In talking with and meeting other #Aspies, I’ve found that most of us have some degree of alexythemia. Alexythemia is the inability to identify one’s emotions with words.
This is often misunderstood as the inability to feel emotions in the first place. This is not the case: The emotions are there, they flow naturally and often very strongly but the person may be unable to put a name to them, or to describe or define nuances. It isn’t a case of “not being in touch with one’s emotions” and no amount of meditation or finger-painting with colours will change it, because it’s caused by differences in the brain.
Neuropsychologists implicate the corpus callosum and an associated region, the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) as contributing factors in alexythemia, but exactly what roles they play is not well understood. However, these regions have roles in registering pain, anticipation of tasks, attention, and emotional control - all of which tend to be challenges for people with AS. These regions are also among those that consistently show differences from Neuro-Typical, in scans.
I noted in my previous article on Asperger’s and emotion, “The Great Stone Face”, that people with AS generally seem to experience one emotion at a time. As a person quoted in one of Tony Attwood’s books put it, “I became aware that other people felt more than one emotion at a time, and that this was normal for them.” — could’ve bowled me over with a feather when I first read that, it made so much sense! Whereas Neuro-Typical people may experience emotions as a watercolour painting, people with AS tend to experience emotions more as a book, turning pages. It may be fast, like riffling pages, or we may stay on one ‘page’ for hours, even days.
If we have alexythemia, being able to stay on one ‘page’ is great, as it may give us time to sort out exactly what that page is saying. But when our emotions start flipping pages rapidly, we can’t read the details, we might be lucky just to read the headers. And when they start happening all at once, when we get a storm of pages falling down on us? - We can’t read a darned thing. We know that emotions are happening, but we can’t tell what they are, much less what’s triggering them, and we certainly can’t figure out what to do about them. This is a problem in any confrontation situation. It’s particularly problematic in therapy, since most therapies (being developed by and for Neuro-Typicals) involve sorting out and talking about one’s feelings.
If you’ve met one person with AS, you’ve met one person with AS, and that applies to alexythemia as well. I have relatively mild alexythemia and I only run into trouble when my emotions start happening too quickly. However, I’ve met several people - some women but often men - with much more pronounced alexythemia, who were just about able to tell whether they felt ‘good’ or ‘bad.’
This isn’t unusual, particularly for males with AS. For AS males, upbringing may compound their natural alexythemic tendencies. In western society, boys are discouraged from talking about emotions and are often subjected to bullying for expressing their feelings (ask any boy who’s been called a “pussy”) As I noted in “The Great Stone Face”, it’s very difficult for people with AS to modulate our emotions; at best, they can just about be contained behind our ‘stone wall’ faces. Layer this discouragement on top of his natural alexythemia, and by the time he reaches adulthood, an AS chap may experience the storm of emotion but be completely unable to talk about his feelings in a world that increasingly expects him to do so.
So! Male or female, what’s an Aspie with alexythemia to do? Well, one young AS man I worked with was able to categorise his emotions into “little good”, “big good”, “little bad” and “big bad.” That’s a good place to start, as “feeling good” and “feeling bad” are quite acceptable descriptions to NT people.
If we assign specific meaning to our words, we may decide that “good” means ‘little good’ and “very/really good” means ‘big good.’ This way, we can keep our emotion vocabulary smaller and we can expand the vocabulary to match our ability to determine the type and intensity of our emotions. A person who might not be able to distinguish quickly between anger and fear, will know they don’t feel good, so they can say “I feel really bad about this situation.” In this way, we can design our vocabulary to match OUR needs, in a way that meets the expectations of NT society.