Asking where emotional intelligence (EQ) skills are imperative to formal curricula is not a question which is solely relevant to autism. It is an attempted bring together multiple ideas I have been studying in the last couple of years since receiving an ASD diagnosis at the age of 51.
First, I must stress that I am not attempting to invalidate the autistic identity in any way. I have returned to the question several times: “Am I really autistic, or could this other stuff account for why I was diagnosed?”
My answer is that I believe I am autistic, with sensory processing issues and a sense of true kinship with fellow autistics being two primary reasons I believe the diagnosis fits. However, later discoveries regarding family of origin, attachment disorder, and emotional neglect have undoubtedly muddied the waters.
Incentive to Search
Even among my autistic peers, I tended to be misunderstood more than most. Where I considered myself to be direct and focused, others would still take issue with my approach even though I’d found my neurotribe. I was demoralized to note that I had fewer interpersonal ‘soft’ skills than most other late-diagnosed autistic women.
While researching C-PTSD alongside autism, my continued feedback regarding lack of diplomacy led me to query other factors that could contribute to my interpersonal and intra-personal difficulties. A few examples include:
The more I researched, the more I found overlapping areas of difficulty which are recognized in both autism and numerous other disorders/conditions.
Many who were raised in dysfunctional families, where malicious behavior and mental illness is prevalent, are unaware that they were damaged from emotional neglect in childhood. Pre-verbal and pre-natal memories are stored in the unconscious where they are capable of causing significant disruption in later life.
In addition, later conscious memories can be repressed to the unconscious if they are too uncomfortable to process. A significant absence of memory from childhood can indicate that the brain has compensated in this way. For 50 years, I had no idea that my childhood had been anything other than normal.
I did not discover the truth about my family of origin until a few months after discovering I was autistic. Therapy in relation to the autism diagnosis helped me to explore my absence of childhood memory, and gradually revealed to me the true nature of my mother. It was a lot to absorb in a few very short months!
EQ and Personal Growth
Having researched C-PTSD, somatic trauma, personality and attachment disorders, I moved into the area of emotional intelligence (EI/EQ). Wow! What a difference it made to my perception (or should I say misperception) of myself! This was when the learning journey really took off, and I caught a glimpse of the me who had been showing up in the world.
I started to recognize why I was prone to alienating others. Looking at my challenges through the autistic lens, I had accepted known autistic characteristics to explain my way of being. I had always felt completely authentic, but lacked the knowledge, insight, or impetus to try to go deeper and access the unconscious. All of my intelligence was cognitive. Emotionally, I was a child– but I had never been able to see it.
Passive aggressive tendencies rose to my conscious awareness, as did a pushy and opinionated persona. These characteristics combined with my lifelong cup-half-empty attitude meant that I must have been a real bundle of laughs to be around… Not!
An ex-colleague I always think of with great affection used to call me Chuckles. I recognized, and was amused by, the irony, since he was never unkind. In hindsight, my unconscious related to the fact that he was always kind to others – and I was not, even though I couldn’t recognize it.
Autism or Something Else?
I find myself questioning whether my own meltdowns were autistic meltdowns at all. Could they have been the consequence of lifelong malignant-type emotional dysregulation? I think so.
When triggered under extreme stress, the emotional pain was indescribable. There is no doubt that the degree of dysregulation was a consequence of childhood emotional abuse/neglect. Considering that an autistic meltdown is an overwhelm of the system, perhaps this is where the two merge? Can they be separated? I don’t know.
I’m autistic, but my personal growth journey into EQ skills has brought about a transformation in me. New insights and “aha” moments are still a regular occurrence. I can even see small talk as having a legitimate purpose– and that has completely changed the way I view my approach to new situations. It doesn’t scare me anymore.
I realized that an unconscious concern regarding others’ opinions of me was at the forefront of my connections previously. I genuinely do find people interesting! To shine a light on what had previously and unwittingly been a me focus and return it back to where it should be–being curious about them–completely reframed the issue for me.
Identifying a disorganized attachment style opened up many more insights. The maladaptive coping mechanisms from early neglect and rejection have caused more difficulty in my life than autism. Of that I am certain. Yet I knew nothing of it (or autism) until I was in my fifties. Sometimes, separating the source of my challenges is a challenge in itself!
A Full-Breadth Curriculum
There are so many traumatized people, suffering so many difficulties – many of which would be greatly ameliorated by the acquisition of emotional intelligence. Even where the neurotype doesn’t support that particular skill, knowledge of it can make all the difference. A person that is raised by an emotionally illiterate parent can’t discern what they don’t know.
I am a passionate advocate of EQ as an essential part of early years formal education. I know for sure that some of my issues would never have taken root so deeply had an education system been in place which valued the growth of the individual. As autistic people we all know this to be true. How true is it for the neurotypical population, too?
A formal EQ curriculum could change everything. Skills are very much about identifying the unique personality of each child and nurturing their uniqueness and their strengths on a progressive basis– tailoring each child’s education to their own identified needs. And nurturing their individual, unique talents. What could possibly be better for all children, neurodivergent or otherwise?
Are there fellow autistics who have followed a similar path, had similar histories, and/or studied these issues in depth? I would very much welcome all ideas, feedback and points of view.
- EQ Skills as an Imperative to Formal Curriculum? - November 29, 2020
- Reactions to Late Autism Diagnosis - December 14, 2018
The closest thing I had to EQ education was English class. As we read Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies, it taught me a bit more about emotions and interacting with people, especially girls. I wish there had been something more explicit and formal.
There is a caveat to the whole thing about the EQ curriculum: It is VITAL that such a program be carefully evaluated to incorporate actual psychological knowledge about how emotions are processed. Because some who purport to teach such things instead teach that there are only two acceptable emotions: keeping unhappy emotions bottled up save for that which explicitly reinforces the hierarchy, and happy-happy-joy-joy about how wonderful it is to serve the higher-ups. Cults do this all the time, as do some other programs that, while not officially cults, do practice many of the same habits. And indeed, some cults (the IFB comes to mind) have even developed curricula about “building character”, and they could just as easily develop an “EQ-building curriculum” that really amounts to “do only the emotional reactions that would serve a cult” with a hefty side of “even if we provoke you on purpose (which we will) you must ALWAYS grin and bear it or at the very least stay perfectly and utterly calm at all times under such provocation without ever having even the tiniest quiver or the tiniest sharp edge in your voice”. Heck, ABA might do the same thing. My special ed school kinda did (and they only didn’t explicitly put crying on the behavior plan because they knew that might not go over well with parents).
So definitely make sure that any EQ programs that are implemented teach actual emotional intelligence rather than punishing people for emotion (which is no better than having an abusive parent, and believe you me, if said student’s parents aren’t abusive the program can pit the student against said parents and leave them wondering whether they should even trust their parents for the truth because the school folk “are the experts, y’know?”.
And speaking of which, if such a school uses Yo Gabba Gabba or Super Why or the lessons seen in those shows in its EQ curriculum, run. Those messages can be potentially toxic. And it turns out that children’s show Yo Gabba Gabba is affiliated with MLM scams, which doesn’t surprise me in the least. And Super Why, while it doesn’t do that, talks down to people and is chock-full of glurge.
I agree. At this stage in our society, there’s too much of a chance this will all turn into authoritarian manipulation. It’s the teacher who can’t be taught EQ, if they’re authoritarian or locked in unhealthy patterns of their own.
Having said that, a well-informed EQ course would make sense at the college level and with adults generally. They can’t be as easily coerced, and are free to talk back. EQ is about a horizontal, two way street of communication as well as about self understanding, which can take some maturity to begin to grok.
Really good points there. As Raphael Solomon says above with his comments about Shakespeare, you can learn more about emotions from good literature than from happy clapping
The very core of emotional intelligence recognises that emotions must be honoured no matter what they are. Emotions are neither good nor bad – they are experiences, not choices. I haven’t yet come across anyone couching the methods you describe under the umbrella of EQ, but of course that’s not to say that there aren’t such people doing that.
I should qualify what I said about choices; it is very possible to shift our emotional states through the use of various tools, but to enable that, it’s important to recognise and acknowledge our primary emotions through becoming more emotionally literate. EQ is solely about empowering the individual, not those around them 🙂
I’ve done a bunch of reading about trauma healing and somatics as well, and was also diagnosed later in life last year at the age of 36. I loved this article and agree very much with the need for emotional intelligence being taught as a basic curriculum, and like other commenters above, by well-vetted psychology-informed and trauma-informed sources! I especially loved the line “A person that is raised by an emotionally illiterate parent can’t discern what they don’t know.” So true!
I’ve been getting somatic experiencing therapy for a little over a year now, and I love it, in face the name of my practitioner’s company is Healing Through Feeling! Both somatically/physically and emotionally, because they’re one and the same. I highly recommend somatic experiencing, it’s a very gentle, titrated, trauma-informed approach with a focus on not re-traumatizing the individual by forcing them to rehash past memories. More info on it here: https://traumahealing.org/about-us/#about
I was referred to this article after having shared a post on Facebook recently, sharing some of my thoughts on the emotional struggles of autistic people and emotional intelligence.
I found your article an interesting read and I’m glad to see that this subject is being talked about. I found out I have CPTSD several years before my autism diagnosis. At the point of my autism diagnosis I had already done several years of processing trauma and learning to understand my emotions and emotional nature. It helped me understand more deeply how trauma impacts people and how it impacted me.
When I found out I was autistic I needed to distinguish between what was CPTSD and what was autism. It was difficult at times, but I gradually began to understand it. What in CPTSD terms is called an ‘emotional flashback’ is called a ‘meltdown’ in autism terms, which to me felt like it was one and the same thing. After looking into it, by examining my own experience along with researching the subject, I came to see that many of what the medical system calls ‘autistic traits’ are actually more to do with trauma than with autism itself. Autistic people process trauma differently and can be more deeply impacted by trauma due to our sensitive nature. Our trauma responses may be different or more distinct from neurotypical people’s trauma responses. We also experience trauma simply from being autistic in a world that doesn’t accommodate or even recognise us properly, where we experience ongoing exclusion, discrimination and misunderstandings.
It’s an interesting subject I keep looking into. There is a lot more to discover and talk about when it comes to autism and trauma.
Thank you for writing.
My experience is similar to yours though perhaps in reverse.
I don’t have an autism diagnosis but very much feel I should. I’ve been diagnosed with C-PTSD and wouldn’t really disagree though am loathe to collect labels at the same time.
I first encountered EQ as a teacher maybe 20 years ago when attending a professional development seminar I was given an EQ test in which to my horror, I scored 3 out of 10 or 20 (I can’t recall which). Not disclosing this to any of my colleagues who weren’t really colleagues, I took the test home and asked my partner to take it. He also scored a dismal 3 and we went through the answers together corroborating that yes, we had chosen ‘the correct’ ones, after all, if someone abuses you to walk away would be ridiculous, telling them where to go would be thoroughly justified. Nevertheless, I was curious and spent some time and research developing my deficiencies. My partner who I later left, was never interested in upgrading his.
I’ve now spent a good deal of time over the past 12 years trying to work out where autism, depression, anxiety and later, C-PTSD coincide and how for some of my life experiences that C-PTSD / depression /anxiety etc., could never fully explain what was going on, especially as I supposedly had some pretty good strategies and skills to deal with it all. The more I read, the more it seemed that autism filled that void.
I guess I’m trying to work out what to do next. Like you, I’m over 50 and it seems a very difficult age to start again.
I agree that emotional intelligence skills development would be a brilliant thing to have in schools. The school I was at back then was offered a trial of a new EQ program that had been developed but to my amazement, they knocked it back. The school was in a relatively low socio-economic area and developing those skills would have made a lifelong difference to those kids, some of who were growing up in abusive and impoverished homes – one, an 8 year-old boy confided to me that he wanted to kill himself.
I guess as well as helping people to deal with their own conflicts, EQ can also go a long way as far as addressing prejudice and bigotry goes – something I’m coming to understand autistic people are often subject to.