While typically developed people have a natural ability and an interest to share their feelings and emotions, individuals with Autism find it very challenging to do that in the expected manner. The tools that the majority of the population use without even thinking, are facial expressions and gestures, as well as complex adjectives describing emotions.
While you may not notice, you are probably getting red in your face when you are angry. You probably clench your fist, scrunch up your forehead into worry lines, or have ‘laughing eyes’ when you are twinklingly happy. You might also meet a friend and express how “festive the party was, everyone was glad to be there, and I felt so….”. Even for the purpose of an example, I can’t finish that sentence. No matter how hard I try, I don’t know how you feel, how you felt, and how you will feel.
But I know how I feel. And here’s I show it. I see as a visual, in my head. I see a little movie of the emotion. When I am proud of myself and am very delighted, I see glittering purple stars in a midnight black sky. When I’m working too hard at school on homework, I see myself lugging up two gigantic pails of water up a hill, and I’m sweating. What mental health professionals label as “racing thoughts”, I describe as a car that flipped upside down in a pothole, yet the wheels keep spinning.
There are times when extreme stress and sensory overload can make the autistic brain shut down completely. That means that the first thing that shuts down by me is the speech part of the brain. Nothing comes in, nothing goes out. When you talk to me, I cannot process what you are saying. I may give you the blank look. I will try to say something meaningful such as “what? I don’t understand” but even that won’t come out. During those awful moments, I am rendered non-verbal.
What does being non-verbal feel like? Imagine how all your thoughts and feelings are tumbling together in your stomach, and finally, when enough emotion makes it want to emerge, it travels upward. As it goes past your throat, it skips your tongue. It rushes up to your head and then lodges itself behind your eyes, and it makes your eyes bulge, like a person gasping for air, with a desperation that begs for the cognitive powers to be vested in you to formulate speech, to no avail. Try that for an hour, when you’re lost in a train station.
Here’s the good news though. In general, I love to talk. And I talk well, and my words are nice and colorful, and reflective of a vast intelligence on many subjects. Too bad I can’t tell you how I feel about that. And I also can’t stick a smiley face to that either, since faces mean nothing to me. Whether your smile is up or down, gives me no indication of what you are feeling. Charts for children with autism such as this one below are a waste of my time and effort to learn how to use.
In fact, I am not even looking for a way to learn how to tell you how I am feeling. My feelings and emotions are private. What does become public is when I am overwhelmed and I am shutting down. It can be downright dangerous if I am on the street in a public area, and unable to find my way home until I can process information around me and navigate the world. For those moments, I describe myself as a puddle of jelly in a bucket; essentially a useless heap of nothingness. Egging me on and prodding me will only make it worse. Back off, stay away. I have developed some coming skills. Give me some space, a quiet and dark space without humans if possible, and then my coping skills will kick in. Until then, I will probably start carrying this chart around with me. Does it mean anything to you?
Thank you for showing respect for the diverse communication styles in this world.
Written by: Henny S.