Monday, April 11, 2016

Emotions and Autism

The public understanding of the way autistic people experience emotions is inaccurate, to say the least. The worst form of it is the belief that autistic people have no empathy at all for other people's emotions. The reality is that we feel too much, and this can lead to maladaptive coping mechanisms.

This starts with a lack of knowledge about what kinds of things will provoke emotional reactions in other people, and why. What makes us angry, sad, or loved is different from what makes this happen for other people. When growing up, though, the other people in our lives often expect us to know what makes them angry, etc., without telling us explicitly. It doesn't make sense to them why they would have to explain it–we should just know. At the same time, our own emotions do not get taken seriously, because other people do not understand why we are having those emotions. They think they can just talk us out of it, and tell us that we just shouldn't feel that way. Even when we're feeling happy, it can lead to being ridiculed by people who don't understand why we're happy.

So what we have is a world where other people want us to be sensitive to their emotions, while completely disregarding our own. It should come as no surprise that a person raised in this environment would go on to have trouble dealing with other people's emotions.

Dealing with other people's anger is one of the most difficult ones, because the raised voices and energetic body language create a sensory overload. To this day, I get anxious about saying or doing anything that could upset someone, because I do not have confidence in myself to handle the situation. I know they're upset, but I don't understand why, and the sensory overload makes it difficult to think of what to say to improve the situation. Being clueless about this can make people even angrier.

One of the coping skills I developed was to make myself insensitive to other people's feelings as well as my own. Note: autism did not make me insensitive. Becoming insensitive was a coping skill. It would prove to be about as bad an idea as it sounds, but it was what I had to do to get by. There is no way to tell how old I was when this happened. I only know that it happened during the course of growing up, so, you know, there isn't any noticeable "before" and "after," just memories of unpleasant experiences of one variety or another.

Further complicating this was my father, who generally talks about feelings as if they are things to be overcome through logic. He appears to think that his emotional insensitivity makes him better than other people. (In practice, the situation is more like that he comes up with logical explanations for his own emotions, and then they become more important than other emotions, because they are logical.) Movies and television can be a valuable way to learn about human emotions, but because of my dad's dismissive remarks about them, I grew up overly skeptical of drama. "People aren't really like that," I said to myself. Compounding the problem was that I did not experience romantic attraction, making people's romantic behavior look even stupider to me.

Getting back to the point: when I was 28, I was diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum. This was my first mental health diagnosis on my life. One of the first things I did was to learn more about people's emotions, and give more thought to the emotional world that was inside each person around me. This started a slow unraveling of my emotional walls and defenses, as I became accepting instead of dismissive of everyone's emotions, including my own. I started to tear up more often when listening to music, or watching movies. Sometimes it was me choking up a bit, with some tears coming out of the corners of my eyes. Sometimes it was more like uncontrollable sobbing. It was a satisfying feeling, but it did not always happen at a good time. I once had to make myself stop listening to Florence + the Machine while I was grocery shopping, or I was going to have a sobbing fit right in the middle of the store.

The biggest challenge for me came in learning how to respond to other people's emotions. I can see that someone is sad, and because I know what it's like to be sad, I have some kind of an idea of what they're going through. What would be a useful thing to say to them, though? Or a useful thing to do for them? Sometimes, all it takes is telling them that you're there for them, and asking what you can do for them. 


This is all leading to an article I read in the New York Times: An Experimental Autism Treatment Cost Me My Marriage. The treatment in question was transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), and it led to the author being overwhelmed with emotional information. "Emotions came at me from all directions, so fast that I didn’t have a moment to process them... I had fantasized that the emotional cues I was missing in my autism would bring me closer to people... Seeing emotion didn’t make my life happy. It scared me, as the fear I felt in others took hold in me, too."

For me, learning about emotions was a slow, challenging process of integration and reflection. In Robison's case, though, they just turned on a "feels" switch in his head, and suddenly it was all there. He says that it took him five years to find "a new balance and stability." I don't have a way to compare this to myself, because I'm dealing with a lot of other issues at the same time, and it's only been a little over four years. I've had two relationships during that time, and with both of them, the end of it had something to do with developments in myself. (Long story for a different time, I suppose.) 

What I think we should take away from this is that any way that we treat an autistic person's issues is going to be inherently disruptive to their life. They are used to approaching the world in a certain way, and any kind of improvement means approaching the world differently. They love routine, after all, and it's a disruption to routine that can never be undone. Because of this, I think that we need to be cautious with how we approach  new treatments. There might be a way that we can use TMS to have a slower, more gradual shift, but this makes it seem like it would be unwise to use it for older adults.

Further, anyone trying to treat autism should be aware of the experiences people have recovering from other disabilities. Sometimes flipping a switch makes your whole world better. Sometimes it makes it overwhelming.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Feeling the Music

I've heard some people say that one of the things they enjoy about listening to sad music is knowing that someone else out there feels the way they do. That is never really a thought that crosses my mind--I was at least 29 when I realized that people are writing about their own feelings when they write music. I probably knew that somewhere inside me, I guess, but again, I hadn't given it much thought.

The reason I listen to that music is because I like having words for how I feel. It feels insufficient just to put a name to the emotion. It's not enough to say, "I feel sad," or even just, "I've been feeling sad a lot lately." But a lyric like this can feel so perfect:
It felt like a winter machine that you go through, and then
You catch your breath and winter starts again
And everyone else is spring-bound.
  - Dar Williams, "After All"
When an artist sings a song, they are usually bringing something to their performance that is meant to convey their emotional state.  The music, words, and performance are all conveying an emotional experience in a way that is meant to evoke that same emotional experience in the listener. This is one of the things that makes it difficult to cover other people's music: it is only going to work if you can match that emotional state in some way, but without sounding exactly like the original.

There is a video where some kids cover the Tool song "46 and 2." The kids playing the instruments totally nail it. The singer... well, she does the best job that you could expect from a singer that young. The issue is not just with what her voice is capable of doing. The song is about self-reflection, examining all the worst aspects of yourself, and coming to embrace those things. It is a point of view that first requires maturing enough to have a good conception of who you are, and then to be able to make some kind of comparison between the person you are and the person you wish you were. The girl in that video is between the ages of about 12 and 14. She is still discovering who she is. That isn't to say she doesn't have problems of her own--it is pretty much the worst time in a person's life--but those issues have a lot more to do with sorting out who you want to be from what the people around you want you to be, and what you perceive society wants you to be.

When I first looked at the lyrics to Tool's song "Pushit," I couldn't tell if it was about drugs or a relationship–all I knew was that it was about something that was really terrible for the singer. Then I was in a relationship with a girl I will call Stephanie. The relationship eventually started to feel like "Pushit," and it was then that I really started to feel like I understood the song. It spoke to me on a very deep and emotional level that went beyond the words in the song.

I was listening to a lot of Florence + the Machine at the time, and it was music that brought me peace and happiness. I wanted a relationship that felt like a Florence + the Machine song, but I now had to admit to myself that I was in a relationship that felt like a Tool song. That was something I never wanted to have happened in my life.

Once I got out of the relationship, I was able to see something else in the song: it comes from the kind of dark place where you have been in the darkness for so long that you've forgotten that there is anything outside of that darkness.

It was around this time that I started to have an emotional reaction to the Florence + the Machine song "Cosmic Love." I couldn't really tell what the song was about, but when I listened to it, something about it would make me tear up, and I couldn't understand why. This particular part always got to me:
And in the dark, I can hear your heartbeat
I tried to find the sound
But then it stopped, and I was in the darkness,
So darkness I became
I had definitely had emotional reactions to music before, but only when I felt like I really understood the lyrics. This song was going past the logical part of my brain, straight to my "feels." I had never experienced that before, and couldn't tell why it was happening.

I asked someone for her opinion on the song. I honestly can't remember what she said to me, but I was now able to make the connection that the song was like my relationship with Stephanie. It's kind of about being blinded by love, and drawn into the world of your partner, to the exclusion of the rest of your own world. Once you find yourself there, it's so hard to find your way out that it feels much easier to stay. Kind of like my relationship with Stephanie.