Written by Loren Snow

From being called “oversensitive” to “unempathic”, it’s not unusual for Autistic individuals to be told that, whatever they’re feeling, it is the wrong emotion.

This is simply because we process and express emotions differently and many of our intrinsic Autistic traits come into play to affect these differences.

Firstly, as Autistic individuals, we sense the world differently.

Emotional processing time often takes longer in Autistic people as there can be more sensory information to process. The Autistic brain isnt always able to filter out as much unnecessary sensory input as non-autistic brains can. This can make emotional responses seem delayed. If you are non-autistic, try to imagine what it would be like if you couldnt make the sensory processing you take for granted an automatic process. Think about what it would be like to constantly be aware of your clothes touching your body, or when talking to a friend in a busy café, you cant just focus in on your friend, but you can hear all the noises of the coffee shop, all the other people talking, the whir of the coffee machines … sounds a bit more overwhelming than usual, right?

Sensory processing is how our brains interpret the information from our environment to help us understand whats going on within us and in the world around us. When our brains get new sensory information we have to process this to know how to respond to the sensory input we are experiencing. Sensory processing differences can mean that someone is undersensitive to sensory input and has difficulty recognising what is causing a sensation and responding to it. It could also mean that someone is over-sensitive to sensory input, and this can be overwhelming and distressing and cause sensory anxiety.

Let’s talk about some examples of emotional responses if sensory processing is over- or under-sensitive: Interoception is our sense of our internal world, such as feeling food digesting, or being aware of our heartbeat. If you are oversensitive to these sensations it can sometimes be distressing. If youre very aware of your heart beating you may experience that as fear or anxiety, but not understand why youre feeling that way, or you may find the feeling of digesting food intolerable, and this can cause negative emotions.

Nociception is our sense of pain, if you are under-sensitive to pain you may be feeling pain, but not notice that youre feeling pain, and so you may be more irritable than usual, but be unable to figure out why youre feeling that way. Alternatively, if youre very sensitive to pain, you may be acutely aware of even a small injury and this may make you feel very uncomfortable. Proprioception is our sense of body awareness, it allows us to sense ourselves in the space that we are in. If youre having proprioceptive issues, you might feel disconnected from your body and perceive this as anxiety.

Some Autistic people are alexithymic.

Alexithymia is a condition where individuals have difficulties finding words to describe how they are feeling, have difficulty registering the emotion itself or have both expressive and affective challenges. Research shows it is more prevalent in Autistic individuals (49.93%) than non-autistic individuals (4.89%). (Kinnaird et. al, 2019). This can be difficult as without knowing what emotion you are experiencing, how can you regulate emotional responses?

One of the reasons us Autistic folk might have difficulty finding the words for emotions is because emotions are complex: when we initially think of emotions, we tend to think of primary emotions like happy, sad, fearful, and angry. It is only when we think more about these emotions that we realise there are often far more descriptive words we could use to talk about what were feeling, so if were happy, we could be feeling accepted and peaceful, or if we are angry we could be feeling aggressive or bitter. Sometimes it can be really hard to find the right words to really describe what is going on within us.

Autistic individuals process at different speeds.

Autistic people can often have emotional processing delays meaning we dont know how were feeling straight away. Some of us can take hours or even days to figure out what is causing an emotion. Or it can mean small things cause big emotions because something bigger is still being processed.

Many of us get social and sensory burnout/hangovers. We can be similarly overloaded by our emotions. Even positive emotions can be big and overwhelming and mean we need time to process. Think of how excitement can cause us to jump up and down: it’s a positive emotion but definitely big and potentially overwhelming if there are a lot of other things were still processing.

Autistic differences lead to different life experiences, which creates an empathy divide.

Because we communicate, experience emotions, interact with others and sense the world around us differently to non-autistics, it can be difficult for them to understand and empathise with us, and us with them. Autistic academic, Damian Milton, calls this ‘The Double Empathy Problem’.

What can you do to help bridge the divide?

  • Be understanding of and validate what the Autistic individual is experiencing, even if you can’t empathise with what they’re going through.
  • Give the person time to process how they are feeling. Don’t expect them to know straight away how they’re feeling.
  • If someone seems overwhelmed, help them by reducing their sensory input.
  • Ask the person if theyd like to talk to you about how they feel or invite them to express their emotion in a way that makes sense to them. Some find techniques such as playing music or, literally, drawing out their emotion is helpful.
  • Be aware that Autistic people do not develop the same way or meet the same age milestones as non-autistics, so emotional understanding may take longer.
  • Some find emotion games/cards/that teach the differences between emotions or encourage emotional exploration helpful. These often have analytical approaches such as asking questions about where an emotion is being felt and what it makes you want to do.

Kinnaird, E., Stewart, C. Tchanturia, K., 2019, Investigating alexithymia in autism: A systematic review and meta-analysis. EUR Psychiatry.

Further reading

Loren Snow: What is Alexithymia? – https://www.lorensnow.com/alexithymia

National Autistic Society: Anxiety – https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/topics/mental-health/anxiety

Scientific American/Spectrum: People with Autism Can Read Emotions, Feel Empathy – https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/people-with-autism-can-read-emotions-feel-empathy1/

Scientific American: – The Emotional Blindness of Alexithymia – https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/ mind-guest-blog/the-emotional-blindness-of-alexithymia/

ScienceDirect: Alexithymia – https://sensoryprocessinghub.humber.nhs.uk/what-is-sensory-processing/

About the Author

Loren Snow is an actually Autistic neurodiversity consultant and trainer based in the South West of England. They’ve taught tens of thousands of parents of Autistic children and have worked with many organisations from schools to The National Autistic Society and NHS England. Follow their YouTube channel here.


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