Why Autistic Emotions May Go Unrecognized

Young boy looking at his mother
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Anyone who knows someone with autism knows that -- of course! -- people with autism have feelings. Sometimes very strong feelings. Just like everyone else. People with autism can be happy, sad, excited, depressed, frustrated, or angry.

But...

The myth that "people with autism are emotionless" persists.

Why? There are a few reasons; some good and some -- pretty silly.  For example:

  1. Autistic people don't always have the emotions that neurotypical people expect. For example, autistic people may not respond with joy or excitement to an announcement that someone is getting married -- because either (a) they haven't really internalized the information; (b) they don't think marriage is all that exciting; and/or (c) they don't have the ability or desire to respond instantly with socially appropriate (but possibly insincere) joy.  That doesn't mean that autistic people can't be joyful -- just that they are not responding as custom dictates.
  1. Autistic people don't always show emotions in the way that neurotypical people expect.  When you tell a typical child he's going to DisneyWorld, he may jump up and down, clap his hands, or ask questions about the trip.  When you tell an autistic child, he may be equally delighted -- but he may respond by running around the room, flapping, or otherwise behaving...autistic. That doesn't mean he isn't glad to be going to Disney-- just that he isn't using the usual body and spoken language to express his emotions.
  2. Autistic people may not understand and respond typically to spoken or non-verbal communicationTypical people are able to instantaneously turn spoken language into meaning. They are also able to instantly interpret the hidden significance of body language. As a result, they can immediately respond appropriately -- by answering a question, feeling annoyed, getting angry, smiling happily, and so forth.  Most people with autism, however, require more than a split second to make sense of social communication and then respond.  In some cases, when the communication involves idioms, sarcasm, or subtle non-verbal cues (a raised eyebrow, for example) they may not fully grasp what's being communicated.  As a result, they may either respond oddly or not respond at all.  That doesn't mean they can't or won't respond emotionally to social communication -- but they may need more time or more direct, simpler information.
  1. While people with autism do have a wide range of emotions, there are certain emotions that may not hit them quite as hard as others expect.  For example, autistic people rarely have the social knowledge (or desire) to judge themselves against a scale of their peers.  As a result, autistic people may be less liable to experience jealousy, pride, or performance anxiety than their typical peers. In addition, because they rarely compare themselves to media-produced versions of reality, they may not feel the same level of self-consciousness about issues such as appearance, wealth, fitness, etc. as their typical peers.
  1. Autistic people react in unexpected ways to situations and experiences. As a result, their emotional responses are different from what is expected by their typical peers.  For example, a teen on the spectrum may melt down completely when frustrated -- but the same teen may have no reaction at all to the fact that she has not been invited to the prom.  Typical teens, of course, would have almost the reverse emotional responses: few teens are actually overwhelmed to the point of tears when they experience frustration, but may be terribly upset about a social "disaster."  The reason for these differences is fairly simple: people on the spectrum are easily thrown off when routines or expectations change, but are rarely concerned about their social standing among peers.

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