Processing Emotions.

Next week, mid-week, school begins.  My son is starting at a new school, entirely new peers and a new teacher.  If I relied solely on what the little guy says to convey to me what he thinks of all of this, I’d be completely in the dark.

I’ve talked with him about transitioning from kindergarten to first grade and about the new school.  We know the school building because it is our “home” district.  He’s had occupational therapy and speech there.  He’s been assessed there.  But he’s never gone there. He says nothing.  If he is asked to repeat his teacher’s name, the school name or his grade, he dutifully will.  He expresses no emotion.

A social story is in play with photos of the school, full of positive emotions.  Yesterday, we toured the campus.  No students – no teachers.  Just us, tutors, the special ed director, and empty rooms.

He smiled through the tour.  He didn’t talk much.  In fact, the only time I remember him speaking was when we entered the gym.  He looked around and said, “I want a basketball.”

After the tour, he had a full day of therapy.  He became extremely – quiet.  When asked something, he was barely audible in response.  Instead of talking, he agreed with just about anything.  For example, in the late afternoon I asked him if he liked the radio in Daddy’s car and he softly said, “yes.”  (He hates  the radio – all radio).  It’s like he just wants to make it through the day and get away from the pressure, escape thinking about next week.

Oddly enough, coinciding with my son’s newfound “quietness”, I read the discussion  of a study in which the differences between the ways that people with ASD process emotions as compared to neurotypicals.

The story goes that there are a couple ways to process emotions.  The example given was one where you say “hi” to someone and they fail to reciprocate.  How do you process your feelings about this? Do you take this as a snub and internalize or suppress the feelings? Or do you use “reappraisal” of the situation by thinking that maybe the person didn’t see you and then move on with whatever you are doing?

“In reappraisal, you really work through the problem. You don’t simply clamp down on the emotion. The result is a highly effective regulation strategy, one that’s been shown to reduce negative emotions without interfering with other cognitive processes.

Suppression, on the other hand, would involve hiding your true feelings – telling yourself not to show the upset you feel about your friend having just ignored you. This approach is simple, but it’s also less effective in the long run. Not only is it less able to banish negative feelings, but the effort of keeping a lid on turbulent emotions can put a drag on cognitive performance.”

According to the study, people with ASD tend to use suppression more often than reappraisal.  This is even after accounting for something called “alexithymia”,  yet another new word for me.

Alexithymia is defined as an emotional blindness. It is a trait which is supposed to affect about 10 percent of the population and is further described as the difficulty of people to perceive and describe emotions of others and themselves.

It seems to be tied in to the theory of mind discussions, I often see in relation to autism.  Let me just say that I see my son as understanding my emotions probably 70-80 percent of the time.  Other times, he has actually physically, though accidentally bumped me hard enough to cause me pain, including an obvious bloody lip and, on other occasions, he’s seen me crying.  Sometimes, he smiles, laughs or seems unknowing and goes back to what he was doing, not recognizing that I am wounded.  So, there is definitely some deficit in his ability to perceive the emotions of others (at the very least, me).  On other occasions, he is so understanding, he may begin to cry as well or try to kiss away the boo-boo.  There are many discussions of the intertwining of Asperger’s and Alexithymia, some of which you can peruse here.

Reading about this led me to understand that, with training, some of the deficits my son must contend with may be eased.  The Stanford Autism Center is currently conducting a study addressing the physiological responses such as heart rate, brain activation, and breathing together with psychological data to create a training regimen to improve emotional regulation.  One of the researchers of this study, said:

There’s very preliminary evidence of a connection between social deficits and emotional dysregulation,” said Hardan. “If we have something that will help dysregulation but also helps with social deficits, that would be a great contribution to this field.”

Going back to the quietness that surfaced after our tour of the new school, I’m thinking he may be suppressing some of his real feelings.  He is choosing not to talk about or address his anxiety to make it go away.  What this will do to him, when he has to face 30 other students he’s never met, with a new teacher, in a new classroom for a nearly six (6) hour day?  That scares me.

I know he is strong and he can be brave.  I know he will have an ABA tutor he knows with him.  But I know he is scared and he doesn’t want to talk about it even though he’s been provided with social stories, tours, and reminders.  Perhaps, that is the best I can do.

Life must play itself out, even when things are new and scary.  When they are new and scary for typical kids, they can use words easily, and express their feelings.

My son can’t.  Often, he doesn’t even know where the upset feelings are coming from.  This makes it harder.  He shows his stress differently.  Sometimes, there is no way to prepare for the difficulty he will have, and no predictability about when he will no longer be able to suppress it.  And when he is no longer able to suppress it, I will be there to pick up the pieces, calm the nerves and provide the love.  Because that’s the best I can do.


About solodialogue

I'm a lawyer and the mom of a 6 year old boy with autism. I work part time and spend the rest driving here and there and everywhere for my son's various therapies. Instead of trying cases, I now play Pac-man and watch SpongeBob. I wear old sweaters and jeans and always, always flat shoes to run after my son. Yeah, it's different but I wouldn't change it for anything. The love of my child is the most powerful, beautiful and rewarding aspect of my life.
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14 Responses to Processing Emotions.

  1. Karen… I really feel for you here. Huh… I just realized the irony of my statement in respect to the whole post… but you get the picture.

    Our kids are different when it comes to emotions and understanding what they/others are feeling. We need to provide a LOT more support — which I think you are doing very well, by the way. But when it gets right to the wire, they need the experience — just like any other child.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that I think you are doing the right thing. You’ve prepared T. You’re giving him additional support. And you’re going to let him do it — his way. It may be a disaster, but hopefully… hopefully, something good will come of it.

    I’ll be thinking about you both, my friend. Good luck.

    • solodialogue says:

      Haha! Feel for me, eh? You pretty much summed it up. I can’t do it for him. We have to experience it all on our own. I can only take him there with all the prep I can and let him go through it. If 6 hours turns out to be too much, we’ll adjust. If there are too many kids though for his senses, I don’t know what I will do – we will just have to see. I’m just grateful he will have his ABA aide.

  2. Lizbeth says:

    I have often said this about Alex—he’s blind to emotions—both face blind as well as auditory. He does not see emotions on another person’s face nor does he hear all the subtle voice changes or cues. In turn, he does not express them. We have had to teach him—how to see other people’s faces, how to read them and how to hear them. AND how to reflect that back in his own face and voice. It’s really hard for him but we’re slowly making progress. Add to it, he doesn’t know how to name what he’s feeling or how to process it. It’s really difficult.

    I’m glad T has you—you get it. And having a parent who understands is gold. Pure gold.


    • solodialogue says:

      Aww, Lizbeth, you are such a sweetheart!

      I know what you mean when you talk about Alex missing those social clues. I wonder what the best apps, games, programs are to increase the social skills. I have been referred to the Michelle Garcia Winner ILaugh stuff a few times but have not really tried or read it in detail. I will do it and report back. I think quite a few of us could use some social skills training materials for lots of different situations. xoxo

  3. I love reading your posts, I learn so many new things! Are you familiar with the Intense World Theory of Autism from Henry and Kamila Markram? Here is a link to them discussing it.
    I like the theory, at least it fits my son as I experience him in many ways. I won’t attempt to try and condense it, that’s not my strong point. But, it speaks to this same topic.
    I think there is a mix with my son of not recognizing the NT expression of emotion and the intense world theory of him feeling it all more intensely than I do and needing to find ways to shut out and cope with that intensity.
    Good luck to T in his new school adventure!

    • solodialogue says:

      Thank you for that link. I have heard of the “intense world” theory before but not by that name – just the idea of it. I had not thought of it in relation to this post though. I think, with respect to my son, that he does feel a lot of emotion himself, very deeply, but other times, he can be oblivious too. It’s hard to say. Someday, maybe he will be able to tell me. I think though, right now, that he is suppressing and that is not healthy. I need to find a way to train him to reason his way through an emotion. I don’t know if it can be done – but I know I can try. (And thanks for your kind words!) 🙂

  4. Allie says:

    Here’s to a great school year!!!!

    I don’t think I’ve once seen Cameron genuinely display the appropriate emotional response towards another person. What’s really odd to me though, is that even at the young age he is, he know he is supposed to have a response to someone if they get hurt or are laughing. He will go so far as to fake his response (very obviously fake too) I’m guessing because they tried so hard to work with him on empathy at his old school since it was on his IFSP. It boggles my mind that he knows he is supposed to react a certain way but can’t actually feel it. What would one call that? Scripted emotions. It’s a strange phenomena. I’m curious to know if the rest of you have experienced that with your kids.

    • Mary says:

      Freckles’ OT taught her the “social fake”. She’s supposed to pretend to be interested in what the other person is saying. Is that similar?

      • solodialogue says:

        Mary, at least to me, it sounds very similar to what Allie is saying about her son. At some point, our kids will understand the whys. It just seems to me, as I said to Allie, that it will take our kids a little longer. xo

    • solodialogue says:

      Scripted emotions. That is weird. Cam is so young. I guess the idea is that as he grows, he will understand why he is doing it. I have not experienced that with Toots. Toots has actually been taught to recognize that someone is sad or bored and suggest alternate things to do. He successfully implemented this in his most recent play date under the watch of his tutors. I don’t know that it’s any more than “workin’ a program” because “generalizing” that skill to the rest of life is not yet happening. Maybe it is just an expansion of an isolated concept that will come in time.

      Flannery over at The Connor Chronicles-Living on the Spectrum had a great post today about the delay and how our kids often do things in their own time – this may just be part of that whole concept. And Cam’s part is learning the how before the why.

  5. Flannery says:

    When Connor was younger, he had trouble expressing and understanding emotions. He’s gotten better, and a lot of it has to do with TV, believe it or not. Not that we haven’t done lots of therapy too. He is mostly appropriate now, but I do still see some “scripting” when he’s not sure.

    A new school and new teachers is stressful for anyone. I don’t blame Tootles for feeling unsure about it. I hope all goes well his first week!

  6. Really interesting. I used to suppress my emotions, until my 30s, now I do the opposite. I remember I didn’t know what I felt. I sat up in bed in my early 20s and remember thinking I can’t identify my feelings at all. I didn’t know happy, joy….I just knew sad and fear. But those were confused too. Now I process all day. If I feel a twist in my stomach, I think back, why am I anxious, why am I upset. I can find answers now…. Usually it’s something I heard that is causing me stress. My feelings are affected by food, too. Really great post. Helped me. Hope it helps many more. I’m hyper aware of my feelings now—it’s like a super power…came with age, experience, and lots of practice. Hugs. Sam

  7. Lot’s of good information here. I’ve thought a lot about emotions and how my son experiences them. I’ll be crossing my fingers for T this upcoming week. I hope he has a successful transition to his new school.

  8. eof737 says:

    Terrific information and insights. I like your interpretation of the situation and my hope is that he will make a full adjustment when the time comes. Plus he’ll have a familiar person/tutor around to help… Fascinating research too. TY Karen! 🙂

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