Asperger’s and Emotions

by AspieSide

Listed in the criteria for Asperger’s in the DSM-IV is “lack of social or emotional reciprocity,”  although I usually see it written as lack of empathy. This criterion was the one that I struggled with the most in regards to my son. I just didn’t see it. If anything, I have seen an oversensitivity to the emotions of others.

What I have observed in my son is that he gets upset when others are upset. If he has ever found me crying, he always sits next to me and rubs my back.  Never mind that half the time I was crying because he just had a meltdown that I couldn’t deal with. The times that it was related to a meltdown he would always apologize and ask for a hug. He has always been a very sweet child.

Death is something that has always upset him quite profoundly. He was probably 9, and I took him with me to a Good Friday service at our church. He had wanted to go because he had heard they turn the lights off for this service. He had been in Christian school since kindergarten, so he was quite familiar with the Bible story. At the end is when they turn off the lights and discuss Jesus’ death. He started to melt. At first, I thought it was from the lights being off, since he has sensory issues. But instead, he started to sob that Jesus had died. I was so surprised that it would upset him so profoundly since he clearly knew how it would end.

So when people started to talk about how he may have Asperger’s, I kept getting hung up when they would say how people with Asperger’s lack empathy. I just didn’t see it. I do understand (well maybe that word isn’t the exact right word) that they lack theory of mind. I have to explain to him how it could affect someone negatively when he does certain things. He doesn’t always understand how he is perceived. When he used to (please God keep it used to) have major meltdowns in class, he would say he couldn’t leave before the meltdown because he didn’t want to draw attention to himself. We had to keep explaining the meltdowns were drawing way more attention than walking out when he started to feel upset.

I found a couple of articles about the concept of empathy with Asperger’s and thought I would share:

What I have noticed he struggles with is understanding the non-verbal communications related to emotion. We reviewed the facial expressions in emotions, and he was supposed to identify his feelings every day for a while to help get the hang of it. I found this nifty magnet in Vegas.

The little guy on the magnet rarely moved from bored.  He uses “bored” to describe a lot of emotions, I have noticed. In particular, he says he is bored when he is struggling with school. Maybe he has heard other kids use this word. The describing of emotions is something I think we need to work on.  Thanks to I now know that the word for not being able to put emotions into words is Alexithymia.  Here is a link about it:

From the interactions with my son, I think that does more accurately describe what he is experiencing. He knows what facial expressions mean. He may not always catch onto subtle clues, but overall, he notices when I am angry or sad. He may not always smile when he is happy, but he does know how to give me sad eyes when he wants something. However, he does struggle to put his feelings into words.  Whether or not he truly knows what his feelings are is so difficult for me to know.

I think he knows angry or sad, but does he know the difference between frustrated and angry? I don’t think he did a few years ago, but I think he is learning it. I think (and just my thoughts) that is why a few years ago, when he wasn’t able to do something on a video game, he would immediately melt and become very upset. I think the distinction between the two is difficult for NTs as well, but it is an important distinction. As I have tried to explain to him, frustration is an okay thing and just means he has to work harder to get through what he is trying to do. He seems to be getting better at working through whatever is bothering him when he starts to feel frustrated, even if he still doesn’t use the words “I am frustrated.”

I have also told him that anger is okay too, but that it is not okay to smash things. I think he has previously gotten upset with himself when he has felt these emotions, and that just frustrates him or angers him more. It has really been a process to teach him emotions are an okay thing.

I would really love to hear from someone with Asperger’s about how they feel these emotions.

About the Author: AspieSide is the mother of a 14-year-old son with Asperger’s, ADHD, anxiety, and depression. This piece first appeared on her blog, The Aspie Side of Life, and is reprinted here by permission.



8 thoughts on “Asperger’s and Emotions

  1. cammie says:

    Thank you for posting this. There are parts of this I could’ve written word for word about our Aspie son. He’s almost 7 and we hear “I’m bored” quite often, even as he’s playing. I will be looking for one of those boards and checking out the links you shared. I hope to read some insightful responses as well.

  2. Arak says:

    Greetings. Thank you for writing this post! I was diagnosed when I was about 2 with “high functioning autism”. (Asperger’s was unknown and not even on the scale in the late 1970’s)

    Two things that have bothered me about the DSM definitions of autism spectrum conditions are: lack of empathy (or, as some people say, lack of emotion!), and lack of creativity.

    Part of the reason I always “withdrew” or did not “socially reciprocate” was because people seem to radiate emotions like a blast furnace. I’ve talked to many others who say the same thing. I feel emotions too much!

    I recall watching an animated movie when I was about 7 and bawling like crazy at the end, but have no idea what it was called. I just remember that it was a fantasy one and these two beautiful magical beings turned into what looked like dandelion fluff and floated away on the wind, thus removing them from the world forever. It was like a kind of death. It was so beautiful that it moved me to uncontrollable tears and my dad would not let me watch TV for a few days afterward! Back in 1994, I saw Loreena McKennitt perform and was also moved to tears when I heard her sing because it was so beautiful.

    If I got too happy, I’d have a panic attack because the rush of my own emotion was too much for me to bear. Any emotion was too much in high doses because my body and mind were in red alert all the time. My senses… all of them, including the empathy, were heightened to the max all the time. Imagine experiencing wildly intense emotions all the time! It’s not fun!

    As a result, I learned to control my emotions and suppress them. Being raised in a traditional British household helped me because I was taught to maintain the famous “stiff upper lip”. It was the best thing I could have learned! I learned to block the emotions of others too, but it was always hard. I tried to emulate Mr. Spock from “Star Trek” because he seemed to have the control of emotions down and look how successful he was!

    Unfortunately, being like Mr. Spock in our world where people expect you to be emotional all the time does not lead to success!

    To the outside world, I was this emotionless person who could not feel emotion or reciprocate it. If only they knew what I was doing to protect myself from going insane from the intense emotions that assaulted me every day of my life! If only they’d get it now!

    Not only do I feel my own emotions too deeply, I feel other people’s emotions too deeply as well. When I was a child and then later a teenager, I would almost get high off of being in a crowd of excited people. Rallies, protests, sports games… it didn’t matter what the purpose of the crowd was; I’d get this weird rush of emotion that felt like euphoria.

    I could sit on a bus and tune into the emotions of others and basically tell what was going on with them that day. I knew when people were rushed, upset, feeling awesome, etc. I find it too difficult to handle now and can no longer take public transit without having a panic attack because of all of the intense emotions in one tiny, packed place! (I can’t be on an airplane either for the same reason.)

    At funerals, I find that I have a hard time, not because a person has died, but the influx of negative emotions radiating off of everyone in the room. It’s awful! I am always happy for the person who has passed away because they have completed their life’s journey and they are free from the enslaving emotions and such of our world.

    I’ve studied Buddhism and many other world religions and find that being in this world is indeed Samsara: The cycle of birth, misery, suffering and death. That is what the world is to me: suffering and misery because of what I feel from others and inside every day.

    I deal with it, though, and carry on because I know that one has to ride the wave of human emotion and irrationality in order to succeed. I’ve succeeded because of I’ve learned how to use my ability to feel other people’s emotions to “work with it” and therefore succeed. I can tell if someone’s having an off day and I’ll have to be extra careful, or if someone’s having a great day and what I need will be easy to achieve.

    Humans seem to depend on the emotions of others to get what they want in this world. If they apply for a job, it is the interviewer’s whim that will either get them hired or not even considered. I’ve learned to work with the emotions and feel of a person to mold my personality to their needs like a chameleon changes colour to blend in. If a person needs something from someone else (and we always do!), the person must be properly attuned to the person or people who the person is depending upon.

    Social skills are simply that: changing your emotional “colour” to blend in with the emotional “colour” of those around you. You use your ability to sense others’ emotions to console them when they’re sad or be happy for them when they’re happy…. or stay clear away from them if they’re angry! That’s what I’ve learned and that’s why I’ve succeeded in my life. I learned to use the emotions of others to get what I want and to bring joy into my life.

    I manage many people in my current work and can attune myself to all of them in a matter of seconds after meeting them for the first time. I know their names from memory, something about them and what their emotional climate is. Most managers cannot do that. Some of my staff have even said it’s kind of creepy how I just seem to attune myself so quickly to others.

    Many of them have commented on how “laid back” I am and how nothing seems to bother me. It’s still hard for me to handle the emotions, but I’ve learned to buffer the emotions consciously since that doesn’t seem to happen unconsciously like it does with other people. I don’t have the “automatic emotion shield”, so I’ve had to make one and use it when I need to. I’ve learned how to take strategic “time-outs” to relax or take a breather.

    That’s the key to success in this world, in my opinion. Learning to control and then using that heightened empathy that one on the Spectrum has to navigate and work within the social parameters of this world. Humans are emotional creatures… and so are we.

    • aspieside says:

      Thank you for reading and I really appreciate you sharing! Describing it as a furnace blast is a good way to explain. I love how you explain feeling the emotions of people and using that for knowing how to interact. I really appreciate your insight.

  3. Catsidhe says:

    I am an alexithymic Aspie. I turn 38 tomorrow, and I’m still figuring out how to deal with emotions.

    We don’t stop feeling things; that’s an important thing to note. We just don’t have that sense of what it is we’re feeling. It’s like not having a sense of touch won’t protect you from being hurt.

    The analogy which works best for me is that people are like pressure cookers. Most people have functioning pressure sensors, and even if the release valve isn’t working, they have an idea how worked up they are. It may be more or less sensitive, but they can tell calm from angry.
    Alexithymics have a broken sensor. The pressure still builds, but we have no idea that we need to pull the release until the rattling, creaking and groaning tells us that it’s too late. I can be oblivious to how angry I am until I realise that I’m fighting the urge to punch something. And when I was a child, I actually injured my sister twice from rage which I didn’t even realise I was feeling — there was just an overwhelming sense of increasing pressure, and no other way I knew to release it.

    Plus, given that the pressure cooker of our emotional self was forged with that broken sensor in place, it’s inherently weaker than most peoples, and it starts with a higher pressure than normal, and breaks more quickly.

    I would recommend that your son be encouraged to consciously self-examine. Just as people with nerve damage must consciously watch to see if they’re doing something dangerous, we must consciously monitor ourselves to see if we’re on the path to meltdown, freakout, tantrum or rage. And because the primary sensor for this simply doesn’t work, we must use other ways to do this: by watching other people’s reactions, by checking our own heartrate and blood pressure, by noticing when we’re suddenly yelling at someone for no good reason. And then, we have to make an effort to learn what to do about it: how to back off, retreat and chill. Carry a book to distract ourselves with, know when to leave the room, know when to sit down and take a few deep breaths, whatever works. Or, at last resort, to warn people around you that you are reacting badly to something, that you are becoming irrational, and that you can’t help it.

    That doesn’t absolve one from the responsibility to try to prevent yourself from doing harm, but telling people that you’re about to go a bit nuts and they should go the hell away NOW might make all the difference.

    The other thing is to keep a careful eye on Depression. Like I said, just because you don’t know you’re feeling emotions doesn’t mean you aren’t, and that damned Black Dog is a sneaky bastard at the best of times. I didn’t realise that I was depressed until my then girlfriend (now wife) flat blank told me to see a Psych. This is fifteen years before I had even heard of Asperger’s.

    Also, I wonder if I also have a degree of Anhedonia, either on its own, or as a side effect of Alexithymia. I don’t really know: to a large extent I can’t know. I have no idea what joy is supposed to be, only that I don’t think it’s something I have ever experienced.

    I can describe my experiences, but it’s difficult, because I must perforce do so in comparison with an experience I have only read about. It’s a bit like getting a blind person to describe what it’s like to not see.

    If you want to talk further, let me know. I have a account under my username.

    • aspieside says:

      That almost exactly describes my son when he gets upset. I have always said it is like he has a switch- it just gets flipped to angry and he is done. It has taken a lot of work to get him to recognize when he is getting upset. He has gotten better with asking for space when he needs it but we are clearly still working on it. I will definitely share this information with him. I may also email you in the future to get more clarification after I process this information more and discuss with him. Thank you so much for sharing this information & offering to discuss further. I am always grateful for all of the information I get from so many kind people online. That is sometimes overwhelming for me! My email is if you ever wish to email me before I get a chance to email you.

  4. It’s funny, because even though I don’t agree that I don’t have empathy, I do think that my relationships as a child lacked “reciprocity.” I wasn’t very good at truly two-directional relationships because all of the things I wanted to do were considered weird or boring, either because of the subject matter or because of how long I wanted to do the same thing. So I tended to just follow other kids around and do what they wanted to do (a pretty common behavior among Autistic girls). I spent a lot of time feeling utterly and profoundly alone.

    This had nothing to do with empathy and everything to do with just being sort of different. I do think that this sort of phenomenon is a good thing to look for if you’re trying to diagnose a kid, since it’s such a common way for our difference to manifest during childhood, but it’s doing a huge disservice to kids to act like it’s a manifestation of lack of empathy. I knew full well that other kids weren’t interested in the same things that interested me and that people didn’t like doing things they weren’t interested in. It didn’t really help much.

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  6. erik says:

    I’m an adult aspie. I think we have plenty of concern for others, if we can understand how and why they feel the way they do. the Key word is IF.
    I know other people feel pain, anger, and sadness. If I can relate it to something in my life, I can be very considerate. Like, oh, my dog died, I remember what that was like.
    What we DON’T have is the automatic reaction, crying when you see someone crying, or laughing because others are laughing and you didn’t hear the joke.

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