by Guy Shahar
Published: 9th November 2017
Is it really true that autistic children are not connected to their own or others’ feelings? We challenge that concept and offer an empowering alternative.
Many autistic children tend to gravitate towards thinking and communicating in terms of facts, rules, patterns, objective reasons, etc. We all have a tendency to play to our most obvious strengths, and many of these children (though by no means all, of course) are cognitively very impressively equipped.
As parents and carers, we tend naturally to respect this preference, thinking that this is akin to accepting our child’s nature as it is. In doing so, however, could we be short-changing our children? Might we be buying into a widespread assumption – shared by the children themselves – that they do not have any natural ability to understand others on a feeling level, and thereby robbing them of the opportunity to develop a hidden side of themselves where they may well have enormous potential for individual fulfilment and to contribute to the world?
It is important to distinguish between a feeling level on one hand and a social or an emotional level on the other. We have observed and learnt from our son (amongst others) that when these are isolated and only the feeling element is present, he has demonstrated an ability to show a very connected, perceptive and deeply caring side of himself which would otherwise have remained concealed.
The Social Element
The social element still makes little sense to him at present, but this is not – as is often assumed – because he has no interest in others. Quite the opposite. It is because social culture with its array of superficial norms, conventions and expectations is actually a barrier to a deeper inner-connection with another person, which is what he is really interested in, and which (if we are honest about it) social conventions are partly intended to protect us from. We believe, and have some evidence, that if his feeling side is developed, this will also give him the means to navigate the social world in his own way, which will ultimately prove more successful and fruitful for him.
The Emotional Element
The emotional element, even more so, will always be difficult for him given his sensitivity. The difference between feelings and emotions (as I am using these words) is that feelings represent our pure inner-responses to what is happening to us, while emotions come from our fears and the judgements our minds make about these events.
For example, if someone does something to try to hurt me, my initial response might be one of sadness. If I stop to pay attention (which, most often, we don’t), I might even notice some sort of almost physical pain somewhere within me. This is my feeling response. The emotion comes when I notice that this makes me vulnerable and I start to worry what will happen if I allow such situations to continue. I make a judgement that this would be intolerable, for example, and that the other person shouldn’t have put me in that position, and deserves to be punished to ensure that it doesn’t happen again, and to underline to myself that this sort of thing is not the norm, so that I don’t need to worry about the prospect of such pain in the future. So, I become angry and revengeful and consumed with redressing the injustice. Of course, this all happens in an instant and well below the level of consciousness.
So, emotions typically have a much heavier, darker and more threatening quality. Even the more apparently positive emotions carry an intensity and level of excitement that is much more pronounced than the feeling that initiated them. And for an autistic child, who is likely to be extremely sensitive, this can be overwhelming. Some – perhaps very many – actually experience within themselves the emotions that are in play around them. I often undergo this myself: when there is someone around me with a strong emotion – no matter how well their behaviour is concealing it – I can experience a corresponding disturbance within myself that I can clearly distinguish as not belonging to me. Cumulatively, this can have a powerful destabilising effect on life, especially considering how much emotion is going on everywhere all the time.
But if we can – initially at least – keep emotions out of the picture and avoid having any expectations of adherence to social norms, and if we can relate to the child on the level of their feelings, we could be unlocking an enormous unsuspected potential that lies within them.
Bringing it to Feelings
What does this mean in daily life? So far, this has all necessarily been quite abstract (as an important foundation). But how can we put it into practice?
We need to start with gently bringing the child into an awareness of their own feelings, which they are likely to be avoiding. My own son has a tendency to rationalise many things rather than openly express his feelings, wants or preferences. For example, he might ask, “why have you only given me a small amount of food?”. Our tendency as parents is either to answer him at the level expressed by his words and explain why we gave him that amount of food, or to simply respond by observing that he seems hungry and providing him with the food. In the former case, his needs are not met at all, in the latter, he has succeeded in getting his needs fulfilled, but without any connection to his own feelings. The whole transaction has taken place on an abstract rational level. However, if we are able to create a safe environment around him using the principle of containment, then it can be relatively easy to divert his attention to his feelings.
We have done this slowly but persistently, first by (lightly, briefly and gently) explaining during such situations that it doesn’t seem that what he really wants is, for example, to understand why he has a small amount of food. That won’t help him at all. Even with his new understanding, he will still have the problem of not having enough food. We can then ask him what he really wants to express, and if he struggles, we can gently suggest to him that he might be feeling hungry and wanting to ask for more food.
Then, after a few times of this in various situations, he might say something similar, and the conversation starts to go like this (this is a real example from our lives):
“Why have you only given me a small amount of food?”
“Is that really what you want? To understand the reason we gave you that amount of food?”
“What do you want to tell us?”
“That I’m hungry and I want more food.”
And he has expressed himself at the level of what he feels.
It might seem like making an unnecessary fuss over an inconsequential choice of words, but it is not. It represents a massive shift in the child’s thinking about what is important. Rather than relying on outside objective reasoning to get their wants fulfilled without being conscious of the feelings that gave rise to these wants, they are now focused and explicit about their feelings in a way that they would have avoided before, and are even able to communicate them openly and simply.
And this opens the door to the possibility of curiosity about others’ feelings and a more general awareness of others as distinct individual entities rather than simply other objects in the surrounding environment. Our son has started occasionally asking us about our feelings and experiences of things and about our childhoods, which he had never done before.
Avoiding facing feelings may take many different forms. Another manifestation may be obsessive and incessant talking about one issue that the child finds interesting, or asking rapid and incessant questions. Part of this is the rapid speed that the child’s mind is working at that time, but in many cases, it may also be worth asking why it feels so necessary for them to fill the space with all this, and what is underlying it.
One common way of responding to this as parents is to passively acknowledge it. I know this way well, as the barrage often feels overwhelming and even exhausting, and thinking about doing anything else often feels like a stretch. However, this somehow seems to intensify the issue and clearly doesn’t provide my son with what he is really seeking.
A worse, but understandable, way that parents can respond is to be dismissive or impatient. As Barry Prizant, an autism consultant for over 40 years, put it when discussing such situations,
Many times, I have heard the most patient of parents finally say, ‘We just need him to stop!’
The problem with that response is that it focuses on the behaviour without asking what is motivating it. It’s essential to ask questions: Are there times the child focuses on this topic more than other times? Do you see patterns? Could it be when the child feels stress? What might be causing the stress? How can you alleviate the pressure and anxiety? Is the child using this kind of talk to calm himself down? If it works for him, is it really a priority to eliminate this kind of talk? Is the child aware of his own behaviour? How can we make him more aware?
In other words, it’s not as simple as just stopping the child’s behaviour. As always, the first step is asking what’s underlying the behaviour.
In our case, what works much better seems to be to get ourselves prepared to give him full attention, join him deeply in his thoughts and process, and after a brief time to gently introduce elements into the conversation to ground him, bringing him back to considering how what he is saying may relate to the world around and to himself and others in it. This seems to settle him and bring him closer to a meaningful connection with us, and the more it is done, the more effective it is.
As a parent, though, I know how demanding this is and how often it is not achievable amidst the competing demands of a busy life and the human limitations that we are all inconveniently subject to. There is no point in beating ourselves up – we need to live intelligently within these limits and preserve our energies at times, else we are likely to burn out and be of no use to anyone. There is no place for self-recrimination here. But neither is there any place for not being aware of the optimum responses to such situations, so that we can either work towards them or provide them on those occasions when we are able.
Ultimately, as ever, the most effective way of ensuring a child has the space, confidence and calm state to feel safe enough to focus on feelings is the long-term implementation of the principle of containment across all aspects of their environment, together with giving them frequent periods of full (distraction-free) attention and responsiveness. It is a question of reducing and effectively managing anxiety so that full potential can emerge.