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The Struggle of Emotional Recognition in Autism: Use this Simple Strategy to Improve Relationships

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This post highlights the autistic struggle with emotion recognition. An improved understanding of the autistic experience will help dramatically improve relationship satisfaction. You'll read about a simple shift in communication strategy you can start using today.


Although we may train a young child to identify a happy face or a sad face, defining and labeling emotions is actually a very complex endeavor. At some point, the neurotypical individual develops an instinct of which internal experience to pair with which word. "I am angry. You are disappointed." 

And the complications of labeling our feelings don't stop there. Emotions can occur together, sometimes complementing and sometimes contrasting each other. "I'm both happy and sad that you get to go on a trip for one month. Have fun. I'll miss you." 


Two questions I ask my clients include: "Who are you closest with in your life?" AND "What emotions has that person been feeling lately." 

1. Actions

One of the struggles for the autistic may be separating "internal" emotions from "external" actions. For example, when asked the above questions, the individual may say, "My husband's been cleaning out the basement, and then he wants to plant a garden." This is a description of his actions rather than his internal state.

2. Physical States

A second struggle may be distinguishing emotions from physical states. For example, one gentleman may tell me that his wife has been feeling "tired." When I ask him to explain if tired is an emotion, he may note that she's tired from cleaning the guest room after visitors. 

3. Emotional Valence

Many individuals on the spectrum can easily detect emotional valence: "positive" versus "negative" emotions. Indeed, a fair number of autistics report being keenly (almost uncomfortably) aware of both emotional energies and shifts in emotional energy. Where they get lost is in identifying the specific emotions present, the reasons for any change in emotion, and the appropriate response to the situation.

One individual may say his friend has been "good, as far as I know," and another may say his wife is "stressed." Further discussion is often empty of detail. This individual can detect valence rather than specific emotion.


Let's take a look at an example conversation between an ASD individual and myself.

Me: What emotions has your sister had over the last several months?

Client: "I don't really know. She seems like she's okay." [valence] 

Me: Tell me more about her emotions.

Client: "I guess she's all right... just tired." [physical state] 

Me: Is tired an emotion?

Client: "I wouldn't say she's mad, sad, or happy -- right in the middle. I don't know what that emotion would be. She always seems indifferent to me." 

When I asked the woman to name all the emotion words she could think of, she constructed quite a long list.

Me: You know a lot of emotion words. Why do you think it's hard to know what to call your sister's feelings?

Client: "I know emotions, but I can't pick them out in life. I understand what they're supposed to mean. But, converting actual human emotions to the words - that's harder."

ONE SIMPLE STRATEGY: Implicit to Explicit Communication

When those around the autistic individual are able to understand that his struggle identifying emotions is neurologic, there is a reduction is common relational tensions (such as, "You don't care about how this impacts me" or "You didn't even ask me why I seem stressed"). Instead, the loved one can focus on making explicit (I'm really angry about...) what had been implicit (If you cared about me, you would know how I'm feeling).

The neurotypical partner can state: "I feel XYZ. I need XYZ. Could you do that for me?"

The autistic partner can ask: "How was your day, and what do you need?"

Shifting communication habits from relying on implied content to clearly verbalized content will improve relationships of all types.

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