Emotions: who is the expert and who is the dunce and what exactly are we talking about?

EmotionOver and over again I read that autistic people are disabled in the ability to understand not only the emotions of others, but also our own emotions.  Could this mean that the subject of “emotions” is like a school subject that all autistic people failed to learn about, because we were all coincidentally away sick or wagging school during the week when the teacher covered it in class?  I very much doubt that it’s that simple. I very much doubt that a lesson or remedial training for autistic people on the subject of emotions or “how to read emotions” is the solution to the social chasm between NT and AS.  If people with AS are capable of self-teaching complex subjects such as “how to read” and an innumerable range of odd and obscure scientific, linguistic or technological subjects, why would all autistic people have systematically avoided studying the subject of emotions?  Is it possible that some autistic people really know plenty of things about emotions, but don’t think much of the subject?

Is it possible that emotions have very different uses for different people?  Is there a large variation among people in how useful emotions can be as an aid to decision-making and social intuition?  I think it is possible that in ordinary (neurotypical) people their own emotions may be pretty much “in tune” with events in the social world surrounding the individual, and might therefore often be useful resources to use in social decision-making.  In people with autism and people who have neurological conditions affecting the emotions (such as temporal lobe epilepsy) the emotions may be very much influenced by internal thoughts (irritation or alarm caused by detection of a logical inconsistency), internal events (autistic special interests, delayed information processing, idiosyncratic negative or positive associations caused by synaesthesia), purely sensory experiences of the external world (this damned scratchy woollen jumper, I can’t stand looking at this untidy place) or random biological disease processes (seizure activity in the limbic area of the brain).  These unusual influences on the emotions may prevent emotions from being useful guides to particular types of decision-making or sense-making.  The ability to think logically may be the best available strategy for decision-making, and complex individualized strategies for ignoring or categorizing emotions may need to be learned.  This emotionless or emotion-wary way of thinking may in some situations be advantageous, as in many decision-making situations emotional thinking usually leads to error and irrationality.

An alternative explanation for the apparent emotional differences between NT and AS may be that NT emotions may be “tuned-in” to the social and subjective aspects of the world around us (such as knowledge of what people probably think or feel, detection of danger to the self) while AS emotions may be “tuned-in” just as beautifully to non-social, objective aspects of the external world (such as objective, factual knowledge of people, rule-based systems in nature and sensory information).  If this is the case, I can’t imagine where one would start in the task of explaining the emotions of one type to the other.  The task might simply be impossible.  If this scenario is a good reflection of reality, then I think it follows that little that normal people would teach about or say about emotions would make sense to an autistic person.  The autist may be left thinking “Anything that anyone says about emotions is bullshit.”

Another possible explanation for differences between AS and NT regarding emotions may be that AS is a variant of the stereotypically hypersensitive intellectually gifted person.  This idea seems plausible as there seems to be a lot of people who are both gifted and autistic.  Literature about giftedness notes that gifted children and adults are often highly emotional and intense, and with that, very emotionally sensitive and possibly vulnerable to depression.  It is also noted that sensory hypersensitivity is sometimes found in the gifted, and I have no reason to believe this is any different to the sensory sensitivity found in autism.  A heightened emotional and sensory sensitivity could be used to explain many characteristics of autistic people.  Perhaps eye contact avoidance is caused by emotional hypersensitivity, as eye contact is a particularly confronting form of intimacy.  Autists may avoid social activities that involve playing around with the emotions, which many ordinary people find amusing, because such activities may cause uncomfortable or unmanageable levels of emotional stimulation.

I think autism researchers and psychs in general may not understand that there may be very good reasons why some people appear to be “thinkers” rather than “feelers”, and some people (notably males) don’t talk much about emotions, and some people appear to neither care about nor understand the more emotional and sharing aspects of personal interactions.  This may have little to do with any essential inability to understand one’s own emotions or emotions in general, in fact, such people might be better at understanding their own emotional experiences than anyone else could ever be (so why talk?).  It may be that such individuals know that (at least in their own case) emotional experiences are often sensory-based or random or idiosyncratic or unmanageable or uncomfortable or unconnected with social external events.  They may also be aware that this is not considered “normal” and therefore it would be unwise to discuss such things with anyone else.  Some people may be fully aware that attempts to share or discuss emotions do not work for them as the “building blocks” of relationships with ordinary people.  If one decided that they wanted to teach “emotional literacy” to emotionally unusual or emotionally intense people, the first things that one may need to teach are that “emotionally, you have little in common with most people” and “you are so different that it is unrealistic to expect ordinary people to understand your emotions.”  Of course, if the recipient of these educational efforts is old enough and bright enough, they would have figured this all out already.


Lili Marlene’s Emotions: who is the expert and who is the dunce and what exactly are we talking about? first appeared on May 3, 2007 at Incorrect Pleasures, and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

on 04/7/10 in Autism, featured | 2 Comments | Read More

Comments (2)


  1. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Coincidentally enough, just this week Live Science posted an article, Study Sheds Light on What Makes People Shy (http://www.livescience.com/health/shy-brain-process-information-differently-100405.html) which supports much of what you said here almost three years ago.

    Apparently a new personality trait (sensory perception sensitivity, or SPS) has been conjured, with nary a mention of the obvious similarities with autism. “Biologists,” the article announces, “are beginning to agree that within one species there can be two equally successful ‘personalities.’ The sensitive type, always a minority, chooses to observe longer before acting, as if doing their exploring with their brains rather than their limbs. “

  2. Mark Stairwalt says:

    Found while looking for something else, from May 14 of 2009 (two years after Lili Marlene’s post): “Asperger’s theory does about-face. Rather than ignoring others, researchers think spectrum sufferers care too much.” http://www.thestar.com/article/633688

    “A groundbreaking study suggests people with autism-spectrum disorders such as Asperger’s do not lack empathy – rather, they feel others’ emotions too intensely to cope.

    People with Asperger’s syndrome, a high functioning form of autism, are often stereotyped as distant loners or robotic geeks. But what if what looks like coldness to the outside world is a response to being overwhelmed by emotion – an excess of empathy, not a lack of it?”

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