The Emotions of Autism

I was struck by a post I read over the weekend by Renee at About a Bugg discussing how her daughter was struggling to come to terms with the unexpected loss of her pet. Renee commented that it seemed that anger was an easier emotion for her daughter to deal with than sadness.

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I completely 100% believe this is true. Over the years I have witnessed Gilbert struggling again and again to deal with sadness and other complex emotions like shame and remorse. He seems to get frustrated with how these emotions make him feel and lashes out in anger as a result. Anger is like his default setting, in some ways.

And I can understand why.

When you think about it, anger is possibly the least complex emotion. It is easy to distinguish, particularly for those on the spectrum who can struggle to understand and cope with their feelings. It usually has an identifiable cause, therefore it’s easy to point the blame somewhere. And it can be over very quickly, especially once the point of blame is identified and targeted.

Sadness on the other hand is far more complex. It can sometimes be hard to define, especially if there is no clear reason for feeling down. It can linger on and sometimes there is no way to escape the sheer weight of it. It can feel suffocating and inescapable and endless – that’s how it feels to me anyway. I can only imagine how overwheming those feelings would be for my son.

I have noticed that when faced with other emotions, Gilbert expresses himself in anger. For instance, he has a high pain threshold so on those rare occasions he feels real pain, he can’t cope. He explodes in anger and rants on and on about the person or the object that hurt him until the pain subsides. When he is sad he is irritable and grumpy and on edge – anything and everything sets him off.

Not that long ago, Gilbert had trouble sleeping one night. He was very restless and told me he felt “hot and angry”. I asked him why and he told me he couldn’t stop thinking about the way he had treated me earlier in the day. He was sorry and wanted reassurance that I still loved him. Trying to deal with shame and remorse had brought him to tears and to the brink of another meltdown just because he couldn’t properly deal with those emotions.

I was proud of him for trying to tell me how he felt – he has come so far to be in a position to even do that. But while I was happy to see his progress I also felt an overwhelming despair for him. How will he be able to cope with all those inexplicable emotions yet to come in lfe? How will he cope with the burgeoning hormones of adolescence and all that will follow?

I suppose all I can do is to continue to support him and understand him and love him. To continue to be his interpreter in life and attempt to demystify as much as I can for him. To continue to “normalise” emotions for him and explain that what he feels is natural.

And hope that in this way we can eventually re-wire his anger default setting and better understand the emotions of autism.

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21 Responses

  1. Great post. I think it’s great that he tried to express his emotions to you. Rachel x
    Rachel from Redcliffestyle recently posted..Seven things your shoes say about you

    • Kirsty says:

      I was so proud of him that night Rachel – it shows just how much progress he has made. Let’s hope we can help him further along the way.

  2. Lyndal says:

    this is an excellent post – and i really would agree, its so much easier to be angry, and express that than other emotions. Im so glad that G is learning to express his emotions in other ways than anger, and that you give him all the love and support and security for him to do that xx

    Lyndal recently posted..waiting, waiting on the world to change

    • Kirsty says:

      Thanks so much Lyndal. It is awesome to see his progress, a year or so ago he would not have been able to express his emotions in this way at all. I just hope we can help him make further progress – we’ll certainly try to do our best to help him do so.

  3. Penny says:

    Miss Possum is very emotional too. She had a really bad day yesterday and it was hard to handle. I tried to get her to talk to me but she wouldn’t. I let her be and then later (when the crankness was starting to drive me insane) I said ‘We all have sad or bad days. It’s okay to feel sad but sometimes you can do things to make yourself feel a little bit better. I put some music on or read a book. What would you do?’ That really helped her.
    Penny recently posted..Children’s and Young Adult Writers and Illustrators Conference 2012

    • Kirsty says:

      My Matilda is the same. She has days where she is a complete grumble-bum but can’t tell me why. There are other times that she tells me she feels angry and wants to kick someting but again cannot tell me why. Definitely redirection and some quiet time seems to help her out. But I must admit I also have days like that myself!

  4. Penny says:

    I’m sorry I didn’t read the title. I didn’t realise it was in relation to Autism. My little girl doesn’t have autism.
    Penny recently posted..Children’s and Young Adult Writers and Illustrators Conference 2012

    • Kirsty says:

      Penny, I think all children have a hard time coping with their emotions, whether they have autism or not. I just used my son as an example as he has a particularly hard time dealing with those more complex emotions. I really appreciate your comment – thank you!

  5. 🙁 anger is definitely easier to handle thats for sure! Whether they have autism or not.
    Yvette @ DTlilsquirts recently posted..DTLS turns one {Blogoversary Giveaway}

    • Kirsty says:

      Yvette, you are so right. For any child, dealing with grief and sadness is hard – heck, it’s hard for me too. I’d rather the quick release of anger any day than having to dwell on the pain of loss so I can completely understand my son’s angry response to pain and sadness. Thanks for commenting and understanding!

  6. kelli says:

    I found with Beren that he expresses grief/anger/frustration etc in much the same way and eventually after much stamping of feet, yelling and throwing the ‘real’ reason will come out adn then I can try and explain “oh you feel SAD” and then explain all the things connected with sad. I don’t think i am making much sense but hard to put on paper in a few words. Needless to say, I understand what you are saying.
    kelli recently posted..I am feeling quite normal

    • Kirsty says:

      I completely understand you Kelli. It is exactly what happens with Gilbert – you have to get past the initial rage to discover the real cause of his pain. I’m relieved to know that I’m not the only one who has to do this – thanks so much for understanding!

  7. Anger is a really basic human emotion, one of the ‘oldest’.. its a healthy emotion too – pent up anger can do lots of damage. As you say, with your love and encouragement he will start to understand and express other emotions too.
    Catherine Rodie Blagg (Cup of Tea and a Blog) recently posted..The "C" word

    • Kirsty says:

      Catherine, you are right, anger is a base emotion and it’s not healthy to hold onto it. In time I hope my son will be able to express other emotions too and not feel frustrated or angry because he can’t. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  8. Misha says:

    Anger is so closely linked to frustration… and to try and make sense of the world when your ability to read faces and interpret emotions is impaired… well that must be very frustrating indeed. Your support, unconditional love and understanding is teaching him exactly what he needs to know. What a lucky boy he is.
    Misha recently posted..Average

    • Kirsty says:

      Thanks Misha. I can’t even come close to understanding what it must be like for him day in day out. To not be able to make total sense of everything or anyone around him. The fact that he functions as well as he does and can verbalise some of what he feels amazes me everyday. I am one very proud mum.

  9. BossyMummy says:

    This is so true. Anger is a primal response, but the emotion of sadness is more complex for us to get our head round. He is very lucky to have you to help him navigate and express his feelings x

    • Kirsty says:

      Thanks so much for your lovely comment. I’m trying my best to help him but it’s not always easy – I just hope one day he can cope better with these emotions.

  10. Thanks for this post… it’s funny but it’s like we had anger and then we moved straight to acceptance. Not sure why, but like she skipped straight past sadness. I think you are spot on, it’s too hard to articulate sadness…

    Lots of cuddles and letting them know it’s ok to be sad – I am not sure what we can do beyond that…
    Renee | About a Bugg recently posted..Update: Operation Playdate

    • Kirsty says:

      Thanks for inspriring it Renee. I’m glad your daughter didn’t have to suffer through sadness as well in order to reach acceptance. I just hope you have now recovered from the shock too, I know it was hard on you as well.

  1. January 3, 2013

    […] While I’m away I’ll be re-posting some of my favourites for you to enjoy all over again. Today’s post was originally published here. […]

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