Empathy, emotional intelligence, compassion. Many would say that these are somehow “lacking” in autistic people. Yet, the autistic people that “don’t feel” are also the same ones that meltdown, shutdown, and have severe social anxiety.
Maybe autistic people empathize just as much or more intensely than neurotypical people. Perhaps our emotions look and feel different. What if autistic people have been taught an allistic model for identifying emotions that doesn’t align to neurodiverse emotional responses and expressions.
We teach young children that smiles mean happy, tears mean sad, frowns mean angry. There could be subtle emotional responses that autistic people use more universally that differ from allistics. In other words, we feel emotions like excitement, but we struggle to identify our emotions (alexithymia) because early childhood teachings stick to an NT social-emotional framework.
Autistic people can’t be turned into allistics. When we try to (or are forced to) behave like a neurotypical, we often become confused about whom we really are. When we try to identify our emotions and respond in an NT fashion, we may lose our grip on who we are and what we really feel. Instead, we can grow our own autistic emotional intelligence:
• We can try matching our stims to emotions. Do we stim a certain way when we’re bored, sad, mad, or happy? By writing down our feelings when we stim, we can get a better idea of our personal emotional cues.
• Do we have key phrases that we repeat when we are feeling a certain emotion? For example, when I’m scared, I say, “I want to go home,” even if I’m already home!
• Once we have a clearer picture of how we personally emote, we can draw comparisons to neurotypical expressions. For me, sadness makes me gasp, but for NTs they often sob or tilt their eyebrows upward. But the sadness is still the same.
Ideally, allistics will someday learn and internalize autistic forms of emotional expression, too. We can’t have true inclusion till we meet in the middle.