Autism Spectrum Disorders and Emotions

Typical people (neurotypicals) will assume that if the person looks smart that they are capable of managing their emotions. People with ASD are often wrongly judged in this manner.

People with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have several differences with regards to their emotions than more typical people. People with ASD may express their emotions in unique ways that may be easily misunderstood.

People with ASD often have difficulty recognizing their emotions when their emotions are subtle, and often have difficulty regulating their own emotions. Emotions may be “bigger than life” or somewhat flat. Many people with ASD cannot determine other’s emotions correctly, nor can they identify and understand subtle emotions and mixed messages.

Emotional self-regulation is an area that has immense impact on the ability of people to function successfully in our world. Many people have lost jobs because of their inability to control their emotions, or because they expressed emotions in a socially unacceptable manner. Poor emotional regulation negatively impacts learning, performance, and can destroy relationships. Shutting off emotions in the workplace in order to succeed leaves the person with ASD exhausted and negatively impacts their social functioning in the workplace or school setting.

Most of the supports for people with ASD tend towards treating actions (behaviours) but do not target the emotional realm. Often the emotional needs are left unaddressed, which could lead to depression or anxiety issues. Working with emotional issues can be difficult for people who do not have an understanding of ASD. Most people with ASD look typical, and non-autistic people cannot understand why the person with ASD has difficulties with their emotions when the look so normal. This is made worse if the person with ASD is intelligent or brilliant.

Typical people (neurotypicals) will assume that if the person looks smart that they are capable of managing their  emotions. People with ASD are often wrongly judged in this manner. Learning to self-regulate emotions involves several steps, from emotional identification to learning ways to keep one’s cool. Often learning to regulate emotions involves
homework and keeping a log to discuss during counselling sessions. Often learning about emotion is done on a logical level, as true empathy may not be possible for many people with ASD. They may just not equipped with the neurological empathy components for this to be possible.

Suggested reading: Paxton, K. & Estay, I. (2007). Counselling people on the autism
spectrum: A practical manual. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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