There is a lot of misunderstanding out there about autism and emotions. When I did a google search on autism and emotions, the first thing that popped up was “Do people with autism experience emotions?” Several of the articles talked about autistics being unable to recognize and identify emotions and to be unable to empathize with others. The final group of articles focused on the inability to regulate emotions.
So what is the story with autism and emotions. Well, I cannot think of any situation where an autistic person does not feel emotions, but regarding the other difficulties, it seems there is a large variance among people on the autism spectrum. While some may have difficulties with recognizing emotions or having empathy, others may do okay in this area or in fact be hyper sensitive to emotions in other people. All seem to have some degree of difficulty in regulating emotions, but to varying degrees.
Here is how it plays out in our house. It is a dichotomy of extremes. My son most definitely experiences emotions; in fact, he feels them extremely. When he is angry, he is very angry. When he is sad, he is very sad. When he is disappointed, he is very disappointed. And on the other side of the emotional spectrum, when he is happy, he is very happy and when he is excited he is very excited! His grandmother enjoys watching him watch tv as he will often have a huge smile on his face or be jumping up and down when something exciting is happening. He is very involved with his emotions. He will also leave the room if the show gets scary because it is too scary.
He is definitely able to recognize and mostly identify the emotions of others. In fact he is very sensitive to the emotions of others. If someone even raises their voice he will describe them as “harsh.” It upsets him when others are angry. If I am having a bad parenting moment and get frustrated with him and yell, it will often shut him down and I will have to reassure him that I am not truly mad, just frustrated and that it will be ok.
He also has empathy; he will often feel sad if another person is sad. He has put his hand around a friend, gone up to a kid at school who is sad and will cry during movies when someone is sad. When the robot in Wall-E says good-bye and leaves his bug friend, he almost can’t finish watching the movie because he is crying and so sad. He also gets very excited and will jump up and down when he knows someone is happy with something he has made or given them. So for him, the problem is being able to regulate these extremes in emotions that he experiences.
Being unable to regulate his emotions is what leads him to meltdown as I talked about in the last post. But while we work with him to teach him how to calm himself when he is experiencing negative emotions, I hope he never looses the ability to be unabashedly happy and excited. For all weaknesses, there is another side that is a strength.