Autism and the Build-Up of Emotions

It is often said that autistic people don’t show emotions.  For some this may be true, but the emotions are still there, just as strong and potent on the inside as they are with anybody else.  Just because the person themselves can’t recognise the emotions, doesn’t mean that they don’t take just as much of a toll on them as they would if they were aware.  Strong emotions can leave people feeling physically worn out or ill.  Even the smaller, day to day emotions can have an effect on people’s physical and mental well-being.  Displaying these emotions outwardly is obviously first and foremost a way of communicating with our fellow human beings, but it is also a way of relieving some of the pressure from the build-up of emotion we all have inside.  Even if an emotion is positive it is still not always healthy to keep it bottled- up inside, and if the emotions are negative then this can actually be extremely unhealthy.  Autistic people though often don’t have a choice; their emotions are often forcibly kept inside and internalised because they are unable to fully understand, and express them.  Perhaps a good way of showing how this might work is to imagine pumping up a balloon.  It can fill with so much air, and if you keep releasing the air, and then putting more in it will constantly be at various stages of inflation.  But if you keep adding more and more air without allowing any to escape to the outside, then even the faintest puff of breath can cause the balloon to burst.  A lot of the time autistic people will go in to meltdown: scream, cry, fight, or bang their heads against walls, over something that to all intents and purposes is minor.  But just like the balloon, they have filled to bursting point only this time it is with unexpressed emotions.  These emotions could even be weeks or months old: anger, frustrations, stress, even happiness, all flitting around the brain tripping over each other, and unable to emerge in to the outside world in any coherent way, and so even one minor thing can trigger them all to explode outwards, resulting in an outburst.  This is why the term `outburst` is so fitting; it is as if all that pent up emotion simply bursts out.  It is too much for anybody to control let alone someone who doesn’t have a full grasp and understanding of their emotions.  The autistic person can try to reign it in, but ultimately they don’t have any particular control over where it goes or over how it expresses itself.  I don’t particularly know the secret to not carrying round pent-up emotions. I suppose the key is in trying to understand what each emotion is, and to learn to recognise when you are feeling it.  This might sound very simple to someone who is neuro-typical, but I will take you back to an analogy I have used in the past.  Imagine waking up with amnesia and forgetting everything you`ve ever known – every word and what it means.  Eventually, as part of your recovery you are shown a square of colour with three words written next to it.  The words are orange, white and blue.  You are asked to point to which one you think the colour is, but obviously you don`t know.  You do know that to everybody else around you it’s not even something they have to think about – they just see the colour and know what it is.  But for you, you could sit there all day and try to puzzle it out, but in the end you are just going to have to take a wild guess, and hope you are right.  Now I admit that this analogy isn’t perfect because somebody could simply tell you the colour, and then you`d know.  But if you can imagine the confusion and sense of not knowing in that moment it might help you to try to understand how difficult recognising emotions can be for somebody with autism.  If you don’t recognise it, how can you know how, and when to express it?  And in the end it will simply emerge with the rest of the built-up emotions in the form of an outburst.

I don’t wish what I have written here to be too negative; it might sound as if I am trying to say that autistic people can never show any emotion, which would be nonsense.  But I am sure if you are reading this you know enough about autism to understand what I am getting at.  I think that this is a problem faced by a lot of people with autism to varying degrees; sometimes it might not even feel as if it is a problem, until you step back and look at what tends to happen in the days, and weeks preceding a major meltdown, and realise that the build-up of unexpressed emotions could have been the cause.

Hopefully this blog on the build-up of emotions will have been of help to some of you.  If you know and recognise what I am talking about then please comment below, and let me know what your experiences and thoughts on the subject are J

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