The way in which my Asperger’s probably affects me the most is through the way in which I experience emotions so intensely, and for longer periods than neurotypicals appear to. Ever since I was a child, I’ve often struggled to get out of a sad mood once something has upset me, and this has meant that often attempts to make me feel better quickly have not been effective. So I thought I’d give a bit of an explanation of this, and some advice for those who are looking for better ways to offer comfort and reassurance.
So, as I’ve already said, my moods are not fickle; while my interests can be intense but ultimately short-lived, my moods are much harder to shift. One bad moment will leave me feeling ‘fragile’ and on the verge of tears for several hours afterwards, which usually means I end up actually crying over something apparently much more insignificant later. Even after a good cry and/or chatting about it to a parent, it’s not easy to shake off the feeling, and usually the only way I get out of a sense of fragility is by sleeping it off —waking up in the morning functions like a reset— or by a long period of down-stimming (i.e. sitting quietly on my own with a calming activity). This may seem like something that’s not unique to those on the spectrum —after all, who hasn’t had the feeling that one bad moment has ruined their whole day?— but you’d be surprised how often my prolonged moods have become obstacles to me interacting with neurotypicals.
See, these prolonged moods mean that certain ‘cheering up’ tactics don’t work on me. Trying to make me stop being sad by making a joke or changing the subject will very rarely work. If anything, it’ll make things worse.
We had an incident recently, where I was a little agitated after a passionate debate, and my dad, in an attempt to divert my attention from the stressful topic, switched the tone of the conversation to playfully joking around. But the sudden change backfired, because essentially it fried my brain. Now I don’t just mean that my brain got stuck somewhere from happiness and sadness, I mean it short-circuited, and this meant that I had the sensation as if my brain was firing every emotion at once. It’s difficult to describe what it felt like, but it was as though my brain was desperately scrolling through every option it could possibly trigger in order to try and land on the appropriate response. I went from tears of frustration, just about getting a hold of myself, to uncontrollable giggling from giddy jolts of euphoria, to actual sobbing from this genuine deep but entirely unplaceable sadness, to feeling intensely guilty for no reason, and finally to heart-pounding anxiety that I then had to breathe through while sitting down because I got dizzy and felt myself on the verge of hyperventilating —all of this in the span of about a minute. It was entirely uncontrollable, and extremely distressing (not just the negative emotions — the giggling, because it felt compulsive, wasn’t a nice feeling either). All because I had gotten overwhelmed because the mood of the conversation had switched gears and I hadn’t been prepared for it. While everyone else could simply drop the serious subject and start laughing, I was still in the midst of very intense emotions, and I couldn’t keep up with the change.
The difficulty was that I couldn’t explain it to my family as it happened, and so my dad kept trying to make me laugh, which regrettably only made it worse as it prolonged my reaction, and then my mum was concerned when I grabbed the back of a chair to stop myself falling over and I was unable to tell her that no, she didn’t need to worry, I was okay, I just needed them both to stop talking for a minute so I could reboot and return to an emotional baseline. That’s how it felt —like I’d lost all sense of a baseline emotional neutrality; I was stuck on a chaotic rollercoaster trying to keep myself from falling off completely.
Now, I’m not saying that you should never try to make a joke with your aspie friend to try to cheer them up —my experience definitely isn’t universal— just that it pays to be aware of how autistic individuals express our moods, and understand that when we react to something, it may not be just that one thing we are reacting to; in fact, it’s more likely to be the four or five things prior to that one thing which have led to a build up in emotion. We experience the world differently and subsequently our emotions can be more intense, and it’s important that aspies are given the space we need to adequately feel and express these emotions.
Another element of having intense emotions is that negative emotions often make it difficult for me to communicate — I go non-verbal in times of distress. The thing to take from this is that often I get neurotypicals asking me ‘Why are you crying? Are you alright?’ — good-intentioned people doing the natural thing trying to help me calm down and solve the problem as quickly as possible. But this approach often just puts pressure on me to try to speak when I feel physically unable to. So if an aspie you know is upset, please be patient, and give them space to compose themselves, even if this takes longer than usual. The best strategy that my parents and I have come up with, which I used often in primary school, was to make a little hand symbol, which I could show to my teachers or my parents, which was shorthand for: ‘I can’t speak, but I need to be left alone / leave the room for a few minutes.’ Once I went to secondary school, I was given a red card which I could show teachers in order to leave the lesson, and my SEN profile informed teachers that I may not be able to speak when distressed. It was important that my teachers were briefed on this, because it’s human inclination to want to offer help, but in some cases the ‘help’ offered was the opposite of what I needed. I know that some autistics are made uncomfortable by physical contact, and I myself have experienced the sensory overload that being upset can trigger — sometimes a reassuring hug is not always best — and having that card took the pressure off me to have to try to explain it.
So, this has been a little bit about how my Asperger’s relates to my moods, and I hope it might help you understand a little bit more about how you might comfort an aspie. A lot of this applies to general life too — not just those with ASD. Everyone experiences their emotions differently, and we should all be sensitive that not everybody responds well to the things that comfort us — and we shouldn’t be offended or feel bad if our tactics in cheering somebody up are unsuccessful.
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