When it comes to being a parent of a child with autism, emotions can be challenging for both parties. There are many assumptions made when individuals think about people with autism spectrum disorders and their emotional responses.
This article is going to key in on:
- Do autistic people feel different emotions?
- Alexithymia and how it relates to autism and emotional development
- How do autistic individuals feel emotions differently?
- Tools parents can use to identify, teach, and manage emotional responses
If you, your child, or someone you know has been diagnosed with autism, there might be difficulties expressing your own emotions, recognizing emotions, and understanding the feelings of other people. Having a clearer understanding and labeling emotions of others in order to respond accordingly helps with interactions.
Learning to recognize, respond, and use teachable moments while learning about feelings and emotions can be hard. Autism, emotions, and all that surrounds this topic can be easier to navigate when you have tips and tricks to support your family.
Do people with autism feel emotions?
This is a surprisingly common question. And the answer is yes, of course they do! Emotions and emotional development can affect everyone in a different way. People with autism tend to have difficulty understanding emotions because of a lower emotional intelligence, according to the article Considerations About How Emotional Intelligence can be Enhanced in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder.
The above research states that emotional intelligence involves four components and those are:
- the ability to have a proper understanding, relate and appraise, and then express the appropriate emotion
- have access to the ability and/or create appropriate feelings for the moment
- understanding emotions and having emotional knowledge
- being able to regulate and grow intellectual and emotional development
So, there will be autistic individuals who are able to express and have an understanding of the full gambit of emotions. There will be others who are unable to understand their feelings and emotions or other people’s emotions.
As autism is a spectrum disorder, there is a range of understanding feelings and comprehending what emotions mean. Autistic people definitely feel emotions, they just may not understand or be able to respond to those feelings the same way as their neurotypical peers.
What is alexithymia?
In an article I found in Psychology Today, Alexithymia: Do You Know What You Feel?, Imi Lo writes: “Alexithymia, derived from the Greek language, means ‘no emotions for words.’ This psychological construct is used to describe people who struggle with feeling and expressing emotions. It represents a reduced ability, or sometimes a complete inability, to be connected with the internal emotive signals your body sends you.”
Individuals having limited or nonexistent difficulties understanding personal emotions and/or those of people around can make a person socially awkward. Imi Lo continued with findings listed in the article showing there have been times when people have been wrongfully diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) because of the similarities between the two diagnoses.
Autism and alexithymia are two separate conditions and it is important to note the differences and make sure that there are no discrepancies in the information collected and the data gathered for either diagnosis. As always, as a parent you know your child the best and if there are doubts or questions it is always a good idea to bring them up to your doctor.
If your doctor is unable to answer you, there are different forms of support for families with neurodiverse children. Most doctors’ offices have support groups and centers listed and can give you resources. You can also contact your local mental health facilities and search for support groups that are available through social media.
Is there a connection between autism and alexithymia?
The debate over whether there is a connection between ASD and alexithymia has been discussed since at least the early 1990s. In an article titled, Alexithymia and Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Complex Relationship, the writers discuss the possible connections and research that has been done and is still being done for these conditions:
“In a short time, the relationship between alexithymia and ASD started to be investigated more widely, including with respect to aspects not related to compromised social competence. Other areas of intersection were identified, such as disorders of cognitive functioning, impaired self-awareness and mentalization, poor linguistic mastery and difficulty with behavior control. This has led to greater attention on the incidence of alexithymic traits in clinical populations suffering from ASD and on the assessment that about half of people suffering from ASD exhibit some relevant alexithymic traits.”
The article continues by explaining that there have been cognitive, behavioral, and linguistic differences noted for people with autism, but they focused on the comorbidity between autism and alexithymia.
- difficulty reading and recognizing emotions
- difficulty reading nonverbal cues
- having a very straight forward and logical way of thinking
- not understanding metaphors
- having a hard time understanding different body sensations like temperature changes, pain, etc.
Although there have been similarities noted in the above article, there is no solid answer as to whether the two conditions relate to each other. Due to the continued research and varied understandings of cognitive, physiological, and neurophysiological differences that are a part of both diagnoses, researchers are unable to verify if one condition causes the other or if there is a form of comorbidity, or if there is a connection at all.
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So, what is a parent to do?
As a mother to a child with autism I find it important that they are able to identify and label their emotions and recognize feelings first, then I can help them understand other people. We read books together about emotions; the books have pictures of different people’s emotions and show how their facial expressions match how they are feeling.
We worked with a behavioral therapist who used a lot of play therapy because she said it helped the children calm down and feel comfortable so they could talk and learn. She gave me a list of different emotions tools, like board games, books, and visuals, that could help my children better identify the feelings and emotions being displayed in the pictures.
These tools gave me a starting point in interactions and lessons about body language and other forms of nonverbal communication. They also helped with emotional regulation because my children were better able to label emotions and how they were feeling.
It was a start and there have been additional tools added, such as the Mind Up! curriculum, which my special education teacher friend told me she uses in the classroom. It helps explain to children what is going on in their brains and what part of their brain controls big thoughts, responses, emotional, physical activity, etc.
With the books, lessons, and activities my children were able to label and comprehend more about their feelings and started understanding why they feel the way they do.
How do you manage and recognize emotions in your child with autism?
You know your child best and with that knowledge you are in a great position to observe and learn more about them, their emotions, and triggers. Through research and experience with ABA, I learned about the ABC method.
ABC stands for: Antecedent, Behavior, Consequence
This is important because it is a part of observing your child. For example, you might notice that at 2pm every day your child starts getting frustrated over small details.
The frustration would be the behavior (this is a detail that cannot be missed because without it you won’t be able to look for the antecedent and consequence). So, after your child gets frustrated, you come over to help them with whatever seems to be causing the problem.
Ask yourself what happens before the behavior? If the child has just come home from school, and they get easily frustrated over something that seems small, and you come over to help them with it, you may have the three pieces of the puzzle:
- The antecedent would be the fact they were at school and when they saw you they wanted attention
- the behavior comes from the fact they may not know how to voice that so they start doing chores and they get frustrated
- then the consequence is they get the time with you because you come over and help them
This is a very simple example, but it is a start and helps you recognize what your child is feeling. With that recognition, and using the tools above, talking and teaching children about their feelings and emotions becomes easier.
Once children are able to label and recognize their emotions, it can be a little easier transitioning and teaching them about how other people’s emotions are similar and how to spot them. I found it easier, after reading the books, playing games, and talking about emotions, to learn while we were out and about.
My children were able to see people in front of them and it was easier to identify what they may be feeling while we walked and talked. These may seem like small steps, but they can build to strides when practiced regularly.
Throughout this article we have discussed similarities between autism and alexithymia, showing and teaching different emotions and feelings and how to recognize them to our children, and how to recognize the emotions of your child. It is important to note that having a discussion with your child’s doctor is highly recommended.
You as the parent know your child the best. When you talk to your child’s doctor they may be able to give you ideas, plus access to benefits and resources that can help further your child’s emotional development and understanding further.
The tips and tricks that were listed in this article are just a starting point and may not work for everyone. Every child is different and may respond in different ways, and that’s okay, it’s finding what they will respond to positively that can make a big difference.
There are professionals and other parents waiting to help and be a support to you, your child, and your family. There are resources available through your child’s doctor, your local family/parent support group, your child’s school, at your local mental health facilities, etc.
Taking that first step can seem daunting and so difficult, but once you find the groove that works best for your child and family, that first step is worth it!
Abel, E., Brackett, M., McPartland, J., & Trevisan, D. (2021). Considerations About How Emotional Intelligence can be Enhanced in Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feduc.2021.639736/full
Dellantonio, S., Esposito, G., Pastore, L., Poquerusse, J. (2018). Alexithymia and Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Complex Relationship. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01196/full
Lo, I. (2021). Alexithymia: Do You Know What You Feel?.