I have heard – many times – from new clients, as they try to explain their predicament, sentences like this:
"I am not like Ted Bundy – but I could be."
I used to be very puzzled by this – after all, I’d hear these proclamations from the very best of people. In fact, most of my adult clients could be described as conflict-avoidant, even in situations in which they feel threatened (rare in adulthood, maybe, but more common under the label of “bullying” in childhood). These clients are gentle, never cruel to animals, and certainly not the type to take pleasure in the suffering of any sentient being. Yet they come in so unsure of their basic nature, and they tell me this: “I am not Ted Bundy, but I don’t know why.”
A knee-jerk reaction in this case might lead a well-meaning friend or even therapist to brush aside such concerns as silly. But I think clients sense they are different – that though they don’t act in ways to deliberately harm others, the reasons behind their non-violent nature are different than the reasons shared by most. I think they may be right.
Many of us rely on a kind of shared emotional experience to guide their ethical behavior. It’s easy to imagine another’s fear, or pain, in the moment – it conjures up our own feelings of fear and pain, and that alone is enough to serve as a deterrent. But what if that kind of imagined experience wasn’t so automatic, or instant? This is the case for many clients. They find another path for managing their ethics in the moment – sometimes these look like the “rules” so often mentioned in ASD literature.
It’s the autistic adult’s wonderful workaround for a system (social, emotional) that’s not available and instant enough to guide ethical behavior. And this compensating system can really shine in moments when what’s ethical may cause another pain or discomfort – think of the last M.A.S.H. episode – so wedged in our minds because many of us could understand the horror of being faced with having to choose between the survival of many and the survival of an infant. There are times when ethics must be applied in ways that violate our sense of that automatic empathy we rely on for a moral compass function. So many clients on the spectrum can operate in settings (corporate, etc) in ways that transcend the emotional comfort of others, and even themselves, to do what’s right. This makes for less inclusion and social comfort for the client, but they endure (when many empaths do not).
As I’ve written before, I often find that adults on the spectrum are highly sensitive. But that doesn’t mean that the sensitivity is available in the moment, especially in social situations. Relying on ethical “rules” is a wonderful compensation, when immediacy is important. But this doesn’t mean that inside, many of the same feelings that move most of us aren’t alive and well.
So while I can understand why clients come in with an unsettled feeling that they could be Ted Bundy, I know that, via one system or another, they aren’t, and won’t be.
Emotions are funny things. They can be a source of immense joy, as well as immense pain. I think of them like a deck of cards we each have; trading positive cards can be a lot of fun. The healthier your relationships are (with others and yourself), the more enjoyable this trading becomes, the safer the game.
Like most things, how people experience emotions seems to run along a spectrum. Some people feel emotions powerfully and readily. Others feel emotions less readily, and when they do, the emotions are muted. When I think of how my clients experience emotions, I think about what happens when emotions are unpredictable, indefinable, uncontrollable.
Many of us have a kind of internal “emotion skeleton” we use to arrange emotions; part of development involves a kind of coalescing of emotional experiences (between the individual and the environment, the individual and others and the individual and self). Factors like experience, relationship modeling, attachment and physiology help us understand what emotions we hang close to the heart, what emotions are more peripheral. This internal structure helps us organize and control emotion, such that over time we have a sense of solidity and control.
But sometimes this process of bone building is interrupted. Emotions are too powerful or chaotic, or one’s environment requires a level of development not yet reached. When this happens, the development of an internal mechanism for structure does not proceed as it should. The internal skeleton needed to manage and understand emotions has not developed as it has needed to, leaving the individual feeling an internal sense of chaos. It prevents a cause and effect kind of understanding of emotions from emerging, and leaves the individual vulnerable to emotional overload, and therefore a kind of mistrust of emotions. Without that internal structure with which to organize emotions, feelings become hugely disorganizing, and even scary.
To cope with this phenomena, clients do a few things. They may limit their access to emotions (“shutting down”) in order to increase their sense of structure and control. Keeping feelings out of awareness is one way to preserve what internal sense of calm and order there is. Many clients erect exoskeletons of one sort or another. Examples are:
One of the most common I hear about is visualizing what’s coming next – by having a vision for events, a kind of imagining of the future, many control to the extent they can the element of surprise (nothing ushers in emotions quite like surprise!). This exoskeleton serves to shield from environmental triggers, and can work great, except that (by definition) an exoskeleton is not flexible. Changes of plans can be jarring, cracks that allow emotions to flow in unexpectedly. And when you’re depending on an exoskeleton to protect you from the emotional impact of your environment, it can feel scary to encounter those cracks.
Another kind of exoskeleton is withdrawal. Clients talk about withdrawal in lots of ways; some withdraw into their own mind when potentially overwhelmed or bored, some withdraw physically into their homes or rooms. Some use machines to withdraw – gaming systems, computers, etc.
When in relationship with someone who has erected an exoskeleton, it can be confusing. The individual might seem more interested in controlling the schedule than in connecting, or more motivated to game in the evenings than to talk. I’ve seen so many couples struggling with this, seeming at war – one partner trying to pry the structure from the other’s hands in order to connect. This always backfires of course – the structure is needed to make connecting even possible. The more one partner pries, the harder the other clings to the structure.
Sometimes it seems couples have made an unconscious agreement with one another – one intends to provide the structure and benefit from the emotional life provided by the other. The other agrees to provide the emotional life for both, while benefitting from the structure provided by the other. This could be a great arrangement, and it is in theory. Usually, however, each partner actually craves more balance than this system provides. Most healthy relationships require a working skeleton on the part of both partners.
When addressing the challenges with personal emotions so many clients on the spectrum seem to face, one difficulty in particular arises: almost all of my clients have a well-developed understanding of emotions in theory. They’re all intelligent, so the idea they don’t know the difference between frustration and rage is a little insulting. What’s difficult is not theoretical knowledge – it’s recognizing emotions on a personal level. And here they do tend to struggle: if I’m hungry, I might be angry. If I’m sad, I might be depressed. If I’m anxious, I might be hungry. And so on. You can imagine what a challenge this is when, say, a partner is asking for emotional feedback on the fly.
But learning how to identify personal emotions is a process akin to learning to drive – no matter how bright, you can’t do it in one day. It involves a kind of brain conditioning, and starting with the basics is a must. That theoretical knowledge of emotions won’t help when you’re trying to figure out what you’re feeling in the moment; in fact, in can get in the way. So adults on the spectrum are faced with having to resist the temptation of traveling down a well-worn super efficient highway, and choose instead to travel down a rocky and erratic back road they’re unfamiliar with. This is tough to do when you’re a perfectionist!
If you were saddled with a big intellect, and also with difficulty identifying and understanding personal emotions, would you be able to set aside your ego and learn the basics?
It may be the only way to grow an emotion skeleton.