Emotional Reciprocity

by Gavin Bollard

This last weekend has been a really tough one for our family. We had to have our dog of nearly twelve years, Panda, put down last Saturday.

To make matters worse, nobody was expecting it. One day, she was “chirpy” and seemed to be in perfectly good health, and the next she was gone. She was in our family for longer than our kids, and she has left a huge hole in our family heart.

I was going to talk about emotional reciprocity today anyway, but last weekend’s events have put a whole new spin on things.

Dealing with Strong Emotions
We all deal with strong emotions, such as love, anger, and grief, in our own ways. My wife tends to cry things out, but I often internalise them and take them on board as stress and, at times, self-harmful behaviour. In the kids, these emotions can manifest as meltdowns or as general destructive behaviour. But sometimes, there’s nothing to see on the surface at all.

The point is that although we each feel these emotions and we feel them at similar strengths, our reactions vary widely both in intensity and visibility.

Quantifying Emotions
For some reason, our society seems to think that it’s okay to quantify emotions based on visible reactions. In my experience, if an event occurs to two people, and the woman is crying while the man is not, then the woman needs the most care and attention because “she’s the one who is really hurt.” The solution is to talk in a quiet voice, and bring lots of cups of tea and chocolates.

The man, by contrast isn’t bawling his eyes out, so he’s obviously not hurt. There’s nothing that you need to do for him. There’s no need to tread lightly because “he’s not even upset.”

In fact, if the event is of an appropriate level — for example the death of a loved one — then anyone not outwardly grieving is “fair game.” You can take things out on them, and you’re more or less expected to say “What’s wrong with you, man?” The words “you don’t care” should also be used in conversation to him.

Sound familiar?

It’s something that many neurotypicals do, and yet so few realise how wrong it is.

Pain on the Spectrum
What if I said that this wasn’t really about men and women? It’s about everyone in general and people on the spectrum in particular.

We use our own perception of other people’s emotions to determine our response.

Too often, I hear of neurotypical partners describing the husbands as uncaring, unemotional, and cold. Autism research alleges that people on the spectrum sometimes feel less physical pain than others (based on their reactions), and even children on the spectrum are sometimes considered to have a disconnection to the pain of others.

What if all of the reasearchers are just reading the signs wrong?

There’s strong evidence in the online community that this is exactly the case. People with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome can lack facial expression and tone, but don’t lack emotions. In fact, we are very empathetic beings — sometimes even more empathetic that neurotypicals in terms of what we feel. Our problems are with the interpretation and the display of outward signs.

One Last Example
The day after the Panda died, there was a conversation right in front of me about how useless I am at doing “manly things” around the house. It’s true. I really am useless at fixing things around the house. I didn’t react badly, and I wasn’t obviously sad, so there was no need for anyone to hold back.

It was hard to keep suicidal thoughts out of my head for the rest of the day, because that’s how I deal with pain. Fortunately, I know that I’m needed in my family and I know that depression is part of Asperger’s. I can reject those dark feelings because I know they’re part of the condition.

It’s a good lesson to friends, parents, and spouses everywhere. Maybe your child or husband doesn’t display a lot of emotion (that you can detect) but everything you say is being noted. If you know that there is good cause for emotion, there’s no reason to assume that simply because you personally can’t detect it, it isn’t there.

Treat everyone in a possible emotional state carefully and you’ll reduce the likelihood of a meltdown.

About the Author: Gavin Bollard is an adult with Asperger’s and the father of two Aspie sons. This piece originally appeared on his blog, Life with Asperger’s, on June 20, 2011 and is reprinted here by permission.

3 thoughts on “Emotional Reciprocity

  1. Ashmire says:

    Absolutely this. And it’s painful to me just reading about the loss of your dog, though I doubt it would show to anyone else. Condolences.

  2. Xyzzy says:

    All too true; I have a few unpleasant memories of the way that bullies in junior high reacted to my lack of “appropriate” girly emotional reactions by becoming nastier. (I have subtle facial expressions from a NT point of view, but I also try to avoid showing any pain or upset around others in order to not seem weak. Not easy, since I also have that dratted overdeveloped empathy.)

    I’m very sad to hear about your dog’s passing, and hope that your family members are coping as well as possible… I’ve been through the same sort of thing a few times in the past, and now I have a little PTSD-flashback panic attack whenever something happens with one of my current cats to remind me of any of those cases — hopefully you & your boys can all steer clear of that pattern.

    Also, you mention depression being part of AS, which isn’t actually true: virtually all of us have depression, so it has been *assumed* that it’s built-in… But any NT put through the things many of us are would develop depression as well, and the rare auties like me that grow up able to take acceptance from peers/family for granted like NT kids are usually depression-free unless something happens to cause it. (I was fine until my mid-20s when I dated a self-hating AS guy that subtly nudged me to internalize his beliefs; I’m mostly OK now, but it has taken 7 years & a strong anti-depressant to recover.)

  3. AB says:

    I hear you on this– and thank you so much for reminding us that the appearance is not always the reality.

    While I am someone who cries all too easily, I know that I experience my deepest pain when I am unable to communicate my feelings to someone who cares about me. I have also spent much of my life internalizing my pain and turning it into self-injury because I didn’t know how else to cope.

    Now, I am fortunate to live in a non-neurotypical household (I’m not on the spectrum; my roommate and her bf are), and we all regularly remind each other to express our feelings and needs in words– and try to be sensitive to situations where the words are hard to find (e.g., discussing in advance what may help one of us when we are too stressed out for language). We find this results in us having our needs met far better than leaving it all up to guesswork and assumptions.

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