Autistic people process and experience emotions differently from allistic people. Every autistic is different, but for me, what that often looks like is that I feel everything very strongly. Negative, or positive, anything I feel is intense.
When I was younger, this was a point of immense despair. I was constantly suffering; every negative feeling took me over and felt world-ending. Even minor inconveniences became huge existential crises and meltdowns. If I could have “cured” my autism with the push of a magic button, I would have. It made me feel like a fraud, traveling around doing speaking gigs, spouting off inspirational advice to autistic people and their loved ones, while I hated myself and would have gladly, desperately, traded my existence for a neurotypical one with less suffering.
I knew—and said over and over again in my talks—that there is no “cure” for autism because autism affects every aspect of a person. Curing my autism would mean dying and being reborn as a completely different person. But back then, that was a price I would have paid. I felt trapped, and a deathcure felt better than a life of constant turmoil. And of course I felt despair about my despair: how could I be giving out this advice when I couldn’t internalize it myself?
Now that I’m older, my perspective has completely shifted.
I’m not sure what finally clicked. I read so many different self-help books, so many spiritual books about meditation and shamanism and funky new age whatever, did so much therapy with so many counselors, so much journaling. I can’t point to any one method I used to change my mindset, to cure my self-hated and desire to “cure” myself. Perhaps this is another example of what Temple Grandin talks about: weak central coherence in practice means that autistic people take in the world as tiny discrete pieces of information. We don’t ever “get the gist” of anything; to learn something, an autistic person collects hundreds, thousands, millions of little bits until we reach a magical critical threshold. Suddenly, we have all the pieces, and they form a picture. If a neurotypical person learning looks like a fuzzy picture slowly coming into focus—maybe they can guess at the shape early, before the details are defined—then an autistic person learning would look like a puzzle with ten thousand pieces coming together one by one. A puzzle is still a poor metaphor. You know how there are newfangled phones with foldable screens? Imagine a puzzle that’s actually a screen. We accumulate these ten thousand pieces, and then finally when the whole puzzle is assembled, the screen turns on and we can see the big picture.
Now that I’m older, I’ve realized that feeling strongly isn’t a bad thing. Yes, when I feel badly, that feeling is powerful. But nothing is permanent, even the bad things. I won’t feel that way forever. And when I feel good, that feeling is just as powerful.
I’m an anxious wreck a lot of the time, but I laugh easily, loudly, and often. I’m capable of feeling a degree of joy that is beyond most people. Simple pleasures in life—seeing a new piece of graffiti on the bridge I walk, sticking my hands deep into warm sand on a beach, cracking the ice forming over a frozen puddle, a hug from someone I love—take over my body and feel overwhelmingly wonderful. The mindful, present, almost meditative pleasure children find in the world is something that I’ve never lost. One of the many self-help books I read was Flow by Mihaly Csinkzcentmihalyi, and my experience of the book was simply surprise in realizing that most people work hard to experience this feeling. “Flow” is just a normal part of daily life as an autistic person. (For more about this, check out The Obsessive Joy of Autism by Julia Bascom, another autistic blogger.)
I believe that the more I work to shed the anxiety and identity issues a lifetime of being autistic in a neurotypical world has given me, the better my life will be. My emotions still control me sometimes, but not in the same ways, and I feel a growing sense of harmony with myself. To not only be able to tolerate my flavor of emotional processing, but to wield it, would be a true superpower.
Almost everyone believes they feel things “strongly,” of course. Because one’s own experience of the world is one’s only experience. And of course happiness is great, and pain hurts. But that’s not what I’m talking about. After so many years of observation, and probing people to describe their experiences and comparing together, I know undeniably that all my feelings are much stronger than normal.
I’ve met a few allistic people who experience things more strongly than normal as well. But I still notice that I’ll often have different feelings than them. The core degree of intensity can be the same, but the things we react to will often be fascinatingly different.
This is something I’ve been thinking about frequently as the days and weeks of the COVID-19/SARS-CoV-2 pandemic stretch on, and words like “quarantine,” “social distancing,” and “shelter-in-place” are used to describe our shared daily experience.
I find myself feeling very differently about everything than many people around me. While anything I feel, I feel strongly, I sometimes—for lack of a better term—feel nothing in contexts where others feel strongly. It’s not as though my feelings are sometimes muted, it’s just that the things that trigger emotion in me are different.
This can be a tremendous strength. I remember many years ago hearing John Elder Robison talk about how autistic people not reacting to the same things as neurotypical people can be a powerful tool. How he knew autistic people who did well in emergency response fields, for example, because we are often eerily good at staying calm when other people are melting down. The things that make me meltdown aren’t usually the same things that set off most people. I’m great in a true crisis because of this.
When I worked with autistic children, I stayed calm, engaged, and comforting when a screaming child was biting me all over my body hard enough to leave deep purple welts up and down my arms and legs that lasted weeks. And yet when I was once trying to take a shower after a long plane flight and the taps were broken, so I need to take a bath instead, I broke down and cried all night.
An ex once told me I’m like a “toddler Buddha.”
We’re all experiencing a low-grade apocalypse right now, with people locked indoors at best, and dying in overcrowded hospitals at worst. I won’t get into all the short and long term certain to-potential ramifications of the pandemic and the shutdowns, because you already know, or could read about that elsewhere if you wanted to.
I just want to say that this is one of those times where it can help to be a toddler Buddha.
Turn on the shower, sit down, and just feel the warm water hitting your scalp. Try to follow the path of the water with your mind’s eye; is that one bit flowing down your shoulder and back, or did it divert to your collar bone and slip down your belly? Splash in the water a little, draw hearts on the fogged up mirror afterwards. Does it feel fun? Comforting?
On a “social distancing” walk through an empty street, look at all the trees. Are they all the same species, or are they different? Pick a tree and look at it. Could you remember what it looks like, and identify it again tomorrow, from amongst all other the trees on your street? I bet all the trees in your neighborhood look very different from each other! Does that make you feel happy? Curious?
If you’re looking for happy in the midst of all the sad right now, try to see the world the way a toddler Buddha would.
And if you’re feeling overwhelmed by everything—the fear, the stress, the uncertainty—let yourself feel that. Emotions are like the weather. They’re real, they can be useful, and even when they’re not, you can’t control them. Weather the storm, and remember the bad stuff always passes. And the good stuff is always there too, even if it’s just in the little things.