Making Sense of Emotions

The brains of neurotypical (“normal”) people process emotions in such a way that they can and regularly do share one another’s pain and suffering, as well as one another’s joy. Thanks to mirror neurons, neurotypical people go through a process a lot like this:

  1. I see Mary Jane smile.
  2. I immediately (at least mentally) “try on” the smile I see.
  3. I feel a bit happier.
  4. I conclude: Mary Jane is probably happy, too.

This way of mentally processing emotions—by copying affect—is normal and efficient. It’s part of how we intuit threat or surprise: if the affect we "try on" is different from the one we've been wearing, we know to pay attention. This process occurs even more quickly than a choice to empathize. Since it usually happens in less than a second, however, not everyone realizes that their minds go through this.

Two problematic variations of the above are common in our society:

  • One way, which is typical of people with autism-spectrum conditions and of some people who have suffered strokes, and
  • Another way, which is typical of sociopaths… and, regrettably, some people on the autism spectrum, who—though they did not start out processing emotions like sociopaths—were trained to process emotions that way by well-meaning counselors, educators, or caregivers.

Let’s look at each of these:

Making Sense of Emotions… As a Person with Autism (1)

This is the most common way that people with autism-spectrum conditions, and some people who have suffered strokes, mentally process emotions:

  1. I see Mary Jane smile.
  2. In the time I have devoted to trying, I have not been able to discern which kind of smile Mary Jane is wearing.
  3. I am feeling __________ right now.
  4. I conclude: Perhaps Mary Jane is feeling __________ right now, too.

The feelings in the blanks above can seem fairly random to observers, because they’re a product of not understanding in the time allotted. Let’s consider one autistic boy, whom we'll call Evan, as an example:

  1. Evan sees Mary Jane smile.
  2. He attempts to try on Mary Jane’s smile, mentally—but making his mouth do what he wants it to do is challenging, and feeling what his mouth is doing is challenging, too. (He has trouble with speech, and he’s often unaware of food on his face.) If you try to imagine what doing an expert figure skating maneuver would feel like, what you imagine isn’t likely to be accurate… unless you're an expert figure skater. It’s tough for anyone to accurately imagine doing what (s)he struggles to do in real life. This makes it tough to know which kind of smile Mary Jane might be wearing.
    • The first smile Evan tries on, mentally, would look like a mocking jeer to an observer—but Evan really is trying.
    • The next smile he tries on is more static, like a clown’s face.
    • Evan is starting to get nervous: it takes time to try on another person’s facial expressions, even mentally—and Evan feels he’s expected, socially, to respond soon.
    • The third smile Evan tries on is gentle, but patronizing, like he sometimes gets from his teachers.

Making Sense of Emotions… As a Person with Autism (2)

  1. Evan has felt a bit different with each smile he’s tried on. Which of these is Mary Jane feeling? He wonders. Perhaps she’s feeling something else entirely. He just doesn’t know. He’s confused.
    • A neurotypical observer has concluded, seconds ago, that Mary Jane was happy and excited at seeing her friend Sue, who was standing behind Evan.
    • Given this—and given where Evan’s attempts at understanding have taken him—how likely is it that Evan is going to respond appropriately? (Not very likely, right?)
    • Moreover, how likely is it that Evan is going to keep trying to respond, after repeated failures? (Eventually—regrettably—not very likely, either.)
  2. Evan concludes: Mary Jane is mocking him… and he lashes out. He’s “appropriately” disciplined—except discipline, here, is not appropriate at all!

Sometimes, when people don’t understand what’s going on around or within them, they get scared, they feel guilty for not understanding, and they get defensive.

When people with autism don’t understand the emotional states of those around them, they sometimes get scared, frustrated, and defensive, too. They might lash out. Whenever misunderstanding is severe enough or pervasive enough, however: fear, frustration, and defensiveness are normal—and to be expected.

In our experience, some children with autism-spectrum conditions can take almost two minutes to mentally “try on” another person’s body language (#2) in order to feel (#3) anything close to the same thing as the person they observed. By that time, most opportunities for interaction have passed.

Can you imagine how frustrating this is?

Making Sense of Emotions… As a Sociopath

There is another problematic variation of the normal way of processing emotions. It’s typical of people whom psychiatrists label “sociopaths.” Generally, sociopaths process emotions via logical deduction, rather than shared experience, like this:

  1. I see Mary Jane smile.
  2. I know that people smile when they are happy.
  3. I conclude: Mary Jane is likely happy.

Full-blown sociopaths may not feel a shred of what Mary Jane is feeling; others may be able to work themselves up to feel something, if they really pity Mary Jane.

Regardless, a sociopath’s emotional processing involves logical deduction from what (s)he knows about others but doesn’t feel, whereas an autistic person’s emotional processing involves real but confused connection with others. They're fundamentally different… at least initially.

Regrettably, though few people with autism-spectrum conditions start out processing emotions like sociopaths, many today are actually trained to process emotions like sociopaths by well-meaning counselors, teachers, and caregivers.

A Problematic Practice

For better or worse, the time a person spends processing emotions either way is self-reinforcing:

  • The more time we spend “trying on” facial expressions, then noticing how we feel, the easier this process becomes, especially with guidance.
  • Likewise, the more time we spend noticing others’ expressions without “trying them on” ourselves, then logically deducing what other people are probably feeling, the easier this (fundamentally different) process becomes.

Children with autism-spectrum conditions are often better at logical deductions than at accurately copying facial expressions. Most available curricula for helping children with autism-spectrum conditions make sense of emotions—including a nationally honored curriculum—play to this strength.

The end result, unfortunately, is that in classrooms, counseling rooms, and social groups across the Western world, children with autism-spectrum conditions routinely spend many hours practicing to understand emotions like sociopaths.

There is a better way. The 8 Questions are an important part of it.

The 8 Questions help reduce the confusion that people with autism-spectrum conditions experience when “trying on” others’ affects. With less confusion, emotional processing can be more normal, and moral feeling can become more accurate.

Emotion & Affect

People with autism often struggle to embody affects that are noticeably different from each other. Fear, startle, dread, guilt, and confusion—often fairly easy to differentiate on the faces of neurotypical people—look remarkably similar on the faces of some people with autism.

It’s culturally acceptable for infants to mimic the facial expressions of others, but many times when autistics mimic others’ facial expressions, they’re disciplined, even though they’re simply trying to embody and feel what others are embodying and feeling—the same process infants naturally use. “Stop that! That’s rude,” they hear.

To a girl with autism who struggles to “embody” (to enact; to physically display and feel) particular, distinct emotions, her own and others’ emotional landscapes can be very confusing.

It’s difficult for any of us to imagine what someone feels who is doing what we can’t yet do. Because I don’t play the violin, for instance, I can’t imagine—at least, not accurately—what it feels like for an accomplished violinist to play Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3. The same is true for people with autism when they struggle to “try on” what someone else might be feeling: it’s hard for them to imagine another person’s distinct emotions in part because it’s hard for them to embody readily distinguishable emotions.

“Mind Blindness” & Emotion

“If autistic children are trying to differentiate between emotions,” it might be asked, “why do they exhibit mind blindness, in which they don’t seem to recognize that others have thoughts and feelings different from their own?”

It’s important, first, to recognize that not everyone on the autism-spectrum exhibits “mind blindness.” Even so, for those who do, the phenomenon of “mind blindness” is evidence for their empathy—not evidence against it. They truly share in the emotional life of others, even if they struggle to differentiate where emotions are coming from.

Normally, people learn to perceive emotions by sharing distinct emotions with others. Mother and infant share happiness together, and the infant comes to recognize what he’s embodying as happiness when they do. Father and toddler share excitement together; the toddler comes to recognize what he’s embodying as excitement when they do. Only later does a child carry over distinctions between emotions into the child’s own emotional life—one distinct from that of his or her parents.

Autism & Empathy

To a boy with autism who feels emotions intensely, distinct emotions blend together. The gulf between each distinct affect he “tries on”—copying your face, or trying to express his own feeling—may sometimes be larger than the gulf between you and him. When you’re angry, he feels your intensity, palpably. When you’re elated, he feels your intensity then, too. Infants do, too—but people don't blame infants for being “mind blind.” People keep sharing emotional experiences with infants, gradually helping them differentiate the emotions they can embody. Regardless of age, people with autism and people without autism can do the same, without judgment.

Most people with autism-spectrum conditions feel others’ emotions. They feel emotions intensely.

Some are so sensitive that they feel emotions that caregivers or counselors deny feeling. Even empathetic people, however, can get confused—especially if they struggle to copy others’ affects and to feel their own. As we practice sharing emotional experiences and identifying emotions, it’s important to be honest… and patient. This takes time. It’s also worth it.