don’t know what to do with them!!!!!
This is why I have a huge amount of belief in the idea of a double empathy problem when it comes to neurotypical experiences and neurdivergent experiences. Often the narative is phrased around the idea of autistic people having an empathy problem, when, in actuality, it’s as much a neurotypical empathy problem as anything else. People who do not experience the world as an autistic person do not understand how we absorb and respond to that world, and therefore they misunderstand it – likewise for autistic people who cannot connect to the neurotypical experience of the world (because, as I said before, to me that world is incredibly odd and nonsensical). We do experience emotion and empathy, just not in a way that neurotypical people recognise; therefore, in their lack of empathy for our experience, they misdiagnose it as a lack of emotion on our part.
The way that I, and others on the spectrum, experience the emotional world is not only wonderful and diverse, but also necessary. To experience something so fully, so deeply and so absolutely can, in the right circumstances, be the thing that prompts real and important change in this world. And although sometimes, as with many of the traits that come hand in hand with my autism, it can be overwhelming and painful, I feel lucky that I get to feel the world through this incredible sensory lens.
Note: the author denies that this post was in any way an excuse to use a picture from Disney Pixar’s sublime film, Inside Out, and asserts that anyone suggesting otherwise will receive a severe talking to.