By Zoey Giesberg, MSW
If one of the biggest characteristics of being human is having many emotional states, there seems to be this weird idea that autistic people have an innate inability to understand or express emotions. This would in turn lead autistic people to become hard to connect to, let alone engage with other people. It’s kinda like Spock from the original Star Trek series – a purely logical creature who has to constantly ask his crew-mates why human beings interact the ways that they do. Spock isn’t a cold-hearted Vulcan with no regard to people’s feelings, he just doesn’t understand humanity and its workings on a fundamental level.
I find this to be a completely unfair assumption. It assumes autistic people don’t have feelings nor can express them, and that we’re cold people at best if not downright heartless. Having trouble processing feelings and understanding others’ emotional expressions doesn’t make us cruel, unfeeling people that can’t connect to others. It simply means that we need understanding as to how things are the way they are so we can bond better with others. No one on Star Trek shuns Spock for his lack of understanding emotions – they help him by answering his inquiries to the point where Spock is accepted and forms deep attachments to his crew, especially Captain Kirk.
And as for me personally? I’m not emotionless. If anything, my emotions have dictated my entire life.
A lot of autistic people have what’s known as sensory processing disorder (SPD), where certain sensations and stimuli can become unbearable. This usually involves things like weather and light, noise control, eating certain foods, wearing certain fabrics, etc. And while I do have a little bit of that in my life (I need to wear sunglasses outdoors during the day to avoid going blind, humid weather makes me weary and fatigued), I think I have more of an emotional processing disorder. Moments of sadness, discomfort, fear, anger, anxiety, and depression take over to an overwhelming degree that I have incredible trouble dealing with. These states are so powerful they affect my total state of being to the point where they rule everything I do. And it manifests itself in the worst ways possible.
I can say with a certain amount of authority that every meltdown I’ve ever had has been to do being emotionally overwhelmed. As a child, I would feel frustrated at things I didn’t understand or had difficulty with. Out of that frustration came anger, sadness, fear, despair and before I knew what was happening I was melting down. I’d either become paralyzed with an inability to physically move or speak or I’d get into hyperactive violent bursts. People may have thought me unruly, but there was always some real feeling fueling my actions. And as much as I hated what I did in those moments and how it affected others, I simply didn’t have the power to control them. As people would try to calm me down, I began to see these moments as bad and to be prevented at all costs. And since all my outbursts came from negative feelings, I understood that in order to not melt down I must never have a negative feeling in my life.
Imagine that for a minute – a child thinking that feeling sad, angry, depressed, anxious, and scared were inherently terrible and led to bad things, and thus must be avoided. Of course no one wants to be any of those things, but not having negative emotions isn’t possible. Buddha recognized that, as one of his basic tenants is that to be human is to suffer. I couldn’t accept that as a child and I felt no one told me it was normal to sometimes feel bad. Even as I’ve gotten better at managing my meltdowns with mental strategies and medication I still can’t shake that basic concept. Accepting having negative feelings and managing and letting them ride out healthily is still one of my greatest mental challenges as an adult. I’ve got a long way to go.
It’s a mistake to think of autism robbing people of the emotional spectrum. Everyone everywhere feels feelings, it’s just a matter of how we process them. For some it’s difficult to understand. For others it registers on a surface level. And for some others it rocks them to their core. There’s no one set way anyone is supposed to feel, and that applies to autistic people as much as anyone else. We’re not all Spock, we’re human. And we all feel in different ways.
Originally appeared on Jumping Out of the Fishbowl.