This last weekend has been a really tough one for our family. We had to have our dog of nearly twelve years, Panda, put down last Saturday.
To make matters worse, nobody was expecting it. One day, she was "chirpy" and seemed to be in perfectly good health and the next she was gone. She was in our family for longer than our kids and she has left a huge hole in our family heart.
I was going to talk about emotional reciprocity today anyway but last weekend's events have put a whole new spin on things.
Dealing with Strong Emotions
We all deal with strong emotions, such as love, anger and grief in our own ways. My wife tends to cry things out but I often internalise them and take them on board as stress and at times, self-harmful behaviour. In the kids, these emotions can manifest as meltdowns or as general destructive behaviour. Sometimes there's nothing to see on the surface at all.
The point is that although we each feel these emotions and we feel them at similar strengths, our reactions vary widely both in intensity and visibility.
For some reason, our society seems to think that it's okay to quantify emotions based on visible reactions. If an event occurs to two people and the woman is crying while the man is not, then the woman needs the most care and attention because "she's the one who is really hurt". The solution is to talk in a quiet voice and bring lots of cups of tea and chocolates.
The man, by contrast isn't bawling his eyes out, so he's obviously not hurt. There's nothing that you need to do for him. There's no need to tread lightly because "he's not even upset".
In fact, if the event is of an appropriate level, for example the death of a loved one, then anyone not outwardly grieving is "fair game". You can take things out on them and you're more or less expected to say "what's wrong with you man?". The words "you don't care" should also be used in conversation to him.
It's something that many neurotypicals do and yet so few realise how wrong it is.
Pain on the Spectrum
What if I said that this wasn't really about men and women? It's about everyone in general and people on the spectrum in particular.
We use our own perception of other people's emotions to determine our response; our emotional reciprocity.
Too often, I hear of neurotypical women describing the husbands as uncaring, unemotional and cold. Autism research shows us that people on the spectrum sometimes feel less physical pain than others (based on their reactions) and even children on the spectrum are sometimes considered to have an almost psychopathic disconnection to the pain of others.
What if all of the reasearchers are just reading the signs wrong?
There's strong evidence in the online community that this is exactly the case. That people with autism and aspergers syndrome lack facial expression and tone but don't lack emotions. That in fact, we are very empathetic beings - sometimes even more empathetic that neurotypicals in terms of what we feel. Our problems are with the interpretation and the display of outward signs.
One Last Example
The day after the Panda died, there was a conversation right in front of me about how useless I am at doing "manly things" around the house. It's ok, I'm fair game and I really am useless at fixing things around the house. I didn't react badly and I obviously wasn't sad, so there's no need to hold back.
It was hard to keep those black suicidal thoughts out of my head for the rest of the day because that's how I deal with pain. Fortunately, I know that I'm needed here and I know that depression is part of aspergers. I can reject those dark feelings because I know they're part of the condition - and they're not real.
It's a good lesson to friends, parents and spouses everywhere. Maybe your child or husband doesn't display a lot of emotion (that you can detect) but everything you say is being noted. If you know that there is good cause for emotion, there's no reason to assume that simply because you personally can't detect it, it isn't there.
Treat everyone in a possible emotional state carefully and you'll reduce the likelihood of a meltdown.