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What My Emotions Look Like as Someone on the Autism Spectrum

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drawing of a crying girl
“Maror,” drawn by Hilary’s daughter, Aitza.

People with autism are said to have difficultly recognizing and interpreting emotions in themselves and others. I say, likewise people without autism may have difficulty recognizing and interpreting the emotions of autistic people.

I feel all sorts of emotions, though I may not display them or process them in the manner most might expect. For example, a smile often means someone is feeling happy. Well, when I’m feeling happy (and I do experience many varieties of happiness), I tend to make what many people would consider a brooding or serious face. Most times when I’m happy, I’m in deep concentration or meditation on what is making me feel happy, so a smile wouldn’t necessarily manifest. Think of someone who’s performing a high-skill task that requires concentration, like welding. Do you usually expect to see welders smiling gaily while blow-torching steel? (Maybe there’s a few who do, I don’t know.) For me, a certain type of happiness, especially if it’s focused on an external source, will consume a large amount of mental energy, and I’m like the welder who’s focused on the immediate. I’m consumed by the here and now when I’m in the midst of my feelings.

You can then probably imagine how grief might manifest itself. And it has for me in very awkward and uncomfortable ways. It tears me to pieces, sometimes to the point where I crack and begin to laugh uncontrollably. I’ve fallen into bad graces with others over my laughing during funerals and during moments where others would be crying or showing some other physical sign that denotes unhappiness. Here’s a personal example — there was this time, after my mother died back in 2010, when I was in the last two months of pregnancy with my daughter Aitza, that the reality of a maternal absence took me by surprise. I was washing my hands at the bathroom sink and looked into the mirror, and I saw my mother in my own face. I was reminded I was without her; it was the first time that her death registered. Instead of sobs, I began to cackle while tears burned my eyes. Someone looking at me may have thought I was watching an unbelievably hilarious stand-up act. People in the audience at a Lewis Black show often look like I did that afternoon. Inside me, the grief was pulsing like gushing water, and it quickly escalated, roiling into panic. This was an overwhelming, contradicting combination of emotions. I don’t know how many others feel grief this way.

From what I could gather upon questioning acquaintances on the personal experience of their emotions, I sensed my own are unique. You could say I get quite drawn in by my emotions — I inhabit them and interact with them; they comprise worlds. There are unpredictable stretches of time when I get “lost” in those worlds, and it’s difficult to emerge disengaged. Maybe this is what major depressive disorder was like for me before I went into remission, and because my face seldom fluctuates in its expression, my debilitating experience of agony was likely not registering to others. I wonder if this may have been what made me seem unreachable to the people of my past — why now estranged relatives and friends may have been unable to empathize with me. Just because I may smile or seem to have no expression at all, doesn’t mean I’m not feeling pain; it doesn’t mean I am beyond struggling and am robotic.

There are times when I feel very deeply, just by the sights, smells and sounds of my surroundings. It’s not all frightening, though it has the potential to be so, especially if I’m in a place chock-full of the sort of stimulus that is painful to me, such as a grocery store with all of its clanging and clashing shopping carts, loud music on the speakers, cold freezer isles, flickering fluorescent lighting, oscillating multicolored and checkered floor tiles, and shoppers bumping into me as they pass briskly.

And then there are the rare occasions I come into contact with live chamber music in a local library, and I instantaneously transform into a weeping, blubbering mass of humanity whose loud sobbing disrupts the quiet and pensive audience I didn’t notice on my way through the doors. Live violin and cello music is a big weakness of mine. Through the vibrations, which I can feel deep inside my ears and in the hairs on my head, I feel something else beyond the music being heard. I have felt this way with Celtic drums and Inuit throat songs. Humans making music is magic, and I can’t help but notice that.

There are those more frequent times when I am not even experiencing my own emotions, but rather I feel as though I am absorbing in a deep physical and psychic way the emotions and physical sensations of the people surrounding me. It is hard, outright impossible, for me to sort all of it out, and I end up being tricked into thinking I am the angry one, when the man next to me is the one mentally cussing out the driver who rear-ended him during rush hour. This may be why visits to the ER are especially agonizing for me; I find the sensory-grating hospital environment in combination with the palpable pain of other patients often ramps up my own pain. And the eyes. Oh, the eyes transmit so much information, even though I am not capable of sorting through all that information and classifying it. I just don’t seem to have the wiring. And I think this is why I can have difficulty looking into others’ eyes, touching people, or even sitting in the same room with them a lot of the time. This could be one of several reasons I need to seek out a small corner of space that isn’t occupied by anyone other than animals when I’ve had enough of feeling.

I’m beginning to gather — from observations throughout my life, from what I’ve personally experienced and the anecdotes I’ve read — the dissonance I experience may be the pain of “otherness.” The extent to which people seem to engage with emotion, whether in themselves or others, seems to factor heavily into my experience of otherness. Up until very recently, my otherness caused me to experience great emotional and physical struggle. Now, that is beginning to change. When I utilize the power of my emotions and accept that they will never cease to be my world, that they will always be both my biology and psychology inextricably entwined, that I cannot be cut away from them and that is OK — the social stigma I’ve internalized begins to fade, and I’m more apt to live in a society that is still catching up with its emotions. I believe my emotions have the power to teach and to reach. They enrich, they give, and even the negative ones are invaluable, irreplaceable components of this human existence. I think with the more we discuss the myriad ways we are able to feel, we can finally get past awareness and acceptance and be at the point of valuing every individual’s heart and mind.

Lead image via Thinkstock.

A version of this post originally appeared on Healing Hilary’s Heart.

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Originally published: November 13, 2016
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