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  • Sarah Nannery

Emotional Roller Coasters

A while ago, I wrote a post about the myth that people with autism don't have empathy. In reality of course, autistics DO have empathy, we just express it or come to it in different ways than most people.

In that post I touched on the fact that, actually, many autistic people experience too much empathy - feeling so deeply the pain or joy of others that we can get lost in that emotion. In the case of very strong feelings from others, we can even lose touch with our own thoughts and emotions. We can lose ourselves.

Emotions with Nowhere to Go

Often, this over-empathy also comes with a lesser ability, or a lack of practice, in processing that emotion. So rather than being able to do something constructive with the emotion, or to engage in balancing activities like deep breathing or distraction and compartmentalizing, the emotion has nowhere to go, and either causes paralyzing distress or comes out in aggressive behavior.

For instance, an autistic individual who sees a person on the street experiencing homelessness might later fall into a shouting match with a loved one - not because they are angry with their loved one, but because so much negative emotion has built up from seeing something so terribly wrong with the world and having no way to fix it. The autistic person and their loved one may have no idea where the "sudden" anger is coming from - but of course the anger isn't sudden at all, and has almost nothing to do with the current situation. In fact, it may be a coping mechanism for the deep and all-encompassing sadness that has been threatening to overwhelm the autistic person since they witnessed the injustice of homelessness.

Emotions without Direct Interaction

In the above example, you can see how a person with autism (and many highly empathetic people who are not autistic, as well), can subsume the emotions of another person in obvious distress without even directly interacting with that person at all. This same thing can happen, too, with movies and books, and even news items - watching or reading the experiences and emotions of the characters (or real people) in compelling stories can function in the exact same way as interacting with people in real time for someone with autism. In our brains, in the moment that we are consuming the story, even fictional characters are real, with real thoughts, real emotions, real hardships, and their pain becomes our pain.

I still remember when a certain beloved character died in my special interest Harry Potter book series. It wasn't the first death in the series. But it was the first really big, multi-book main character death. It happened in Book 5. Those of you who know the character I'm talking about will remember your own emotional reactions as well, I'm sure. But for me - it was epic. The moment I read that and it sank in, I slammed the book shut, pulled back, and literally flung that giant 3-inch thick volume across my bedroom with all my 15-year-old strength. It THUNKED onto the opposite wall as I screamed, and slid to the floor. I was in mortal agony for hours after, sobbing, screaming - lost in my own grief and disbelief. I don't think my mother was home at the time - and good thing, too, or she would have thought something truly terrible had happened.

Emotions with a Delay

Now, in the case of a fictional story or a news item such as above, the events and/or emotions of the people and/or characters involved are spelled out, explicitly explained. This makes them much easier to access and to empathize with, for someone with autism.

In other cases, the emotional distress of the other person might be more hidden. Such as in a 1:1 interpersonal interaction, where the other person's emotions remain unspoken, and therefore potentially "hidden" to an autistic person, who might have difficulty in reading emotions from body language and other nonverbal communication.

When this happens to me, the emotional rollercoaster of over-empathizing still comes, just perhaps not in the heat of the moment, when it would be most readily recognized and useful as emotional reciprocity and a display of empathy. It might hit me an hour or so later, after I've had a chance to intellectualize the other person’s feelings and experiences, and thus become capable of empathizing with them and what they went through.

Once, I had a heated interaction with my husband, during which I found it very difficult to truly empathize with him because I had no idea what he was feeling. As is often the case with emotionally heated interactions, he could not find the words to explain his feelings to me in that moment. As I cannot naturally read body language to identify specific potential emotions (is he angry? sad? exhausted? betrayed? disappointed? afraid?) and I can think of myriad reasons for the negative emotion to exist (did I say the wrong thing? is he in physical pain? did something happen that I don’t know about? did I forget something I was supposed to do?), unless he tells me outright what is wrong, it can be very difficult for me to empathize with whatever he is feeling in the moment.

I have learned - and am still learning - how to sit with the discomfort of not knowing what is wrong and “faking” some form of empathy in the moment (matching concern levels, suggesting that we take a break from the conversation and talk more later, making sure he knows it’s okay to feel whatever he’s feeling and that I still love and support him, etc.). But later, when we do return to the conversation and I am able to better understand his emotions, my real empathy kicks in, and it can become overwhelming.

In the case above, after we took a break and then revisited the issue later when my husband was more emotionally calm, at some point during the conversation, my husband looked at me with acute concern. "Why are you getting more upset?" he asked, urgently. "I thought we were finding a solution - I thought us talking this through was making it better...”

It was then that I realized tears had started rolling down my cheeks. But it wasn't because I was getting more upset. As I explained to him in that moment, it was because the full emotional impact of our earlier interaction was just now hitting me.

I could now understand what he had been going through, why he had been distraught, what had caused the emotion - and thus I could now empathize.

Riding the Roller Coaster

Perhaps it is because of my inclination to become so overly emotionally invested in something that I have cultivated, throughout the course of my life, a method for staying "even keeled," or in the "neutral zone" when it comes to emotions.

Rarely do I display overt emotions - even if they are my own, as opposed to empathized emotions from others. This used to drive my mother to distraction. She was concerned that I never seemed to really get excited about anything or enjoy life to the fullest extent.

The truth is that, for me, along with any emotional high comes the eventual emotional low. Like riding a roller coaster, what goes up must come down - and the higher the peak, the steeper the plummet. As a kid, that might have been fun for a while. But after doing it so many times, even the highs can't make up for the general feeling of malaise that starts to set in, from the constant ups and downs. I found that I much preferred the more subtle enjoyment of mild positive emotions, and the mild balance of negative emotions - staying somewhere in the middle - rather than letting my emotions run away with me.

I have heard other autistics refer to this state of being as "neutral," and wishing that the whole world could exist more often in this neutral state, which would, of course, make our lives much easier.

It can be much harder for me to figure out what to do with a strong positive or negative emotion once it hits me, than it is for me to simply lessen the strength of the emotion to begin with. I do this in a variety of ways:

  1. For one, I consciously limit the type of content that I expose myself to: A) I will not watch scary movies. B) I don't let myself consume all-encompassing fantasy world content unless I am at a point in my family and professional life where I have the time and emotional space to invest in it. C) If someone starts talking about an overly distressing topic such as a death or a past social injustice and I am not prepared for the emotional overload, I leave the conversation or change the subject.

  2. I do self-talk and mental prep work before I head into public transportation or anywhere in the city where I know that I will encounter people experiencing homelessness, reminding myself that it is a systemic issue that I alone cannot change but in the moment I can show kindness and respect, and I always pack some non-perishable food (dried fruit, pretzels, an energy bar) so that I have at least some small thing to give to someone who asks me directly for help. I do this same mental prep whenever I know in advance that I may be entering a potentially emotionally-challenging situation (large social gathering, funeral, wedding, rally, etc.).

  3. I consciously temper my own emotional reactions to stimuli in real-time by reminding myself of several things: A) That there is always a bigger picture. B) That this is a single moment in time, and it will pass, and things usually work out for the good. C) That there are multiple perspectives involved and the way I'm seeing something is not the only way. D) That most people have good intentions, even if the impact of their intentions is not good. E) That I will have time to feel and process the emotions later, but right now the most important thing is to stay present and grounded.

All this to say that yes, autistic people do feel empathy, and some even over-empathize or feel emotions more deeply and for longer than many people without autism.

Many of us have developed sophisticated coping mechanisms to deal with this over-emotion, including trying to stay in "neutral" zone for the majority of our lives. Neutral may be the most comfortable and enjoyable state for someone, when compared with the ups and downs of an emotional roller coaster. It's quieter and less exciting, sure, but when a little excitement feels like a lot, that's really all you need. =)

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