Saturday, May 19, 2007

Emotional Differences

Firstly, I'll just mention that a couple weeks ago I developed really bad joint pain. Shortly afterwards I had a bad asthma attack and ended up in emergency. They gave me a temporary prescription that helped me breathe but made it very hard to sleep, and now I'm on an inhaler which also helps me breathe with less (but still some) insomnia. And the day before yesterday I developed some kind of pain in my right arm that really interferes with typing, but seems to be gone for the moment (I hope). All that interferes a lot with blogging. [Note: Actually, it appears the earlier medication may have been slow to get out of my system, because the insomnia has steadily decreased until now I'm sleeping about as well as I usually do (which is mild difficulty falling asleep).]
Anyway, I've been getting counseling lately, with a psychologist who specializes in sexual abuse but knows very little about autism. Fortunately, she knows it, unlike many autism 'experts', so she's teachable.
Anyway, the second-last session I had, she was trying to give me a piece of advice which I could tell didn't apply to the kind of mind I have, but whenever I tried to explain, her reply made it clear to me that she was misinterpreting my response in the framework of an NT mind. The situation was this:
Many sources will say that in attacks of self-hate, you need to identify the thoughts that are triggering that feeling. I've also heard that if you can replace 'I feel' with 'I think' and have a sentence that makes sense, then it's not a feeling, it's a thought.
I don't know if this is true for NTs, but it's not true for me. But I can't really explain how it isn't true. Attacks of self-hate are triggering by a brief flash of a feeling, sometimes loosely linked with a picture. The feeling is of people watching me and judging me. But I don't think "People are watching me and judging me". It's like I feel the 'essence' of eyes staring at me in a judging, disapproving way. I very often have feelings like this, which are emotions combined with a kind of tactile 'essences' sometimes accompanied by visual images. There are no words to it unless I try to articulate how I'm feeling, and thereby place words on it. It's like saying 'I see a cat' in response to visual and tactile fur, raspy tongue, vertically-slitted pupils in green or yellow eyes, pink nose, etc moving in a cat-like pattern. The experience of interacting with a cat is not words, you simply put words on it.
So I was trying to describe this to the counselor, and not being very successful. And it was especially frustrating because I knew she was trying to help - I couldn't just think 'she's against me' and stop trying to explain. And I didn't really understand it myself (I still don't, but my understanding of it has shifted into relatively greater clarity while I was thinking about other things).
So she was giving me advice, and I just started staring at the ground and thinking 'If I don't say anything, she'll stop talking eventually.' I was trying to block it out. But this time, rather than just shutting off any positive relationship with her like I tend to do whenever I have problems with someone, as soon as she finished talking I told her what had happened. And so she dropped the issue for awhile, and we got it to some degree of resolution. We talked instead about my self-injury, and I decided to try to stop hurting myself. (And except for one meltdown - described below - and a few very fast unthinking hits on my head, I haven't hurt myself since.)
Later that day, I had a meltdown where I was screaming at my parents to 'listen to me' and trying to explain how I felt while working around my rigid mental rules of psychological self-defense that trap me during meltdowns. As usual, the result wasn't making much sense, particularly because we were all upset. I kept telling them they didn't care about me because if they cared about me they'd listen to what I was saying and their replies - making it clear they didn't understand - were proof they weren't listening.
And suddenly I realized that I'm very triggered by not being understood. Since only 1 out of 100 people is autistic and there is extreme variation in autism, this is particularly unfortunate. But that's probably a big part of why this is a big issue for me - all my life, and especially in school, I've been misunderstood and misinterpreted. In school they used it as a form of emotional abuse, but even caring, well-meaning people who've known me all my life find it hard to understand how I think. And a big part of the problem is that the vocabulary for describing mental states has been designed by NTs for describing NT minds, and so every word is basically an analogy for what's going on in my mind, rather than The Word for it.
I think I'll try to become a researcher into autistic emotions when I'm older, if I can. Michelle Dawson's articles about autistic thought describe my mind much better than the other research into autistic cognition (most of which only makes sense to me if I try to imagine observing myself with no understanding of how I think). If I could do the same for autistic emotions, that would be a big help. And trauma in autism in particular. I just wish the research I'm planning to do had already been done, so I could benefit from it.

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Blogger Ettina said...

I just looked on PubMed for 'autistic emotions'. Almost every single article is about how autistics respond to *other people's* emotions, rather than the emotional experience of autistic people. But I did find two articles, both of which were extremely clueless, in my opinion.
The first is available at (to some, but I got it instead from the local university's online access). Firstly, they marked the children's description of their emotional state as 'incorrect' if the event stated to cause it 'would not typically elicit the emotion/nonemotion in question'. Haven't they noticed the basic fact that autistics like/dislike different things?
Interestingly, they noted that many described facial expressions, such as describing sadness as "like frowning and eyebrows like up". I wonder if that's related to being trained (or learning on their own) to recognize facial expressions consciously. The overall difficulty the autistic kids had in describing emotions might be related to being repeatedly told (explicitly or not) 'you can't possibly be feeling that way'. But they don't recognize this possibility. Instead, they suggest this is due to 'thinking in pictures'. I do think my emotions are much more visually than verbally coded (but more 'essence-tactile' than either of those), but I don't tend to think of facial expressions for emotions. In fact, I find it hard to visualize facial expressions.
The second one is at
They found increased rates of depression and alexithymia (difficulty understanding own emotions). The two are associated, but alexithymia was elevated even when they controlled for depression. Since they depended on self-report, their measure probably reflects actual difficulties, rather than NT misinterpretations.
They include two quotes by autistics. The first one is "I get so mad when people say 'got no feelings, can't relate to me.' I have feelings-told very deep...Trouble is wires crossed so show all this in perhaps odd bizarre fashion or in misplaced way", the second is "When I am able to get people to understand me, my view of life is positive, but when I am battling against the prejudice I feel very low. This feeling comes from the powerlessness to change my situation in which I find myself....In formal situations this is not a major problem, but in informal ones it is a crushing one".
Despite this, the authors seem to have no idea that discrimination is at all useful in explaining their results. The closest they come is saying:
"Whereas the slow compensatory acquisition of an explicit theory-of-mind has made the awareness of inner states possible, at least to some extent, it has also led to an increased awareness of the failure to 'fit in.' This indicates a cost of compensatory learning that has not always been realized. Increased depression could therefore be seen as a secondary reaction to a theory-of-mind deficit, dependent on specific experiences in the recent past."

12:05 PM  
Blogger Herman said...

a friend steered me to this post, because she thought we had a lot in common. I'm autistic, diagnosed with complex PTSD and was sexually abused. I also used to self-injure and I'm recovering from an eating disorder. I don't post about any of that here on blogger, but I do in livejournal.

I am fairly sure I understand what you are trying to say about emotions. I read this post several days ago and had troubles finding the words to reply. They really don't work for this sort of thing. I think you actually described how I think well, it's not in words but more like what you describe with the cat - a mix of feeling, thought and sensation.

the idea of changing "I feel" into "I think" just seems dumb. my psych has taken a different sort of approach. He talks a lot about how feelings don't have to lead to actions. How emotions are transitory and how you can feel multiple emotions at the same time. I started thinking of emotions as weather and the self-hate attacks are like bad storms. They go away after a time and while I'm in it, I just focus on keeping myself safe and waiting out the storm. I'm not sure I'm making any sense.

Also, being misunderstood is a huge trigger for me. Not only does it lead to me closing myself off, it tends to cause the self-hate attacks. For me it's not just an issue of NT vocabulary, but also NT timing. Even takes me time to process things and be able to know what I think/feel, but the NTs want to know things right away. They often interpret delayed responses within their framework, when all I'm doing is processing.

8:23 PM  

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