It is commonly misunderstood that Autism Spectrum Disorder is a person who lacks emotions, and their reactions are of some feral nature. I’m not entirely sure why this became a stereotype, yet I suspect it had a lot to do with how autism was not only studied but introduced as information became available to the public. Like many things, human beings seem to have a terrible habit of knowing about something without actually knowing what that thing is. Knowledge for people is more convenient, digestible, and compartmentalized if it is in a lightweight, simple portion.
Because of autism, I have a hard time understanding my emotions, and whether I’ve liked it or not, trying to decipher and apply them has been a large part of my life’s work. It wasn’t until watching Pixar’s 2015 film Inside Out did it even occur to me emotions could coexist together. You read that correctly: an adult man spent decades processing his feelings as if they were alone in a single-file line waiting for service. It took a kid’s movie to enlighten me to that end, and I’ll be forever grateful.
This has spawned new ideas and ways I now think about my emotions, and how I had to develop a relationship with them (and myself) in order to categorize, identify and even visualize them. Feelings, and for clarity I’m using this and “emotions” interchangeably here, are not only ever-present in me but massive. When I was a child, I was criticized for being too sensitive to just about everything: things that other children were not. Lights, temperature, noises, etc.; I also would react in such a manner that encouraged the cruelty of other youth. Being male, I was of course told to “suck it up” and deal with it. Back then, on my own, I could identify happy, sad and angry within me. That means the various other feelings had to conform or be placed into those categories. My young human self was doing what humans do as I described above: creating lightweight, simple portions of knowledge. The problem was, it didn’t work. Those damned emotions were not one-size-fits-all. They differed in size and intensity, as well as shape and volume. I had two choices, allow them to scatter about uncontrolled, or I could attempt to organize or at least contain them. The latter option ended up being the easiest method, and least healthy unbeknownst to me.
Recently I’ve learned my emotions are like a giant rubber band ball. Rubber bands of many different colors, sizes, and widths, wound tightly together. On the surface, it seems they’re in an organized form, but upon closer inspection, it’s a tense chaos. Sometimes a “rubber band emotion” is added, one may snap off and go flying in a random direction, but the ball sits deep in a part of me. I carry it around worried certain bands will come undone suddenly in a sensory meltdown, that some may be cut by the actions of another (purposeful or not), or that I’ll be asked to give or share them with others. There could be a particular band that I need that resides deeper in this rubber band ball, and I have to carefully undo many others in order to gain access—and that can get messy, as well as terrifying. Which adds more rubber bands to the ball as I’m taking them off.
Once in a while, through a fluke or moment of better understanding, I’ll get the chance to grab the rubber band, understand where it came from, where it is going, and admire its color and function. The best example of this is for me is sadness. As when I was a child, it’s easiest for me to understand the very basics of emotion, and though not a place for complete understanding, it is a simple way to learn how to explore emotions in a constructive manner. Sadness is a complex emotion that has bewildering nuance, cause, and reason. The problem with emotions for someone like me is I’m more apt to explore the logical side of an emotion rather than the feeling side of it. My mind: “That which does not make sense, make it make sense.” Unfortunately, it’s a one-sided and myopic approach: it seems detailed and complete, until the rubber bands begin to stretch beyond their limit.
I became sad recently. There wasn’t any particular reason for it, not that I could find. It wasn’t associated with a situation or a memory. I felt pretty good. Yet I was…sad. It felt okay to be sad. I was existing with the sadness, not being strangled by it. I wasn’t inclined to study it, dive deeper, or analyze it. There wasn’t anything there except…sad. I wasn’t bothered by this, which is unusual. I allowed myself to shed tears, say to myself “I’m just sad,” and as soon as it was over, it simply…vanished. Not the entirety of what “sad” was, but just that moment of it. I felt less tense, lighter in spirit and in breath. It was all okay. It felt natural. I still don’t know what brought it on, nor am I motivated to find out. Instead, it prompted me to write…all of this.
Is this what it is like to have healthy, natural emotions, and a good relationship with them? Even asking such a thing defines an important part of what emotions and mental health are (and what they mean) with a disorder like autism. Every case of autism is going to present itself differently between individuals. Our life experiences, upbringing, economic & societal privilege, environment, and personalities are defined within the diagnosis, as much as the disorder itself being an unavoidable part of our lives.
One thing is for certain: autistic individuals not only have and experience emotions, but we also seem to do so in a unique and powerful manner. Expressing and processing feelings will likely never be easy for us, but many of us find ways to learn, cope and deal with them. It’s a difficult process, and navigating it all requires a lifetime of understanding, guidance, and patience from others…
…and more importantly, to our own selves.