Friday, 10 January 2014


Sorry little blog, I have neglected you horribly. In a way last year passed by so quickly, I'll try to update more regularly.

Just over a year ago, I saw an advert for a study with adults who have Asperger to do with emotion. I've been emailing the researcher back and forth since then, talking about how I as a person with Asperger experience emotion. Or to put it in his words:

"It's about the emotional experiences of autistic people; or more specifically, it's about trying to figure out what it means to say that people with autism experience difficulties with discerning, managing, and expressing their emotions. So of course the first step would be to ask 'what do we even mean when we say 'emotions'?', and then to see in what way the other known characteristics of autism affect one's understanding of his/her own emotional processes."

One of my third year university modules focused on theories of emotion, I can't find my notes on that but I did get the coursebook (Emotion Science by Elaine Fox) out of the library to review some of what I'd learned. I'll quickly go over the things that I feel are relevant for this blog post in the next paragraph.

As I recall, there are four main frameworks to emotion. The first suggests that emotions are biological, that they evolved as good solutions to problems. E.g. I see bear, I'm more likely to survive if I feel fear which would motivate me to flee. The second approach suggests that emotions are socially constructed, that they are products of our culture which assist us in negotiating social roles. E.g. I see bear, I've know that others react in fear and thus conform so that I also feel fear, then flee. The third framework suggests that emotions are the result of perceptual changes in our body, e.g. I see bear, my heart beats rapidly, I realise this is fear and flee. The last main framework that I studied suggests that emotions are the result of cognitive appraisals, that we evaluate what's happening and determine our emotion based on this. E.g. I see bear, I think that it's likely that bear will attack me, I feel fear and flee. I liked theories on how we distinguish emotions: while some studies have suggested that emotions are discrete, i.e. independent of each other, most recent studies suggest that emotions do relate to each other. Russell (1980) suggested that emotions can be measured according to how pleasant they make us feel and how strong the emotion is, for example a strong highly pleasant emotion would be 'elated' while a mild highly pleasant emotion would be 'happy'. Plutchik (1980) proposed that there are eight basic emotions, which can be paired up so that they contrast each other (joy vs sadness, trust vs disgust, fear vs anger, surprise vs anticipation), and that the rest of our emotions appear somewhere between the opposites or between specific dimensions (e.g. joy + anticipation = optimism, but you couldn't experience joy + disgust). This picture gives a better sense of what I'm trying to explain.

So how does this relate to my experiences of having Asperger Syndrome? I remember being told when I was a child that I’d get ‘upset’ and ‘angry’ mixed up, based on my behaviour. I remember often having to be told what an appropriate emotional response was to an event, so while I experience emotions readily now, is that biological or socially constructed? I can definitely feel afraid, and often feel anxious when I'm with new people, which differs from the fear I feel if I see a spider, for example.

Sometimes I’m not sure what I’m feeling – I don't seem to feel anything in particular when nothing's happening, not particularly content or discontent. If I think about it I could remember a recent or ongoing event and conclude a feeling based on that, but by thinking about it am I inducing that emotion rather than recognising it? Sometimes when I try to remember an event, I try to remember what I felt at the time, however I wonder if this is just me imagining what I must have felt, rather than remembering the emotion itself. E.g. I was recently rejected for a job and remember the disappointment, but I can't remember the feeling of happiness on my birthday the year before last (last year's birthday was just over a month ago so I still remember it!) - I imagine it must have been happiness, it's a bit like saying I remember having ice cream in Italy but can't remember what flavours, I can guess based on my preferences though.

I couldn't tell you what an emotion feels like. I'm not great at describing things, it's one of the criteria that was used to diagnose me! I know what the emotion is though - like if I'm asked what an apple is, I might say it's a crunchy red fruit, if you asked how a very small apple's different from a cherry then I'd probably get stuck for words. It's harder to describe emotions, since if we ignore the third framework explained above (our body reacts in a certain way which leads us to identify the emotion), they don't have properties beyond how they're subjectively experienced. I know I'm sad because I 'feel' sad - I could say that crying means I'm sad, then again I've cried of happiness.

Expressing emotion doesn't always come naturally to me - going back to Russell's theory, I can have a very mild but highly pleasant emotion (general contentment) and have a facial expression of boredom. This particularly shows in photos where I'm not paying attention to the camera, even though I recognise the scene as a time when I was happy. If I stop to think about it, must I display every emotion? Maybe my body doesn't see much point in it, since I can convey my emotions easily enough through words if I feel like sharing how I feel. Then again I have to remember that others won't necessarily know how I feel unless I make it clear. Sometimes I think that my expressions go overboard, either stereotypical or childish. At times I seem to feel stronger emotions that others in response to an event, e.g. something good that's happened might make me laugh while the people around me just smile, and sometimes the reverse happens.

When asked what tools I can use instead of words to discern my emotions, I got confused. Do we have to use words to understand what I'm feeling at any given time, if I'm not trying to convey that emotion to anyone else? I can tell that I'm content, for example, and I can feel the difference between contentment and joy without having to explain using Russell's pleasure/strength dimensions that I mentioned earlier (I only learned this theory two years ago, I could recognise the difference between my emotions before that!). If someone asked me how I was feeling, I could say content, but would struggle to explain how this is different to feeling happy.

I'm not entirely sure how much of this relates to having Asperger Syndrome, and how much is just general lack of understanding of the theory behind emotion. Are we perceived as having a different emotional experience because we express ourselves differently, sometimes stereotypically and sometimes with little if any reaction? Or do people with Asperger Syndrome genuinely perceive emotion differently to others? What will the study that I'm taking part in reveal, I wonder!

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