Posted in writing

Emotions and Writing

Another archival piece coming back:

My Monday class was a bit unusual.  We were supposed to identify emotions and how they appear.

I had no idea it would be a major big deal.

This is funny because it’s not that Autistics don’t have emotions; we do, but no one ever thinks about how we are taught to express emotions and to interpret these emotions.  It’s not overt, but neurotypicals can typically pick up this stuff without too much difficulty (side note: I wrote “humans” in this sentence where I swapped it out for neurotypicals.  Funny how that slipped out there).   My teacher seems to think that people just “know” this stuff.  She made us list some emotions and then put us into groups to show the outward and inward feelings.  As in, what does your body do and what it looks like to others. Fortunately, my partner for the activity was in my blogging class and is a teacher, so not only does she know I’m Autistic, but found the whole thing hilarious with me (laughter is the socially acceptable interpretation of the feeling you get when you realize you’re being asked to do something that your Disability makes quite difficult as if it’s easy) that I would be trying to “interpret” emotions.  She picked “sadness” for us because she figured out, somewhat intuitively, that happy/sad/mad are easier emotions to interpret.  My son, when he was diagnosed, could usually get happy no problem and sad if there was crying.  While I do better than that, she was right since I knew apathy and excitement might be difficult for me.

I should take a brief pause here to point out that I’m reasonably good with emotions compared to some Autistics.  I can tell the important stuff, like when people are bored and I should cut it off, or when someone is “hulking around” in a creepy manner (etc.), but I can’t always make myself do what I’m expected to do with my body and facial features in a given situation to display emotion.  I do better than most because I acted for a while, but still, it’s work.

In some ways, it’s kind of manipulative, isn’t it?  I know that for neurotypicals, they don’t think about doing these things, but I also know that we’re carefully taught in schools some things such as we’re taught to raise our hands with questions and that it’s also rude to raise your hand if someone else is speaking.  So if someone keeps his or her hand up while someone else is answering either 1) he or she hasn’t been taught this or 2) he or she knows this and is deliberately being rude to make a point.  The latter can be complex: he or she knows that the current speaker will be wrong, for example, and is planning to be right, or there could be other reasons.  Many other reasons.

We Way Overthink Emotions…At Least Some of Us Do

For neurotypicals, this is all automatic, mind, and they usually don’t spend time thinking this much about it.  They probably would assume the person never learned that keeping the hand up is rude and move on.  I, however, know there are many passive-aggressive reasons that people do things and sometimes they’re deliberate and other times, simply a mistake.  In talking with a friend of mine (also Autistic), we’ve decided that we spend a LOT of time interpreting what people are doing and why and then, as a result we are hurt when people are careless.  Here’s an example.  At work, sometimes people will do something like call to check in after passing a qualifying test thing that shows fitness to do the job that day.  Everyone else e-mails or uses our chat feature, which I greatly prefer because phone calls drain me emotionally and for routine business, I do NOT WANT A PHONE CALL.  It is not worth it.

But this one woman kept calling because it was (she’d say) more convenient for her to call.

I gave her policy and why we don’t call (it leaves the phone line free for emergencies).  She refused.  She eventually moved over to chat, but she will call if you’re not online, so I’ve learned to leave myself online to wait for her to chat me the results.

She really doesn’t care if it’s more convenient for me (her supervisor) to have this in text form.

And she really doesn’t care why I prefer it because the policy does allow for calling (but practice has changed it to be sent in writing, not over the phone).

My friend and I took a LOT of time trying to interpret why she does this.

Everyone else, of course, had moved on eons ago.  This person calls, so what?

But we kept trying to guess at why, and floundering since this was in no way logical with the evidence we had.  We wouldn’t dream of doing something at our own convenience against the wishes of a supervisor even if it meant we had to call, which was harder for us based on our Disability, we would call if we had to.

I’m not sure if this obsession over what people are doing and why is more typical of women than men (female Autistics usually can do a little better in terms of fitting in, but the stakes are higher for girls since social structures of classes are typically designed by and for girls (and boys fit in however they fit in)).  Regardless, we work very hard to guess what people are thinking all the time, so much so that some female Autistics are almost “mindreaders” in terms of emotions.  Think about it; Autistics are supposedly blunt and unfeeling, but we may actually work very hard to think about how people interpret our behavior so we work harder at it.

So why do I have a hard time describing emotions, if I’m so empathetic?

I think the first reason is that we view emotions as logical and they usually are, but (clearly) not always.  Take that crying thing that people get when watching a happy movie.  It doesn’t make sense.  I think I’ve heard of other Autistics doing this one, too, that they see something so very happy they have to cry, and wonder if they’re wired wrong until they finally see some neurotypical do it, too, or come across the term “tears of joy.”  This is a weird thing that doesn’t fit, but normally tears=sad, smile=happy.  And yes, I know a grimace is sort of a smile, but it’s not about happiness.  But normally these things go together.  And normally a smile means you did something wonderful.  Unless you’re an evil villain.

Bleh.  It’s hard, isn’t it?

The Emotion Catalog

I think sometimes that we Autistics have an emotion catalog, so we can classify things like vocal tone, facial expression, and body language as well as “understandable reactions to events” so that we can guess at emotion.  It is not automatic, but a very mechanical process.  I also think of it more as a card catalog than a computer.  There’s no keyword search, so you have to segment each piece of the puzzle and then put the puzzle together only after you’ve researched all of the pieces.


[Image: an old brown-colored card catalog; it has 35 drawers, lined up perfectly, with a gold frame around the box’s contents which we can’t make out, the little circle thing that’s a rod to hold the cards in place (and also can be used as a handle), and a little handle-like thing to pull. It’s lovely. Can you tell that I was really good at using this thing and still remember all the rules from back when people were overtly taught library skills? Oh, and the feeling of flipping through cards and the feeling and sound of sliding one of these bad boys back into place…ooh…so wonderful…. Image from Pixabay]

I think the best example of this was on how I described a crying feeling for class so my partner wouldn’t do all the work.  I remembered C.S. Lewis, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, talking about how it feels when you’ve cried a long time, so long that you can’t cry anymore.  He says there’s a sort of emptiness inside where you don’t even care anymore.  I noted that, crediting my source.  I was able to “look up” something based on an internal feeling since we needed one for the internal feeling and then recite roughly what Lewis said.

I then thought about what it is to be a female Autistic and how we learn these things.  In my case, I was a voracious reader and an actress, too.  My college roommate accused me once of “acting my speeches” for a speech class, but she had no idea (nor did I, back then), that I was always acting.  I also was pulling images and descriptions of emotions from literature or from overt instructions, such as those given from teachers.  I wonder then, whether those of us Autistics who are somewhat “intuitive” are actually processing a humongous catalog of emotions.  Since it’s not natural, when someone asks me what does “sadness” look like, beyond crying, I can’t necessarily tell you.

Of course, as a writer, this is complicated.  If I’m an encyclopedia of emotion, that means that, necessarily, when I try to display emotion in fiction, I’m apt to pick something that is now a cliché because I’ve robbed it from someone else and it probably wasn’t earth-shattering when that author wrote it, either.  Great.

I do, fortunately have this at the ready: The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi.

[Image: The Emotion Thesaurus cover; It shows a lot of words on white paper torn up into little strips. Over the top is the main title (The Emotion Thesaurus) in blue over black. Underneath, in black over blue is: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression. On the bottom, back to blue over black, are the authors: Angela Ackerman & Bacca Puglisi]

You want this if you don’t have it.  Even if you’re not a writer, it’s invaluable to Autistics.  It lists definitions of each feeling, physical signs, internal sensations, mental responses, what happens if you keep feeling this feeling for too long, and some ways we display suppression of this feeling.  I’m hoping it’ll help me muddle through when I don’t have an Autistic main character to use as my filter or when I need her to observe body language of others.

But class tonight felt weird.  I felt like I was being asked to do something that was something “everybody” did and it was “totally normal and natural,” but it was with an awareness that it was not “normal and natural” to me.  Before I knew I was Autistic, I would have faked it and not known I was faking it.  Now, I know that I really don’t know these things, not in the same way that the neurotypical members of my class do, but I know them because I have catalogued them.  I wrote down what my classmates listed as qualities of certain things, but felt like I was the Anthropologist on Mars that Temple Grandin talks about.

I have never before felt like one, until I sat there, in a writing class, taking notes on what neurotypicals say about emotions.

I felt strange as I heard a whole lot of “depression” subbed for “apathy,” which I always took to mean “bored” rather than “depressed.”  I checked that with my partner, and she agreed with me.  That I felt like I needed to borrow a neurotypical to help me to determine whether other neurotypicals’ take on emotion was valid or not was a little scary.  But eventually, as a throwaway, the teacher said the group was struggling with when apathy became depression and I was like…why are you not talking about that process?  Why is it obvious to you that we know that apathy can become depression?  But I didn’t say anything.  After all, I’m the person who has the right answers, always.

But not about this.  I only know what I’ve been told, and when I realize that, it’s quite scary to me, but at least I know I’m not alone in this.

At least, I hope not.


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