Difficulty Expressing Emotions Doesn’t Mean We Don’t Feel

© A.J. Mahari, 2005

Difficulty expressing emotions doesn’t mean we don’t feel, and in fact, what is labeled as a difficulty expressing emotions is, in and of itself, a discriminatory stereotypical predilection that creates barriers to understanding between those with Asperger’s Disorder (AS) and those who are Neurotypical (NT).

The conclusion that an inherent difference within AS style of communication and expression is a difficulty assumes that we should all be the same. People with AS do not desire to be the same believe it or not. The healthy thing for each adult with AS to realize is their own potential to lead a productive, purposeful, and meaningful life that is satisfying to him or her within what individual normal is defined as being.

From the DSM-IV: 299.80 Asperger's Disorder

"Qualitative impairment in social interaction, as manifested by at least two of the following:

  • 1. marked impairment in the use of multiple nonverbal behaviors such as eye-to-eye gaze, facial expression, body postures, and gestures to regulate social interaction
  • 2. failure to develop peer relationships appropriate to developmental level
  • 3. a lack of spontaneous seeking to share enjoyment, interests, or achievements with other people(e.g., by a lack of showing, bringing, or pointing out objects of interest to other people)
  • 4. lack of social or emotional reciprocity.”

What is described as a “lack of social or emotional reciprocity” from the DSM-IV and “problems expressing empathy or comfort to/with others: sadness, condolence, congratulations, etc… and often perceived as ”being in their own world” (social characteristics) along with a cognitive characteristic of “Difficulty in expressing emotions” by Roger Meyer in his article, "Asperger Syndrome Characteristics” illustrate what are often over-generalized pejorative stereotypes that can serve to complicate understanding about individual adults with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS).

If you just take these descriptive traits literally, generally, at face value, and do not allow for individuality within them and give effort to understanding beyond mere description you may unfairly categorize someone as “disabled” when they are actually just differently abled.

If you are an adult with AS it is important that you not just believe that you cannot learn to compensate in the expression of your emotions, in your own way. I think that the way these traits are listed and described and taken literally, then applied to everyone, can leave many with AS feeling hopeless or allowing themselves to be defined by the difficulty that they have expressing emotion and forming friendships or relationships and working to reciprocate emotionally and socially.

There is often quite a stark difference in the styles used to express and communicate emotions between those with AS and neurotypicals (NT’s) which is not cause to assume that aspies don’t feel empathy, sadness, compassion, happy for others and so forth. Speaking for myself, from my own experience, I often feel way too much though this is usually not very evident a lot of the time. Granted also that a lot of the way too much that I do feel is usually kept as being a part of my own world inner-experience and is not often shared with others. I do need to be asked often. I rarely just seek to share outwardly. People that get to know me come to understand this is not something that need be taken personally and that all they have to do is ask and I will answer.

Being differently abled in this aspect of expression is often an implied negation of aspie ability to feel. More aspies than not feel a tremendous amount of empathy, compassion, sadness, happiness, and so forth. What is at issue is their reticent expression. It is not natural for us to communicate and to express our emotions in a social/relational context the way that it is second nature to NT’s. It feels foreign. It is work and requires effort and energy.

In my own experience, it has required a lot of mapping and practice and takes conscious intellectual cues on my part, inside, and even then with all this extra work I put forth I have no guarantee that I will get the timing to be NT-appropriate.

I am still often misunderstood and then both myself and whomever I’m relating to have to slow down, or stop, start over, re-clarify and so forth until there is agreed upon understanding of what I am feeling and trying to express. I don’t mind doing this when I am met with patience and not intolerance.

As I’ve experienced this “lack of social or emotional reciprocity”, “empathy”, “being in their own world” it isn’t about lacking or about being (always or totally) in my own world, it too is about reticent expression. When it comes to the expression of my emotions in social interpersonal relating ways I often do feel like a deer caught in the headlights and not overly certain what I’m supposed to do. (according to what NT’s consider normal) I really no more know what NT normal is than your average NT can imagine what it is like to experience aspie-normal.

This however, does not at all mean that I don’t have many of the same emotions that an NT may have in the same situation or interaction.

What can be seen as a “lack” of reciprocity socially or emotionally is often a facet of the different ways that those with AS communicate.

When we are expected to extend ourselves all the way to NT-normal there can be a lot of stress – this is certainly more often than not in my life. What would be awesome would be more NT’s taking the time to really understand more about what it is like for those of with AS inside and how our exterior and/or our actions rarely match our inner worlds of experience and feeling and then for them to take the time to reach in a little our way. For example, this could be done by asking one question, waiting for a response, then asking another and so forth. This is preferable and will facilitate far more emotional expression than asking three or four questions in rapid drill fire and expecting exorbitant emoting.

The reality that most of us with AS have to work with Herculean effort to give more emotional expression to what we feel and experience (in order to be understood by those who are NT) does tend to temper an already impaired ability (or, at times desire or want) to do so. I have a natural reluctance to share with others and knowing all the places I might stumble and end up being misunderstood compounds my anxiety in this area – socially and relationally.

How I come across or appear to others on the outside most often is rarely an accurate indicator of what I am thinking about or how I am feeling. I am not very expressive with facial expression or hand gestures and things of that nature. Sometimes I may even be fairly monotone in my delivery (I’ve been told tons). I understand that this leaves those who are NT wondering what I’m thinking and feeling and in some cases if I’m “in there”, as I have heard it put.

It is really important that all of us, NT’s and adults with Asperger’s learn to be patient with each other, kind to each other, and to facilitate the kind of communication and emotional expression that will build connections back and forth between us.

Any difficulty expressing emotions that those of with Asperger’s Syndrome have (to varying degrees) does not mean that we don’t feel or care. Social and emotional reciprocity is a challenge at best but many of us can meet you in the middle when you extend patience and effort our way.

The differences that exist between how NT’s and those of us with AS express ourselves, emotionally, socially, and relationally, are just that, differences. The notion that one way or the other is the right way needs to be rigorously repudiated.

© Ms. A.J. Mahari March 1, 2005

Next Article: Do Aspies really feel love for others?

as of April 13, 2005