If you’re autistic, you’ve likely had multiple conversations with neurotypicals during which they say you look upset and ask you what’s wrong and how you’re feeling, only for you to respond that you don’t know how you’re feeling. Often, the other person then continues to ask you how you feel and when you still can’t give them an answer, they might get upset or act as though you’re hiding something.
Generally, when an autistic person says they don’t know how they’re feeling, they’re being honest. It’s quite common for us to genuinely not know how we’re feeling, so when we say we don’t know, it’s probably because we don’t. We aren’t being distant, rude, withholding, manipulative, or vindictive. It can be difficult, and sometimes nearly impossible, for us to identify our emotions, and even more difficult to relay how we’re feeling to others.
Many autistic people, myself included, have trouble identifying and processing our emotions. It’s important to note, we aren’t emotionless, as people sometimes believe. In fact, the opposite is often true. We tend to feel too much at once and are bombarded not only by our own emotions, but also by the emotions of those around us. This isn’t always the case though. Just as with anything else, autistics are not a monolith. Many autistic people often feel things in extreme ways, as in, our emotions may either be really intense or they may be more diminished, with few emotions falling in the middle. It can be kind of like an on/off switch.
For me, I tend to lean towards the more intense side of things and feel too much. It often leaves me feeling overwhelmed. When I feel overwhelmed, I might not say much or interact with those around me, leading people to think I’m upset or too serious. In reality, I’m feeling quite stuck in those moments and need to take a step back to try to evaluate my own feelings. It’s also common for us to take notice of physical sensations or ailments before realizing there’s an underlying emotional component at play and we need to address how we feel physically before we can even think about processing things emotionally.
Much like I have difficulty pinpointing my own emotions, I often have difficulty pinpointing the emotions of others. I pick up on the emotional states of others when they’re apparent and with the use of context, but it can be quite difficult for me to decipher emotions that seem more unexpected or subtle. This lack of ability to pick up on the subtleties of emotions likely lends itself to the stereotypical notion that autistic people lack empathy, which simply isn’t true. Again, generalizations can’t be made for autistic people.
Alexithymia is loosely translated as “no words for emotion.” As the name implies, it can include difficulty identifying feelings and describing those feelings to others, difficulty separating feelings from bodily sensations related to emotional feedback, difficulty with imagination and fantasy, and a need to seek out external stimuli in regards to cognition.
For those of us who experience Alexithymia, I’ve found trying to identify surface level or general emotions to be a good first step, and then breaking the emotions down from there, until I’m left with a more detailed descriptor for what I’m feeling. A chart like this one can often be helpful in this process:
While many non-autistic people experience Alexithymia, there does seem to be a lot of overlap between those of us who are autistic and those who experience Alexithymia. That said, Alexithymia is not actually a diagnosis, but rather, a theory and it might prove to be a beneficial framework of further understanding some of the difficulties that autistic people often face when we try to process emotions.