Emotional Communication on the Spectrum

Emotional Communication on the Spectrum

The autism spectrum has recently been undergoing something of a revolution in thinking thanks mainly to a number of free-sharing individuals on the spectrum, most notably Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, who have spent the last few years sharing their stories and feelings while challenging the belief that people on the autism spectrum are lacking empathy — and in some cases, even emotions.

It’s a subject that I find myself drawn to whenever I read yet another poorly written article or book — or when I see a film which simply repeats the old stereotypes.

I’ve written about this subject many times but you’ll be relived, I’m sure, to know that I’m not planning to argue the case today. I’m taking it as a given that people with Asperger’s syndrome and other ASDs have both emotions and empathy.

My focus here is on the difficulties communicating these emotions and feelings.

Our children on the spectrum have a wide variety of language skills. Some can barely utter a sentence while others can go on without stopping for hours. Unemotional fact and fiction is very easy to communicate. The child who points and excitedly says “bus” is telling us that he saw a bus, that he likes buses, or that he would like to ride a bus. It’s exactly the same thing communicated by the child who can recite the entire bus timetable.

In both cases, there’s implied emotive content but we don’t really know for sure that we’re being told that the child actually likes buses. The low-speech child may be just as excited pointing out a truck while the high-speech child might like the timetables but dislike the actual transport.

It’s a problem of communication. The verbal and non-verbal communication of those on the spectrum does not carry emotional content in the way that neurotypical people expect. Of course, if it’s any consolation, NT emotional communication is just as confusing for those of us on the spectrum.

“How do you feel?” my wife will often ask. I make a show of poking myself in the ribs before replying, “soft and squishy.” Of course it’s a joke now. I know that it’s a standard question to which there are only a few replies. “Good, fine, tired and not the best” are all acceptable, but the most important thing is to ask, “How are you?” in return. It’s a ritual that achieves little but is of great importance to neurotypicals while being completely baffling to those of us on the spectrum.

I’ve long since learned to keep to mostly to the script. Neurotypicals ask “how do you feel,” but lack the ability to handle complex replies. In fact, if you deviate far from the standard replies, you’ll either be ignored with: “ok, well you don’t have to go on about it…” or the neurotypical will attempt to correct your feelings to make you “normal.”

For example, if you reply that you’re feeling a bit depressed, the neurotypical will take great pains to cheer you up because in the neurotypical world, being depressed is simply not permitted. What they don’t realize is that the “aspie” has simply answered the question, not begged for intervention.

Indeed often neurotypical intervention does considerably more harm than good. A person with Asperger’s syndrome will, for example, often self-heal better by being given “alone-time” than by being surrounded by a group of talking people. As you can imagine, the neurotypical response to depression tends to increase depression.

Our children convey a lot of emotions too, though mostly in a non-verbal way. An “aspie” child may appear to desert a friend who is upset. Neurotypicals may consider this behavior to be a callous act, but parents with Asperger’s often know better. The “aspie” child is giving the friend “alone-time,” precisely what those of us with Asperger’s syndrome need most in difficult times. It may seem unemotional, but it’s simply the flip-side of the depression case I talked about earlier. We give what we would most like to receive.

Then there’s the child who doesn’t hug or kiss their mother to show affection but cleans their room or does a chore. Our children are communicating love to us all the time. The problem is that they’re using their own language and their messages are often not understood because they’re not explicitly stated or not in neurotypical language.

I can remember the time when I first discovered that my wife and I perceived “love” in very different ways. It was a difficult time in our marriage and the revelation made things even more difficult. Her definition was about kisses, cuddles, saying “I love you”, giving flowers, and making time for her. Mine was about feeling happy in her presence, her having a smile, which made my whole world light up, and the feeling of warmth I felt when she walked into the room.

At the time I was quite upset because I felt that my love for her was all about accepting and loving her for who she was while her love for me was conditional upon my behaviour and gifts. It’s almost a textbook definition of neurotypical vs. Asperger’s love, and since then, we’ve both endeavoured to “meet in the middle.” All it took was a little understanding of our different perspectives.

If you look at this in terms of how our children communicated emotions, you’ll find that while many neurotypical mothers require kisses and cuddles and declarations of love, our ASD children do not. They’re simply content to do things that they know will make you happy. Your smile says it all — they don’t need a cuddle to prove it.

Emotional communication is always present both on and off the spectrum. We just need to learn how to understand and interpret it.

Photo by lighternorth

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