Friday, July 26, 2013

Emotions, Meltdowns, and the Aspie Experience

Since a talk with a friend yesterday I've been thinking about the way that I express emotion, and the ways I don't (as an Aspie adult). One of the key differences between me and a "normal" or NT person is the way I experience emotion. While some autism researchers talk about how Aspies don't have emotions, this is not true for me or the dozen or so other autistic friends I am close to. I experience a lot of emotions, and every Aspie I've met is the same way.

The key idea is I often am uncomfortable or unable to express emotion, or even admit to myself emotions, that I cannot logically explain. I am unaware of a "me" that is illogical, even though during meltdowns, outbursts, or even depression the illogical me overwhelms me and takes over my actions. It is not a conscious thing; consciously, I know I have emotions. Unconsciously however, my emotions are hidden even from me. If someone asks me "how do you feel," it is confusing and uncomfortable for me to sort out the dozens of messy and conflicting feelings that I am experiencing. Further, the embarrassment of the idea that I cannot explain or logically defend my feelings makes it even harder to communicate. Once a psychologist told me that I live in my head and not in my heart. This of course, can be problematic at times, as many emotions are patently illogical and even irrational.

Because I am unaware of my own emotions, these emotions stay "bottled up" and can accumulate for weeks or months at a time. I may feel tension or stress because of this, but the emotions themselves remain hidden quite often. Finally and unpredictably, after accumulating for several weeks, I have a meltdown. Of course, to those around me the meltdown looks like it was triggered by a small event, and seems irrational; on the inside, for me it is merely the straw that broke the camels back. Instead of being a small event on a huge, ugly fit, the small problem was simply a tipping point that unleashed un-dealt with emotions that I probably was not aware of. Alternately, a sensory overload can contribute to the meltdown, usually in combination with the emotions. Because of this, to manage these meltdowns I must focus on stress (and sensory) management. When I am under stress or feel tense, I have to closely monitor my responses and feelings to sense the impending meltdown. It is important to note that I do not believe it is healthy to prevent the meltdown, but rather I seek to place myself in a safe place where the meltdown does not harm others feelings or cause a social scene. The meltdowns are somewhat therapeutic to me and they allow me to be in touch with the emotional side of myself. When I am about to have a meltdown, I try to place myself in a good environment where I can safely be irrational without being judged or hurting others feelings; usually for me this is in my room with a loved one or by myself. Sometimes taking a walk while having a meltdown centers me. It is important to note however that being by myself during a meltdown is not always good. Sometimes I need the support of someone close and sometimes I do not. It is important to be open to both being with supportive friends and alone depending on the time.

Often I hear people say that an Aspie has an anger management problem after seeing or hearing about a meltdown. I disagree; I've had friends unsuccessfully focus on meltdowns using anger management. It is my experience that all Aspies that I have met have meltdowns but none that I know have classic anger management problems. I know that anger management techniques do nothing for me but make my frustration more acute; because I experience emotions so differently than the typical, the answers given by most anger management people make my meltdowns worse. For me, understanding the nature of these meltdowns as well as explaining them to others is key in avoiding the worst damage they can cause to others

For me, learning to be aware of emotion and practicing Buddhist style meditation, neuro-linguistic programming, and using my logical self to introspectively monitor my emotional self are essential. Learning to sense impending meltdowns and reduce their impact on others is important too.  Of course, my way of handling emotions is not all bad either; I often am able to think without factoring any emotion, allowing me to be super logical even in the face of profound stress. However, like any trait, the bad and good sides of the way I handle emotion are mirror images of each other. I am logical, but I have meltdowns and trouble communicating emotion.

One of the key challenges for me in communicating with non-aspies is how I communicate emotions; since I speak of my emotions in coldly logical ways, I often inadvertently hurt others. I frequently am unable to say "I feel x, y, z" so instead I say "logically because the theory of foo states bar, therefore x, y, z!!!" Apparently, the force of my comfortable way to communicate is hard for many NT's to take at times... they sometimes feel threatened I believe by the way I communicate. Unfortunately, learning other effective ways to communicate isn't easy for me or other Aspies I know. Obviously being aware of these tendencies allows me to make some adjustments for others, but I am frequently unconscious of these tendencies playing out until after the fact. Like everything about Aspie's, everyone trying to communicate and accommodate each other is important. I must make adjustments for NT's, and it is nice when they learn to be understanding of me. My unique way of experiencing emotion is key to my experience as an Aspie. For me, many of my strengths and challenges are tied to the way I experience emotions.


  1. " Once a psychologist told me that I live in my head and not in my heart" - That psychologist was an idiot. The center of thought and actions, of life, is in the head. I understand what they were trying to convey to you, they just used a terrible phrase to convey it.

  2. I would suggest looking among non-NT for advice on this. Sociopaths feel little to no emotion with most things but have learned to communicate the emotion seamlessly. You would be hard pressed to find one though, seeing as they are given a bad stereotype and they blend so well.