I feel it right to go from talking about feeling alone to feeling an emotion because you need to understand the way emotions may work in us. Thinking on this I think that people not on the autism spectrum can relate to this and maybe everyone is like this in a way, but as one of my coworkers at Easter Seals Midwest says, “The only thing autism is, is human behavior to the extreme” and when it comes to emotions this is a great example.
To feel an emotion, whatever emotion it may be, is going to be felt in an almost unfiltered fashion. I can remember talking to the doctor who wrote the endorsement in Finding Kansas and saying that, “You always ask what my emotions are from a scale 0-10 and I’m either at a 0 or a 10.” I also would contend that my happiness would stop at five, but that’s a story for another day. Anyway, whatever emotion is becomes the only emotion felt and since it is either going to be felt in an all or nothing manner whatever emotion is will most certainly be a major issue.
Another thing I have just found out just recently is that my mind operates in a world of singularity meaning that only one emotion can really be felt at a time. Perhaps this is because of the issues in regards to processing, but one emotion being felt can drown out all others and become this massive behemoth of emotion racing down a hill with no ability to slowdown.
Going back to the previous chapter (I’m doing a good job on keeping these emotions building on each other, at least I think I am and since I’ve got this singularity thing going on all I can say is “good luck” in convincing me otherwise) one of the reasons I was so elusive in speaking with psychologists and counselors was that I had to do everything in power to deny my emotions. Emotions come at me unfiltered and when triggered, or rather felt, they are so loud and powerful. I can remember in kindergarten being taught emotions that a person can be a little mad, or a little, or maybe just slightly mad and this always confused me because whatever emotion I was in the process of feeling I felt it to something I can only compare to terminal velocity. Therefore, I had to deny all things emotional or risk experiencing an emotion which may trigger an adrenal response, or might make thinking hard because my body’s response will be an all-out, unfiltered, cavalcade of emotions that can’t be processed and felt in a timely manner.
Timely manner? What does that mean? Another reason that feeling an emotion is so difficult is the duration. An emotion isn’t simply felt, dealt with, and eventually tucked away and wrapped up like a problem on a 30 minute television sitcom. No, emotions are much more devious than that and they can stay with me. If I had a bad day at school that emotion would stay with me at home which meant that, if anything happened at home, I was already on edge so anything would set me off. At the time it would appear as if the smallest of things would send me in a teary fit, but the problem was I was still experiencing the emotion from earlier in the day and my ability to handle any situation was non-existent.
One of the things that are on my PowerPoint I give to police officers is that, “people on the autism spectrum may ‘prefer to be alone.’” See the contrast here? The previous chapter I was speaking about this yearning to not be alone and yet, and I do this rather often, I prefer to be alone because if I am alone, by my own choice of course, if I am alone then the probabilities that I will have a social encounter that will illicit an emotional response is low and since feeling emotions is so difficult this means being alone is not that bad. The key thing here is being alone by my own choice because if I was wanting friends and failing then the emotional impact there was obvious, but other times I was perfectly content being by myself because I could do what I wanted, when I wanted, without the prospect of any social encounters.
I want to go back and speak about the unfiltered part of this and the concept of time. When something bad happens to us it seems to stay with us longer. Many times I’ve heard from parents that will say their child with autism will have an aversion to someone because, “they hit me five years ago” as they would say. While that may be a truth most people have the ability to simply forgive and forget after, say, a few hours, but for a person with autism those emotions could always be at the forefront and any time that person is in their environment, even if they haven’t hit them in four years and eleven months it won’t matter because that person equates a fear response and once an emotion is felt it becomes the only thing felt.
I experienced this in an odd way when I saw the movie “Captain Phillips.” If you don’t know the movie it was about a cargo ship that was hijacked by pirates off the coast of Somalia and it starred Tom Hanks. While this may not seem to have any relevance on my life, there was a scene in the movie late where one of the pirates tells Captain Phillips, “Don’t worry American, everything is going to be all right.” When I heard that line I instantly broke out into a cold sweat and began to shake. My breathing was labored and my mind went right back to the chapter “Kenya” in Finding Kansas as in my ordeal I had in Kisumu, Kenya a person who was holding us said the exact same words in the exact same accent.
Maybe this event I had was an off-shoot of PTSD, but for a week I remained irritable, and just downright scared. Even though almost a decade had passed, the storm of emotions were being felt as if that even in Kenya was happening now. This is the problem with feeling an emotion; they’re too strong and they last too long.
I’ve heard some misguided experts proclaim that, “people on the autism spectrum have no emotions and are almost, if not, incapable of felling emotions.” This couldn’t be further from the truth. Now, I must say, maybe there are some out there that are, but I believe, as is my case, that it isn’t feeling the emotion that is the problem (well, I guess technically it is a problem but not the one I’m going with on this point) but the true problem lies in expressing it. It can be confusing for teachers and parents trying to figure out why a meltdown, or tantrum occurred when something seemingly mundane happened, but the mundane event might not have been the problem but rather an event hours prior which is still lingering and festering which is the heart of the problem.
In this chapter I don’t want to discourage the process of speaking about emotions and expressing it. This is something that is critical and I don’t know what I would do without the ability to express myself through writing. However, I hope what this post has done is given you a glimpse as to why we may be hesitant to express anything at all because, to feel an emotion, is to possibly creating an event in time that will be felt for minutes, hours, days, and maybe even months to come. And, when an emotion is there, the singular mind sets in and nothing else can be processed and my old phrase of, “whatever is now is forever” is felt and if the emotion is one of fear, angst, or something that will create anxiety I must say, why would I want to open the door on that?