Thursday, September 16, 2010

I'm Not Mad... Am I?

I'm Not Mad... Am I?

I had a very interesting conversation this week with a fellow individual with Asperger's (AS) and we were talking about our inability to sometimes recognize the emotions we are projecting out towards others.

As I continue to work with individuals with ASD's, I see a very specific situation continuing to rise to my attention. We often are oblivious when it comes to recognizing that others rarely perceive what we are actually feeling. In other words, we are not good at "showing" accurate emotions to display what's going on inside. Our actions and body language often tell a tale that is not in sync with and often far from what we know to be true.

I recently watched a conversation, or rather a debate, take place between a group of individuals, one of whom was an individual with AS. As he tried to explain his position on the topic at hand to the others in the room, you could see his frustration and anger rise. They just weren't seeing his point of view, which he happened to be quite passionate about, and it seemed the more intently he tried to explain, the more heated the conversation got. His face turned red, the volume of his voice rose significantly, and he began to lean in towards the others, his body language signifying his intensity and intent on changing every mind there.

Interestingly enough, when I spoke with him afterwards about the situation, he said he was absolutely not defensive, heated or angry, yet every person present would have bet their life otherwise. This is a common occurance and the more I see it happen, the more confident I become that these individuals really do not know how they are coming across! When confronted with the scenario, they are usually dumbfounded and often even hurt that anyone could have taken what they were saying out of context to the point of assuming they were mad or defensive. It's kind of an interesting dynamic, as the very same people will then see the identical behavior in another and take great offense, feeling as though everything is targeted at them and as though they are being attacked.

This whole scenario once again goes back to my last post, and the often inability or limited ability to think outside ourselves. It's so critical for others to understand that the self-consumed and seemingly selfish nature of those with ASD's is not what it seems. It's not a matter of not caring, not having an emotional connection, or not having sympathy or empathy. It's also not a matter of being selfish because of ego or internal wants and needs. It's more a matter of being completely overwhelmed by our environment and so many issues within ourselves (anxiety, sensory, OCD, etc.), that we are consumed with what's happening within, let along bringing additional outside issues into the equation!

Haven't you ever had a day where you've had so many difficult things happen, that you feel as if you will completely shut down if you have one more set back? Days where you are so overwhelmed it's impossible for you to think about one more tiny task, as you're spent on what's currently on your plate and the thought of one more thing will just send you over the edge? Welcome to our world! That's often how many of us feel on a daily basis, but don't often have the means to appropriately articulate that to others. Something to consider as well, is that we often don't know we are in that state. Sounds kind of strange, but just follow me for a second.

If you are born blind, then that's all you have ever known. At the age of 15, how would I then try to teach the concept of the color green to you? It's impossible, because you have no frame of reference for colors. I could explain a leaf to you, as that's something tangible you could touch and feel to understand, but an abstract concept like color would be more than challenging. We have to take into consideration that many of us with ASD's have lived every single day of our lives, or at least as long as we can remember, with very heightened anxiety, OCD, paranoia, sensory integration dysfunction and many other issues. If that's all we have ever known, then that's "normal" to us. We don't identify ourselves as anxious if that's how we have always felt. That's our "normal". Only if our anxiety was heightened far beyond what we normally experience, which would be difficult, would we be aware that something is different with our system.

What's interesting here, is that the level of emotions and stimuli we typically experience on a daily basis, would be considered by most as high adrenaline, or "fight or flight" mode. In comparison, most would only experience that level of heightened anxiety and senses if their life was truly in danger.

Imagine if you will, being accosted by a thief at gunpoint. Your sensory system is on high alert, your heartbeat increases, your respiration slows, your bloodflow is more restricted in your extremeties and pushed to your core. WHY? Because your body senses your life is in danger and it's converting all your resources to either fighting or flight. Self preservation is the name of the game, and whether or not someone just loaded the dishwasher incorrectly is not even a consideration at such a time!

Haven't you ever heard the stories of a mother who has a child run over by a car, and somehow in their heightened adrenaline fight or flight mode, they manage to pick up the car to remove their child from under? It's AMAZING what our bodies are capable of in that state. The strength, the rage and influx of emotion can be absolutely incredible. Most rarely, if ever, experience that amount of adrenaline. Those of us with ASD's, on the other hand, live like that daily and have to find ways to temper that heightened state. It's a very difficult balancing act and often more than a full-time venture. If most or all of our time and energy is spent controlling our mood and sensory modulation, how reasonable is it to expect we can monitor the body language and mood modulation of others?

That's not to say we are off the hook and get away scott free with our issues, but it is to say that we have to be TAUGHT how to do this. It's not learned by osmosis! Interestingly enough, we are often only able to learn these things when we are NOT in fight or flight mode. Teaching someone geometry when they have just been robbed and are in fight or flight mode is not a great idea. Their ability to focus, concentrate and stabilize their mood is impossible at best. You wouldn't attempt to teach them until several days after, once the adrenaline had calmed down and they have had time to ramp down from the experience. Likewise, our loved ones with ASD's are very difficult to reach in fight or flight mode. We usually have to bring them down a few notches before they have the ability to truly listen, observe and learn what needs to be taught. Once we accomplish that, THEN we are able to teach mood modulation skills, de-escalation interventions, and many other sensory and self-help skills that enable them to both recognize and eliminate the reactive behaviors that a hyper adrenaline state produces. They then have the skills and ability to stand back and process through information before acting. Once they have a handle on their own system, then they are freed up to notice more about their environment and others that participate in it. It's then we can teach social and other relationship skills that often are underdeveloped.

There's so much more to discuss within this particular topic. We will explore this in more depth in the next post. Stay tuned!

Laura Corby :)


  1. Laura, what an awesome essay. I so hard to try to explain this to other neurotypicals, that those with ASD are dealing with a world this is confusing, overwhelming and overstimulating, all at the same time. Acceptance of everyone's differences, no matter what the disability, is something I strive for everyday, and something I hope for others to do as well. Thank you so much for explaining this to everyone so they can understand those with ASD in an understandalbe, non-judgemental way.

  2. Thanks Susan! I find so many people do not understand what's underlying these disorders and the more that is understood about WHY we do what we do, the easier it will be for others to treat and not shoot in the dark at the assumed problems. We have to educate the public and the professionals out there. These kids are misunderstood and when they are handled correctly, VIOLA...... they improve!