It is a myth that those with autism or Asperger’s lack empathy. You will find people on the spectrum who lack empathy just as frequently as those who aren’t on the spectrum. In my experience working with girls with autism I would say that one of the areas they can be over sensitive to is emotions, just like any other sensory experience. For me personally I find emotions overwhelming when I experience them. I either struggle to feel or experience any emotion at all, or I am overwhelmed by emotion. It is a very black and white experience for me, I can’t talk for all those on the spectrum, but I suspect many others experience it in a similar way based on what people I have spoken to have said when describing their experiences, and from what parents have said about how their child/teen reacts to things. I don’t generally get ‘annoyed’, I go from calm and fine to angry. I don’t generally find something a little upsetting, I struggle to fight back tears. Once I have the experience of an emotion it overwhelms me rapidly seemingly from out of nowhere. An example of this was on my wedding day when I gave my speech. All I had to do was thank people for coming along, and thank my wife for marrying me, etc. I didn’t see anything which was emotional about any of this, yet when I started to speak I got overwhelmed by emotion (you can see the experience here). What I have found is that I have become increasingly emotional over the years to ‘normal’ things. So the issue I see in relation to emotion isn’t a lack of emotion, it is a contextual issue, and a black and white issue.
When I was a teenager and young adult I had no problem watching gory horror films. They didn’t shock me, they didn’t make me scared following the film, I had very little emotional reaction to them at all. I would jump if something unexpected happened, just like anyone else would, but I had no problem with the gore or violence. If I watched romantic films I wouldn’t get what was going on, and I would be emotionally flat through the film. If I watched comedies I frequently didn’t get the comedy. I didn’t find Austin Powers funny the first time I watched it because I got very little of the humour, yet after being told that Mike Myers played many of the characters – which I hadn’t noticed, I re-watched the film and found some of it funny. I needed comedy back then to be unambiguous and easy to understand and relatable. If I watched sad films I never used to get sad. The first film which made me cry was Titanic. I cried at the start when the old original footage is shown. This used to confuse me because there was nothing sad about that scene, but then a few years later I realised it must be because many of those happy people waving as the Titanic leaves Southampton will die. I also found the old couple in the bed as the ship was sinking emotional – not sad, but a feeling of how much they love each other, and how in the end they are comforting each other, in fact as I write this now I am crying thinking about it. For both of these experiences I had been in a relationship and was learning about considering others and contemplating a lifetime spent with someone else, and this began teaching me about loss and the importance others can play in life.
As mentioned, I think the issue of emotion challenges is more of a contextual issue, and black and white issue. I also think there is an inner awareness issue. I personally struggle to identify how I feel unless I am, or was feeling a strong emotion. In my line of work I have had to have hundreds of clinical supervisions. One thing which is frequently asked is ‘how did you feel?’ or list three feelings associated with that, to try to find where sticking points are in relation to cases I’m working with, I have never been able to successfully answer this question. To me everything is ‘okay’. If someone says ‘so how did you feel about that?’ my response has always been ‘okay’. I’m then reminded that ‘okay’ isn’t an emotion.
I think the lack of inner awareness, for me at least, is also linked to my eating. I eat huge quantities of food but have no appreciation for it. I don’t enjoy eating, I can’t tell someone the meal they prepared was lovely, or whatever term might be appropriate, because to me it was just a meal, it is a functional thing. I eat because I have to eat. The lack of inner awareness means that if the emotion isn’t overwhelming I don’t notice it at all. But what I do do, and I suspect many others with autism do, is I get overwhelmed quickly by the emotions of those I’m empathising with – I couldn’t think of a better way of saying it, but will try to explain.
When one of my uncle’s died in 2000 I received the phone call, and was emotionally fine about it – I felt nothing about it, I told the person I was in a relationship with at the time in a very matter-of-fact way and she started crying. This led to me crying, not because I was sad about my uncle’s death, but because she was crying. In 2014 when my dad died he had died just before I arrived at the hospice, I went and saw his body, I went and spoke to my brother, who was sad and crying and was with our dad at the time he died. Everything was very matter-of-fact, it didn’t upset me seeing my dead dad, it didn’t upset me seeing my brother crying. When I got home I told my wife that my dad has died, again I did this in a matter-of-fact way with no emotion, but cried when I saw her cry. I didn’t feel sad about dad’s death, I cried because she was crying. The same in 2016 when my granddad died. I was fine when I was told he was dead, but telling my wife and then seeing her cry made me cry. In all these situations I wouldn’t say I was sad about any of the deaths, I wouldn’t say I felt sad when I cried, all I was aware of was that significant others crying triggered me crying. I didn’t feel anything, I just had tears, and being comforted for crying just made me cry more, but I still wouldn’t say I feel sad. Part of this maybe that I don’t know or understand what ‘sad’ feels like, and others may say this is what sad feels like, but to me I always imagined sad was an upsetting or unpleasant feeling. In these situations I’ve never felt it was upsetting or unpleasant, just crying. Since my granddad died when I see video footage of him playing piano I cry, but I don’t feel upset, and it isn’t unpleasant. When I’m watching the footage I am thinking about that being the granddad I remember.
The contextual side I think is not recognising that something is supposed to evoke certain emotions. I know that when people have been aggressive towards me I’ve never yet felt angry or anxious. After incidents I notice my heart racing and so notice that my body must have entered fight-or-flight mode, but psychologically I feel fine. I can say things which hurt people’s feelings – accidentally of course, and unless the emotion they are experiencing is strong and obvious I won’t be able to read their emotion to know I’ve upset the person, yet in therapy sessions I am focusing heavily on trying to read and understand how a client is thinking and feeling, and I do better in that context at reading emotions. I have taught myself the skills, but I have to remember to use them, and in everyday conversations I don’t remember to be actively trying to read people and interpret what I observe. When I’ve seen people fall over in the street I don’t think about helping, I just carry on walking. Yet if I am in ‘helper mode’ because I am working at the time then I do think about helping because that is my job. So the different context triggers different thinking and behaviour. So I think with people with autism, they generally want the best for everyone, they want people to have good lives, they want to love others and to be loved, but they struggle with contexts. They may love someone when that person is opposite them, and not think at all about that person when the person isn’t present. They may be sad about something, like the loss of a loved one, whilst they are talking about the loss, but as soon as they stop talking about the loss and focus on something else the sadness goes.
For me, I think my wife is like a conduit to emotion. If I watch something romantic on my own I feel nothing, if she shows even a slight sign of emotion I will cry and get more emotional than she is, as if somehow her finding it emotional let me know it is supposed to be emotional, and then I’ve responded by amplifying the emotion within myself. But again, that emotion can be turned off instantly just by changing my focus of attention to something else.
The black and white aspect is the most difficult because it can create what may be termed mood swings, or sudden outbursts. Luckily I’ve never had an emotional outburst of anger physically. I will get angry swear and storm off and leave the situation, and I will think about wanting to smash my things up, but I have never done so. But this aspect of those with autism can be difficult to handle, because although to the person themselves they may ‘explode’ and then be calm as if nothing happened, others may find it an emotional rollercoaster which they can’t so quickly recover from. The outbursts can seem to come out of nowhere. For me they are usually because something isn’t going my way. It isn’t that I expect everything to go my way, but things should generally just work. So if I am on the computer and the internet is going slow and it ‘should’ be working fine and I should just be able to click through to things and save things etc., without problem, I will very quickly go from calm to trying very hard not to smash up the computer, I will be screaming and swearing at the computer. I will feel like I’m having a heart attack, and just want to destroy everything.
When I was younger this was never an issue as I wouldn’t put myself in situations like this, but in the modern world I have to use computers, and technology, and none of it works as advertised, so I get angry with it because it is never working as it should. I used to generally keep away from people, use more reliable technology, spend my time on the beach or in the woods. If there was one aspect of having ASD I could change it would be the black and white aspect of myself.