Thursday, September 24, 2015

Autism Spectrum: Your emotions overwhelm me!

Whether you are in relationship with a child or adult in the autism spectrum, you may not realize how sensitive they are to other peoples' emotions.  They may misinterpret them, make wrong conclusions about them, not understand where they come from or what they are called, but many individuals with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) experience them quite strongly.  

Consider this, have you ever had the experience of having something really bad happen to you, and many people run over to you and say how horrible it is, how sorry they are, and what can they do?  If so, you probably have a sense of how it feels to have trouble taking in and balancing emotional input from others.  You might think, "Oh great.  Now I have to deal with my own stress and sadness, as well as the sadness of other people!"  Or maybe you watched a sad movie on TV and you have trouble regulating all that emotional input from the program without feeling the impact for hours or days later.  It's a lot of emotion to "take in" and do something with. 

Individuals in the spectrum can be easily overwhelmed by the emotions of others.  If they are having a conversation with someone who is emotional, they may shut down or feel like leaving.  If their family members are fighting and crying, they are likely to feel a real struggle with this (maybe even moreso than the individuals in the argument).  If you are a spouse or parent interacting with these individuals about a difficult topic, they may miss much of the content of your communication because they are overwhelmed trying to regulate the emotion of it.  I recently spoke with someone with ASD who said, "This is so true... 200% true!!"

Here are some tips to recognize and overcome this barrier:

  • Recognize that your need to get your emotions out may be just that... your need.  It may not serve the actual communication or help the person you are connecting with.  If it is your need, but overwhelming to the other person, find other ways to let your emotions out (e.g., journaling, exercising, bubble bath, music) while still communicating thought content to the other person.
  • Recognize that adding emotional content to your communications DOES NOT make them more compelling to the other person, but rather decreases their effectiveness.  If you want to make sure you're getting your point across, decrease your emotional output rather than ramping it up for emphasis. 
  • Commit to a calm home environment as part of the overall picture of helping your loved one balance their experiences (e.g., emotional, sensory, activity, etc). 
  • Give the other person time to settle their emotions before talking through the emotional topic.  They may need space, quiet, and time before feeling ready to continue talking about something.