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Autism, emotions, and synaesthesia.

A personal account of how emotional responses feel to one autistic person, and how this may appear to others.

When I searched the internet for a quote that would capture how autistic people experience emotion, I found plenty of search suggestions along the lines of, “Do autistic people have emotions?”. I wanted to get away from the popular type of search results that frequently reinforce stereotypes of unemotional autistic people so went for something a bit more academic and science-y.

There was plenty of research on autistic deficits and  research questions were posed about whether empathy can be taught to autistic people. I also found other research into why autistic people don’t experience emotions.

I cannot honestly say that I felt ‘uncomfortable’ – my emotions don’t work like that. But my very logical mind began matching all these search results I was turning up, against the reality of my own lived experience of autism, and the realities of my peers, family, and clients. It just did not fit!

I “know” that autistic people experience emotions and in diverse ways just like everyone else.

So, I decided to see what the NAS had to say (The National Autistic Society – a well-known UK based organisation). They made a few mentions of autism and emotions in various sections of their website, typically in relation to challenging behaviour or emotional difficulties.

Overall, the perception online seems to be that autistic people may not experience emotions, or they may experience them in out of control ways.

Initially I disagreed with this.

However, after reflecting on this all day, I realise that “yes, we can look like that to people who aren’t able to empathise with us”. I personally believe that non-autistic people struggle with empathising with autistic people just as much as autistic people struggle with empathising with them.

This blog is my contribution to the discussion. It describes how this topic works for me. It may not be relevant to everyone else, or even anyone else, but if it creates an interest in what autistic people may be feeling under the surface and a willingness to explore this with them on their terms then great!

I went off on a wonderful tangent looking for a clear definition of what an emotion is. I discovered articles about the philosophy of emotions and the history of emotion too. I found there were evolutional and theological theories of emotions, and all manner of schools of psychology, neurobiology and sociology that added to the discussion. There is no simple definition – the subject is complex and broad and there seems to be no scientific consensus on a definition.

Most simply put, emotions are states associated with the nervous system brought on by all manner of different things, including our thoughts and behaviour.

Currently there are eight senses associated with humans. The five we probably learned at school: sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. The two associated with knowing where our bodies are – proprioception; and the effect of gravity on our bodies – vestibular. The eight sense is interoception – the sense of knowing how we feel. This includes feeling emotions and feeling bodily sensations like needing the toilet or hunger.

For me to describe how my emotions work, we need to consider my overall sensory processing.

My sense organs work fairly typically. My eyes are very short-sighted, but my vision is corrected with glasses. If an audiologist examined me, they would probably say that I have no issues with my hearing. My sense organs take in information in a fairly typical way. However, once that information reaches my brain, it is processed very differently to that of my typically developing peers.

Sometimes I need more information than most people need, in order to register a sensation – I like a full-strength hug not a gentle one for instance, or I can spin on a roundabout without feeling queasy.

Sometimes I need extraordinarily little sensory information to register the sensation – I can hear conversations in a room down the hall, and a door slam sounds as loud to me as a firework does to my neurotypical friend.

And this is where I would like to introduce you to the eight sense: interoception. It works just like all the other senses. It is not responsible for making emotions or affecting them in any way – just like the ears are not responsible for the noise they hear. Our interoceptive sense enables us to notice or recognise or be aware of how we feel.

If the way our brain processes sensory information is muted in so far as interoception is concerned, then we may not feel emotions, or the need to go to the toilet, or that we are hungry or in pain. If the brain processes the sensory information too intensely, then we may notice every sensation within our bodies, or feel emotions more strongly than other people do.

And just like all our other senses, our interoceptive sensory processing can work differently in different circumstances, or on different days.

Here are some ways that a person who experiences atypical interoceptive sensory processing may appear to an outsider, with my thoughts on what may be happening on the inside:

  • Doesn’t show emotions (maybe they are having emotions but not noticing them?)
  • Over-emotional (maybe that emotion genuinely does feel that strong to them?)
  • Loses their temper for no reason (perhaps they didn’t notice the sensation of becoming angry until it was too late to manage it?)
  • Moans about every tiny ache and pain (maybe their ‘tiny’ ache feels as painful as someone else’s broken leg?)
  • Doesn’t notice they have a severe tooth infection (perhaps the pain hasn’t registered with them?)
  • Won’t learn toilet training even though a reward system is used, and they fully understand what a toilet is for (maybe they can’t feel the sensation in their body that tells them they need to go?)
  • Has no empathy and doesn’t care about anyone else (maybe they don’t know how they feel themselves, so can’t imagine how others may feel?)
  • Blunt and insensitive – poor social skills (perhaps they have no personal concept of how unpleasant it feels to be spoken to abruptly?)
  • Easily led, vulnerable, promiscuous– forms relationships with anyone who asks (maybe if they don’t know if they ‘like’ people, they will politely become anyone’s friend?)

Perhaps autistic people ARE having emotions but just aren’t feeling them? No one would say that because I don’t feel hunger I shouldn’t eat. My care givers would be seen as neglectful if they didn’t feed me just because I never noticed I was hungry – food is a basic human need – everyone must have it.

So how about we look at emotions in that way too? Just because I don’t feel sad or show that I am sad, doesn’t mean I can be ignored when something sad happens. To deny me the compassion shown to my more typical peers following a tragedy, is as neglectful as denying me food just because I’m not hungry.

My personal interoceptive experiences tend towards the ‘needs a lot of input to register’ aspect of sensory processing. Growing up, this gave me the appearance of being aloof, disinterested in people, unemotional and cold. On a good day, I could appear strong, brave, and steadfast.

As an adult, I can still be interpreted in this way but I’ve learned to play to my strengths and there are times when the ability to remain calm in a crisis, keep a level head, and make objective decisions under pressure pose an advantage over my more typical peers.

When I was a girl, I knew I was different. I thought I must be a terrible person for being how I was. I remember despairing over my lack of ‘normal’ emotional responses and wondering what was so very wrong with me. Deep down inside I knew I did care and that I was kind and thoughtful (and my goodness, am I thoughtful – I cannot do anything without thinking it through in full first!) but somehow my experiences, my thoughts and my emotions seemed out of synch with each other.

I can remember experiencing traumatic events that would have made any normal person cry or feel distressed and I felt nothing. And not just because I shut off to those experiences. To my young self I wondered whether perhaps I was somehow to blame for these things? Surely I must want them to happen if I’m not even upset by them?

And like every other human, I am more than a product of my genes and neurology. My experiences naturally shaped me and added to the way I experience emotions. A complex cycle was created:  My autism affected the way I behaved in response to sensory information; and thus influenced how others treated me; which then influenced my further responses; and so on…

My interpersonal relationships were different to the relationships between my more typical peers. I struggled to develop the skills that would enable me to relate to others with ease. I didn’t feel things like other girls did and I didn’t act like other girls did. I tried my best to copy and pretend sometimes, but on the whole, I was content being self-contained and kept myself to myself, lost in my own world of music, books, and nature.

I was labelled as unemotional and eventually believed that meant I must be uncaring too. Perhaps I was kidding myself that I was alright really? Perhaps my knowledge that I was fundamentally ok – just different; was wrong?

I feel it is important to recall at this point in the blog, that other autistic people may have the ‘doesn’t need much sensory input to register’ type of interoceptive sensory processing. They may empathise with others so intensely it hurts them. You will see how different we all are, but by viewing our emotional responses as a result of our sensory processing it may make more sense of why that is.

At this point, my blog heads off into a little discussed phenomenon. It helps me explain my emotional responses but is my opinion and nothing more. As I learn more about myself, autism, and the complex science of emotions, my opinion will likely change. This is how it makes sense to me at the moment, based on the knowledge and experience accessible to me at this current time.

Synaesthesia is a perceptual phenomenon in which stimulation of one sense leads to an involuntary experience in a second sense. It is widely documented throughout history.

For me, the acidic green of newly opened beech leaves is the colour of the musical chord A minor. C major is sunshine yellow, G minor is matt aubergine. I only see chords in colours not individual musical notes.

My ability at mental arithmetic comes from my experience of single digit numbers as coloured shapes – I can visually click them together to do sums very quickly.

Synaesthesia explains how some of my other senses experience information that was not intended for them. Hearing in colour is a common example. It comes close to explaining my emotional responses.

I’ve described how I believe I actually do experience emotions, but I don’t always feel them or show them. Just like I may not feel hungry, but my body still needs food. As I’ve developed a greater understanding of myself, I recognise that in fact I have more awareness of my emotions than I realised.

As my self-awareness has developed, I have noticed what happens in my body in response to different stimuli. When I have tried to explain this to some clinicians, their response has not always been accepting, or even inquisitive. Very often my descriptions were interpreted as a symptom of mental illness – delusional in fact. I would prefer to see my emotional responses as a form of synaesthesia rather than my “brain not working properly”. Here are a few of the many examples of emotional synaesthesia that I have experienced across my lifetime. Remember – the emotion is there just like it is for every human, but my brain processes it differently due to my muted interoception – which means I may not feel the emotion in a typical way. This processing sometimes appears as synaesthesia. My sensory processing is frequently muted or over-responsive anyway, but these examples are outside of my ‘normal’.

  • Sadness – my vestibular processing is affected, and I can feel extremes of seasickness when changing direction or speed on a walk; or fail to become dizzy when spinning at high speed.
  • Shock – vision becomes pixelated.
  • Happiness – colours get brighter – especially green, that’s why I love nature.
  • Stress – vision becomes distorted and objects lose their definition.
  • Tiredness – hearing becomes painfully acute.
  • Very sad – food tastes gone off.

I have started viewing these signs of how my brain is processing sensory information as “my” emotions. They are consistent enough that if someone were to ask me how I felt, I could confidently give them the name of an emotion that would match their neurotypical expectation of my experience. This helps them understand and helps me get compassionate responses from people. But it bugs me, because it’s a lie! I don’t feel sad, or happy, or stressed, necessarily at that time.

As practitioners we often support people to identify and name their emotions in order to help them get their needs met more effectively – my account is worth considering whenever we do this. Wouldn’t it be lovely if when someone asked how I felt, I could honestly say ‘seasick’. And they would know me well enough to appreciate that my seasick was the same as their sad. That would really help meet my needs.

I mentioned a key phrase back then; “I don’t feel sad, or happy, or stressed, necessarily at that time.”

I have always been aware of this out of synch relationship between my emotions and thoughts. If I need to process what other people would define as an intensely emotional experience, I can analyse it to the point of understanding it at an almost atomic level, but it will still rotate around my brain for years and not lay down to rest. The emotions can’t be forced. I am no more able to tap into emotions now than I was as a young girl.

I don’t see this as a problem anymore. This is how I roll! I am better able to process experiences now that I accept my atypical way of feeling those emotions. When I experience an emotional event now that I understand and accept the way my emotional responses work, I can still analyse the event to gain clarity and process it cognitively. I can also acknowledge that my sensory responses are ‘normal for me’ and nothing to be scared of or view as a mental health relapse indicator. I don’t give myself a hard time because I’m not feeling what I should be feeling. Sometimes I get the feeling much later anyway.

A recent example is of a bereavement that I experienced in November 2019. My initial responses were logical, practical and helpful. My sensory responses were visual disturbance, taste disturbance and hypersensitive hearing. My initial feelings were frequently related to the frustration of my ordered world becoming disordered through the loss of a key figure in it. I may have appeared unemotional, brave, strong, distant, or inappropriate. In June 2020 I felt sad and I cried for the loss. It properly hit me what the loss meant.

The worse thing about feeling emotions in this way but in a delayed manner is other people’s responses. I can look like I am not coping, or attention seeking, or struggling.  Everyone else has moved on from these emotions, just as I am arriving. What I would have loved last month more than anything, is to have had the warmth, compassion, love and sympathy shown to me that was shown towards the people who were grieving like that in November. I appreciate that’s not how these things work, but this was a delayed response not a maladaptive one. Frequently I have not received the support I need from others because my timing is wrong or I have hidden my needs because of how it will look if I bring things up all this time later. Can we be kinder human beings I wonder, by giving people what they need, when they need it – even when it doesn’t fit in with our expectations of timing?

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