Bridging the communication gap between high functioning autistics and neurotypicals.

Posts tagged ‘emotion’

From Meltdown to Cooperation in Twenty Minutes

I had an autistic trumpet student whom we will call Joe. Joe frequently walked into his lesson in a foul mood, mumbling obscenities, and griping about hating trumpet lessons. He was in 6th grade and was the most difficult student I had had up to that point. Most of the time I coerced him to play for at least 20 minutes of the 30 minute lesson. I remember his utter disgust when he discovered that I didn’t have perfect pitch – this woman is teaching ME?? Autistic children can be very difficult to take when one is an extra sensitive neurotypical*.

One day Joe walked in screaming. His dad looked at me, shrugged his shoulders, and walked to the waiting room. “I hate (expletive) trumpet lessons! I (expletive) hate you! I want to kill you! I’m going to burn this building down! Don’t talk to me! I hate you!” This went on and on. -This dad expects a lesson from this??- I had no idea what to do.

It suddenly occurred to me to do what he said. Don’t talk to him. So I didn’t. After 10 minutes of ranting vehemently, he began to slow down. After 15 minutes he started looking at me and wondering what I was doing. After 20 minutes he finally asked, “Why aren’t you talking to me?” I said, “Because you told me not to.” A few more minutes went by and he said, “Ok. I will play now. What do you want me to do?” I was FLOORED! He had become a sweet, malleable person. We had a productive 10 minutes and never had another lesson that horrid again. There were times he would come in grumpy and I’d ask, “Do you need me to not talk to you for a bit?” He’d always say, “No, I’m ok.”

This scenario made me aware of how my emotions affect an autistic person. I didn’t just stop talking to Joe, I turned off my emotions. My autistic husband explains that any emotion causes confusion and overwhelm. That confusion leads to obsessively trying to figure out why they are confused. Then when more emotion is thrown in (whether positive or negative), it short circuits the brain, causing rage, stimming, meltdown, withdrawing, etc. In the situation with Joe, it was very difficult for me to pull my emotions inward, but I chose to find a “happy place” and leave that “room” for a while. This shut down the emotional feed to Joe and he was able to regain his non fight-or-flight brain.

Most of us think that our emotions ARE us, but it is a learnable skill to separate from our emotions. Like learning a musical instrument, it just takes time. If you would like to try this with your autistic loved one, but have no idea how to separate yourself from your emotions, contact us here or at


*Neurotypical: “a term coined in the autistic community as a label for people who are not on the autism spectrum.”


Emotion as a Language

I saw my sister recently.  I had not been with her for a long time.  The first thing that struck me was her voice.  I heard myself talking.  The next thing I noticed, she didn’t say many words.  I got a lot of emotional messages though.  If I didn’t misinterpret them, they ranged from “I’m so happy to see you” to “Why did we wait so long” to “I missed you so much” and “I love you”.  I hadn’t experienced that language on that level for quite a long time.

This lead me to the contrast of my communication with Mark.  I use english for everything. I mean absolutely everything.  I can’t use emotion at all.  He has NO receptors for emotion.  NONE.  ZILCH.  ZERO.  NADA. Now I am paying attention to how much emotion I use. It still sneaks up on me though.  The emotional language is so natural to me that I don’t even know I’m using.

Here’s an example. Mark was massaging my foot.  It became too painful so I told him to quit.  The 3rd time I said “STOP!”.  Then I said, “I told you 3 times to stop!”  He said, “You only said ‘stop it’ once.”  Whoa.  He was right.  In my mind I had said it 3 times and was frustrated that he hadn’t stopped.  Apparently I had sent two very strong emotional messages to stop and the third time I resorted to english. All three times felt like legitimate ways to communicate.

We NTs with HFAs in our lives are most likely NOT communicating well.  First we have to understand that emotion is a language and we are using it naturally everyday.  Next we have to understand that HFAs do NOT have receptors to understand this language.  Whether you are disciplining your young HFA or talking to an older HFA employee.  You MUST be able to express every single emotion you have into english.  That goes for praising them too.  Every emotion you have has to have words to go with it.  How often has Mark asked me for praise or approval while I had been giving it emotionally.  Learn your emotions and then learn to put words to them.

I’m still learning.

What Religion Means To A High-Functioning Autistic Person, Part II

This installment of Religion from an HFA viewpoint concerns my path to a meaningful spiritual life without the aid of an emotional map.

To start with, my parents pastored churches, usually Pentecostal, throughout my life. So, I’ve had ample experience with most phases of conservative Protestantism in the Deep South and the Southern Plains states. Unlike the Southern Baptist tradition, Pentecostalism is a very emotionally expressive version of Christianity. Examples of emotional expression found in Pentecostal churches include: being slain in the Spirit, speaking in tongues, being filled with the Spirit, prophesying, crying, wailing, Spirit-filled dancing, shouting, lifting of the hands, praying aloud, the laying on of hands, faith-healing and other assorted demonstrations of a deeply rooted faith in a personal God. Well, at least I had a floor show to entertain me.

For an autistic person like me, I never could see the source of these behaviors. I was always told it was the Holy Spirit ‘moving’ an individual to do such things. I can honestly say that I never felt ‘moved’ to participate in these demonstrative expressions of God’s presence. In other words, I didn’t feel an internal motivation to be a part of the service’s experience. What motivation I felt was an external pressure to be a part of the group. In other words, it was peer pressure. So, for me, there was no internal reason to be associated with the church.

I’m not familiar with the theories behind Organizational Psychology but I have an idea that the existence of religion is probably best explained by a religion’s ability to generate empathy for its viewpoints. By extension, the members of any religion use empathy to persuade potential members to join their group. Any viewpoint expressed by a religion can only be effective in converting potential members by generating empathy from its audience. Empathy is the hook to gain further support from new members and to maintain the support of existing ones. After someone has joined a religion, empathy is still necessary to educate new members in the rules, regulations, customs and traditions of the religion. Interestingly enough, one of the classic symptoms or traits for Aspergers and other High Functioning Autisms is the inability to empathize with others. Without this empathy, there is little hope in forming the views of new or existing members or maintaining their obedience. To put this into simpler language, if you like what an organization has to say then you’ll buy into it. If you don’t, you won’t. But, even more importantly to my article here, if you don’t have the ability to empathize with a view, then you won’t even hear what’s being said. I didn’t hear what was being said emotionally, just literally.

Because I only heard the words, I missed out on the emotional content contained in the experience. I didn’t even know there was an emotional message be spoken. So, I couldn’t have heard it, I just sat there in a pew and watched what was going on with a mindset of “Yeah, ok….I don’t get it.” I missed the actual message of love because I couldn’t hear it. So, I didn’t see a need to take a further interest in something that had no meaning to me. But, I did make one last attempt.

Through prayer, I tried my best to contact God hoping he could give me some of the experiences I was observing in church. My desire came from wanting to experience something spiritual for myself. However, prayer was really a let-down for me. I never heard ‘the still small voice’ that I hoped was God. I went and got Dr. Charles Stanley’s book “How To Listen To God”. I read that book cover to cover and was just as lost as before. Dr. Stanley’s advice was ’emotional’ in form and content. Being frustrated in my search for religious spirituality and meaning just put me in a sour mood concerning church and God. Over the long run, my frustration with all things religious just made me turn towards a more agnostic stance. This event occurred in late 1987.

As time went by, my agnostic stance lacked more and more utility for me. At this point, about 2008, many of the mechanisms I used for personal improvement such as willpower and self-sufficiency were no longer giving me satisfactory results. My classes in college had become so difficult that I began to suspect that I had a disability of some type because I couldn’t keep up with the workload. I was a terror to work with, making life difficult for my coworkers, bosses and customers. I found that I was becoming more frustrated with my inability to be successful at whatever I did. I was hard on my wife and our pets. I had no motivation for personal projects but I would burn my self out for any job that I worked for. What I discovered was I had no sense of the importance of my own life and self. I was at such a low point, that at least a handful of times, I considered ending my life instead of continuing it. Logically, this alternative was correct. With so much frustration and seeing no way out, the next step was to quit the game and start over. Again, it didn’t work out the way I expected….

Don’t Change That Channel!

What’s Love Got to Do With it? Apparently Nothing.

Although I’ve written some notes on how to show love to an aspie, I’m not sure it’s really relevant in their lives.  An analogy that keeps coming to mind is a deaf person reading lips.  Aspies see emotion but don’t feel it and it is often misinterpreted.  They have emotion but don’t have a receptor that receives incoming messages.  Much like the deaf person has no sound receptor.  A deaf person is most likely never going to feel sound.  An Autistic is most likely never going to feel emotion.  So when I talk to Mark about liking him, they are just words, like “bowl” is a word.  They will never have an internal meaning of any kind.  So as much as I want to share how much I like him, it is literally falling on deaf ears.  He does, however have an understanding of the act of validation, which he says means a lot to him.

An example of validation from our very early marriage that he has brought up many times in the last almost 18 years:  We were at one of my Aunt’s house and she had a very old cookbook that she kept in a ziplock bag because it was falling apart.  This Aunt wouldn’t let her daughter borrow the book.  She offered to let Mark borrow the book but was concerned about him taking good care of it.  I said something to the effect that if there’s anything Mark takes care of, it’s his books.  This is what he still remembers.  Now if we can figure out what I did, then we can make an aspie’s world more stable (Mark’s words).

Again, we can be sad about this, but Mark is content with himself.  He has always been what he is.  It is we who are just learning.  He says that he is going to prove that autistics are another culture.  Words he texted me, “Since culture is an adaptive skill set to cope with biological, mental and other pressures, then I can easily show evidence for HFA to be a culture unto it’s own.”  I think he just might.


Maybe we are too needy and rely on emotion too much.  Mark would say definitly so.