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They Told Me I Had No Emotions. Then a Movie Set Me Free.

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Google a list of Asperger’s syndrome‘s characteristics, and chances are you’ll find one that reads something like “lack of empathy.” That’s what the 20-page report that made my Asperger’s diagnosis official, based on observations from one six-hour testing session, told me. I’ve heard the whole “lack of empathy” thing numerous times in my 21 years of existence, and let me tell you this: based on firsthand experience, that statement is absolute crap. 

I’m not sure what started the myth that people with Asperger’s lack empathy. Is it the Asperger’s face, seemingly eternally locked in one position? Is it the Asperger’s eyes that find it too hard to make eye contact or that seemingly always stare off into space? Or is it the inability to read social cues that seems to come so naturally to neurotypicals? People think the way you look on the outside directly influences what you feel on the inside. With this logic, if you have a blank face, then you don’t feel anything at all.

I don’t believe this logic to be true. I’m an intuitive person, and I can usually tell how someone feels, even if his or her face reads otherwise. Make no mistake — people with Asperger’s are humans, too. And like all human beings, we have emotions and feelings. When someone thinks otherwise it’s like a knife to my heart. The truth is, I’ve always felt emotions but hid them for years because I was terrified of looking stupid or dumb. 

From a young age, I was ashamed of my own emotions. I didn’t hold back on anything, be it sadness or happiness or frustration, and I was in trouble regularly as a result. When you have Asperger’s, your five senses are more heightened, so overstimulation happens on a regular basis. I was told “normal” people didn’t act that way, and I would be rejected if I kept up my shenanigans. So for years I suppressed my own emotions, to the point that one day, I couldn’t feel anything. I would try to feel a certain emotion and nothing would come.

But in November of 2012, I broke the spell. My mother and I were at a movie theater watching Dreamworks’ “Rise of the Guardians.” I found myself relating to the character of Jack Frost who, after being invisible for his entire 300 years of existence, just wants to find that one person who believes in him. It finally happens in the form of a little boy named Jamie. The moment is heartwarming, and I found myself sobbing hysterically. It was as if someone had taken a pick and sent it flying through the rock solid ice that encased my body, shattering it and setting me free. I had never cried so hard in my life. 

The most important part was, I didn’t feel any guilt or shame in my emotional expression. For the first time in forever, I felt alive. I felt present. Ever since that day, my emotions have felt more readily accessible. I express my emotions and don’t feel like crap afterwards. My emotions remain high energy in their expression, but I’m no longer faking it or half-assing it. If I feel something, I will let it out because I’m just so grateful to be alive.

I still get the occasional person who will tell me to calm down, but I’m so sick of the double standard that says neurotypicals can lose their cool or get giddy while people with Asperger’s can’t.

As a human being, I have the right to express myself. My brain might work a bit differently than yours, but other than that, I’m just like you. I want to enjoy this adventure of life to the maximum, and I refuse to settle for anything less.

A version of this post originally appeared Syracuse University’s Active Minds blog

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Originally published: May 26, 2015
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