Very Grand Emotions: How Autistics and Neurotypicals Experience Emotions Differently

Characterizations of Autistic people often reflect a profile of a stoic, unfeeling, emotionless automaton. Many times, the only emotion ascribed to autistics, especially by the lay writers who populate the dustbin of Amazon Kindle’s self-published section, is explosive anger.

This is an accusation which has often been leveled against me, usually much to my confusion. One notable example was a social media post I was tagged into about infant circumcision. The journal article in the post was absolute quack science. It was emotionally manipulative, purposefully misleading, and rife with untruths and ethical violations.

So, instead of responding to the topic, I talked about the lack of veracity and the void of research ethics from the authors of the journal article. If a debate were happening, my friends deserved to have accurate, factual information to make such an important decision.

Immediately, everyone in the discussion assumed I had coldly taken a position in favor of routine infant circumcision. It was intense. I was accused of intellectualizing to preserve a personal preference (I hadn’t stated or even considered a personal preference), of not having a conscience, of “supporting genital mutilation,” and other atrocious attributes and thoughts.

The more I attempted to reason, the worse the situation became and the more convinced people were about my terrible personality and empty heart. Explaining was regarded as manipulation, being combative, and again… having no feelings. I lost friends over that conversation. I didn’t realize I was speaking a different language. I didn’t realize that my emotional experience was different from theirs. None of us did.

This was one of many similar instances in my life. I have historically walked away from such situations feeling devastated, angry, confused, and frankly, like everyone else was delusional. They felt the same way about me.

My “massive ego” is almost always a part of the charges in these discussions, parallel to the narrative that I am emotionless. What most bothered me was that no one was understanding how deeply I did feel.

It’s only been recently that I’ve reached an understanding about what is really happening in these situations. I haven’t had the right language to define and label my emotions, because my emotions are different and are experienced differently from other people’s.

An Epiphany Courtesy of RBG

Another reason I’ve been accused of being emotionless is my lack of tears during films. Other times, I’ve been accused of emotional instability due to my intense reactions during documentaries, news segments, and even advertisements others have been able to easily move beyond.

I can’t handle television, and must digest my news with a curated and metered approach. If I’m in a restaurant, at someone’s home, or even in the waiting room of a doctor’s office and the news is playing on the television, I can’t understand how others can see a bloodied white sheet covering a casualty of war after a bombing, or an advertisement for a non-profit featuring a scarred and mangled animal that has been the victim of abuse, and can simply continue eating or carry on with their casual conversation unfazed. I don’t understand how they can laugh at a joke seconds later.

But, so many times, my focus on something is coming from a different emotional angle, and it doesn’t read to neurotypical people that my response is deeply felt and from a place of passionate emotional depth.

Then, there was clarity. While watching the documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, RBG, I had an epiphany. She said, “Justice and mercy. [ . . . ] They’re very grand emotions.”

And it hit me, that to me, those are two of my deepest-felt emotions. Justice, equality, fairness, mercy, longsuffering, Work, Passion, knowledge, and above all else, Truth. Those are my primary emotions.

I didn’t have the language before to be able to explain how profoundly these emotions affected me, conceiving them more as ideas than feelings. At least, that’s what I was told they were.

In the pursuit of those emotions, other feelings are secondary, superficial, misleading, and trite. Sadness, grief, jealousy, fear, joy, shame, sympathy… those are emotions which serve only me; but Truth and Work, Passion and Justice, longsuffering and Equality… those are emotions which serve the Greater Good. Those emotions are the mobilization of Love.

Practical Application & Conflict

As long as the characterization of what autism means is pathologized and wildly misunderstood, the majority of autistics will not find their way to a diagnosis. Characterizing us as being without empathy is not only categorically untrue, but it also guarantees that we aren’t going to find our way to diagnosis and self-knowledge. It’s dehumanizing and unethical. There’s no way we can see ourselves as not having empathy because we feel a profusion of it.

I have a close friend, a neurodivergent woman I trust more than family, and we have only recently met. We don’t observe neurotypical boundaries. She, too, is a writer and a prominent figure in the Neurodiversity Movement. She will show me something she has been working on, and my immediate response will be to correct the language which might not be as accurate or as thoughtful as it could be. I do this before telling her how proud I am for the Work she’s doing, before I tell her it’s well-written, and before I affirm for her that she is a good person doing a good thing. She does the same for me.

The reason I skip the validation or praise is because if someone complimented me on Work I was doing, then I would feel they were implying that I was Laboring in the interest of self-promotion or validation-seeking.

These aren’t spoken values, but something we feel innately. This is how I Labor with other autistics. We correct each other. We offer what expertise and insight we can to sharpen the other’s Work, to add volume and clarity to the other’s Love song.

My new friend and I have already joked that we won’t be sending each other birthday cards or holiday gifts. We don’t ever talk about clothes, or the weather, or even ask each other, “How was your day?” To us, these details are things we will offer up if it’s relevant.

If the other doesn’t address something adequately enough, we tell them directly, “I still want to talk about that thing you didn’t respond to with enough focus.” We do sometimes talk about family, health, and our personal emotions, those secondary feelings most people experience as primary emotions.

These emotional differences do cause profound conflict with our neurotypical peers. When we follow the, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” maxim, it fails us with our non-autistic loved ones. They feel that we are invalidating, selfish, thoughtless, and socially tone deaf. We feel that way about them, too; however, being the vast minority, we are the ones who are pathologized.

Are We in the Wrong?

Reason would be another “very grand emotion” for me, so I would like to invite readers to “feel” through my lens as I Reason through this question. Is it wrong for autistics to feel the way we do and interact the way we do? Do we need social skills training to learn to listen to people’s personal emotions and respond to those instead of the “very grand emotions” which take precedence for us?

If so, do others not need social skills training to respond to us in ways that feel unnatural for them? Are we tone deaf for not responding with, “That must be so scary/difficult/painful for you,” as opposed to, “How can I help?,” or “Here is how to fix this problem”?

Because we do have our own intuited, innate empathy. We do have a social “code” that is written in our neurology, and we do respond in a way that gels with and validates other autistics. We do form deep, impenetrable connections with each other, and these connections are not chores to maintain.

We tend to not interact outside of those things which involve the “very grand emotions,” but we pick back up immediately when we need each other, be it a month later or in three years. Sometimes, our interactions are based on personal emotions, but that’s in the spirit of another grand emotion: Solidarity.

Solidarity is why when you tell an autistic something, we share with you our closest relative experience. We aren’t one-upping or implying we know how you feel… because we truly can’t. It would go against what we can know is empirical Truth to claim to understand your emotions through your perspective and in light of your experiences and history. It would be disrespectful to you, a platitude or a lie.

We are saying, “This is how I share your path.” There is a question implied, too. “Have I come close to your experience?” To neurotypicals, this reads as egotistical in the same way that neurotypicals, estimating our feelings in response reads as egotistical to us.

We want to hear if something was Fair or Just, if our secondary emotions are in-line with the “very grand emotions.” Or, at least we want you to troubleshoot with us and help us explore the angles beyond our limited perspectives.

To know about these differences, though, is empowering. It’s why Knowledge is valuable as a “very grand emotion.”

A neurotypical person is not wired to be rewarded by our brand of interaction and emotional Solidarity. Our method of relatedness doesn’t translate our heart accurately with neurotypicals. Our direct, blunt, and sometimes-brutal honesty is offensive to neurotypicals; and in turn, their roundabout, indirect, suggestive language reads as confusing, manipulative, and patronizing to us.

Our neurotypical therapists don’t even have the language to understand us because they’ve not learned how we experience emotions differently. That’s okay, because we don’t have the language yet, either. This failure to be understood is infinitely isolating, especially when it is perceived that we are unfeeling.


Ruth Bader Ginsburg has always been a shero to me. In watching the documentary with my husband, the only film I’ve watched in the last two years, he and I felt a lot of those “very grand emotions” in Solidarity. The relationship between Ruth and her husband Marty was very similar to our own marriage.

Marty had to remind Ruth to sleep, eat, and do whatever else that wasn’t Work. Professionally, his career took the back seat to her Work, because her Work contributed more to the Greater Good.

He did the brunt of the domestic load and the cooking at home, and he moved so that she could advance her career, not for any monetary reason, but for Justice and Mercy. He was also the primary source of humor and nurture in the house. He was laid back where she was rigid. This is all familiar to me and my husband, and we find this tale to be profoundly romantic.

There were so many times during that film that I brimmed with “very grand emotions” and my eyes welled with tears. My husband, who is also autistic, was on the same page with me the whole time, squeezing my hand in Solidarity at just those right moments to say, “That’s you right there,” or “That’s how I feel about you.”

To me, this was deeply romantic and validating. He was loving me with our primary emotions by loving my Work and being proud of what most partners would see as neglectful.

I felt extreme gratitude to him for that validation. We use our strengths to supplement each other. As a team, we can accomplish more for the Greater Good by dividing the Labor. Our accomplishments belong to neither of us, because we don’t believe in ownership. We don’t really congratulate each other, because that would be an invalidation of the Purpose.

We didn’t remember our anniversary this year. Or last year. We forgot together, even though it’s on a holiday. We have grander emotional connections, and that is okay. It works for us, but neither of us would be great partners for a neurotypical spouse.

I realized, too, that the emotion which has always moved me most profoundly, that brings me to tears every time, is Dissent. To see RBG, her tiny form and her enormous heart, utter the words, “I Dissent,” moved me to sobbing. It was Righteous Indignation and Solidarity. Pride. Movement. All “very grand emotions.”

To this day, I can’t look at the image of the man standing before the tanks at Tiananmen Square without crying and experiencing full-body chills. I’m crying now, as I type this. The Courage and Selflessness it took to be one small person against a literal army, against what had to feel like the weight of the universe, is the most inspiring gesture fathomable.

I cry with inspiration and reverence, too, every time I think of the Dandi Salt March led by Gandhi or the Bloody Sunday Selma-to-Montgomery March held in the US during the Civil Rights Movement. Dissent is the mightiest, boldest, bravest of “very grand emotions.”

There were so many instances during the film that comments were made about Ruth as a synesthetic consumer of classical music and opera, as a hater of small talk, and as singularly-focused workaholic that one would wonder what the producers were trying to communicate.

I am by no means suggesting or implying anything about RBG’s neurotype. I definitely am not comparing my or my husband’s accomplishments to her’s and Marty’s. Most autistic people’s Movements are smaller in scale, and some never are realized because of antagonism, self-defeat, lack of motivation, lack of understanding, and lack of privilege.

But, I am sure that, if RBG didn’t have the celebrity she has, a therapist would decry that her Work habits are unhealthy and that she needs to find a balance between her job, family, and self-care. Her path to get where she is would be pathologized. Her role as a wife and mother might be considered as lacking in nurture or being absent, though I doubt her husband would ever have felt that way about her.

I mention her not to conjecture about her neurology, and especially not to compare myself to her. I only wish to credit her as being the source of inspiration for giving me the language to understand, study, communicate, compare, and contrast my emotions with those of the neural majority.

A Request for Feedback

Since the epiphany, I’ve had many conversations with other autistic friends and with some neurotypicals, too. Overwhelmingly, my experience is not unique to me, and other autistics relate profoundly while neurotypicals do not. Of course, no two people’s experiences are identical, but there is enough assent among autistics to verify that this is an idea with legs. It’s worth pursuing.

A notion like this is a big one, a theory that if validated could provide much value to the world, in industrial and organizational psychology, in education, in professional settings, in therapeutic interventions, in sociology, in behavior economics, in social justice, and in understanding empathy in a way that is universal and not contingent on cultural norms.

It has potential to inform Progress, to humanize and de-pathologize neurodivergent existence, to tailor treatments and diagnostic indicators for them, to help inter-neurotype couples and loved ones understand each other better and have more rewarding interactions, and to re-frame the conceptualization of neurodivergent people with more of those very grand emotions, like Fairness and Truth.

So, if you have access to influence research, please consider this as a topic to explore that would benefit the autistic condition and define autistic identity. Use your fundraising and efforts to explore this idea. Love us in our language with our “very grand emotions.”

I give permission to the world to take this theory, develop it, use it, improve it, research it, publish it, respond to it, and mobilize it for the Greater Good. I don’t believe in ownership.

And I ask that, if you have the time, you share with me your thoughts and your feelings, be they personal or “very grand emotions.” It would be helpful to know if you are neurotypical or neurodivergent.

Information-sharing is a love language of autistics, as Knowledge is a “very grand emotion,” indeed.

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84 Responses

  1. I am the neurotypical mother of a neurodiverse son. I can’t thank you enough for this information. When I hear, see or read Truth, I respond with goosebumps. I have goosebumps as I write this. You have given me the tools to relate to him better and to understand that his relationship with his wife is the right one for him. Thank you

    1. Thank you so much, Simona! This is certainly what I hoped to hear, and you have truly made my day. Solidarity ❤️

    2. I am not sure how the system works, so just clicking in ‘reply’ here to comment on your blog. Apologies to Simona. Very, very interesting. I may or may not be on the spectrum, as I really only have 2 of the categories. But, I really do recognise what you write. For me arguments are not about emotion but about facts. Finding fairness and justice and solutions based on facts, regardless of how I feel about those. As a result I have been kicked out by flat mates twice (unfeeling, heartless). And really attempt to engage as little as possible in discussions. Hard to do, as I do LOVE learning facts. After I shared a story about my best friends divorce my in-laws thought I was keen to divorce as well. This baffled me. But now I see it was the same process. I was identifying with my best friend by sharing her story. They though I felt THE SAME as her. Why else would I be sharing the story? I must have had a deeper meaning. In fact, I never do. And political moves and manipulation typically baffle me.

      CBT was a profoundly scary and baffling experience. I am aware I don’t always pick up signals in conversations, or at least not those I should have, and here was my therapist also questioning the few signals that I did pick up. Asking ‘How do you know this person doesn’t like you, did they tell you?’. Euh, no. But really, trust me, if even I have picked up they don’t it is actually a fact, because they must have been pretty blunt about it. So after 4 sessions I gave up.

      Therapy that works for me is the one that helps me define my feelings, then helps me figure out what I want, then helps me find ways I can get there in my own way. Someone who listens, then feeds back to me how I feel. For some reason I often find it hard to disentangle that myself, and it feels like a relief when someone says: I hear you are sad. That’s okay.

      Someone who says: so you want this, and you feel very strongly about that, and you say you need other people on board for that. What has worked for you in the past to get other people on board? Not much, I would then answer. We unpick what has. She gives me confidence in the abilities I do have, and then feeds back to me that everything I do in a conversation is about me e.g. ‘I am looking for facts to help me form a new opinion’ or “I am a worried I will say the wrong thing and offend this person’. She is now teaching me to find ways to focus on the other, consciously and subconsciously. This is proving immensely helpful.

      Your article also explains why my 14 year old son often thinks I don’t actually love him or am just not interested in him or don’t care. He doesn’t get my way of showing love. And this will help us further in understanding each other.

      It also explains what happened when I accidentally hit a fellow road user. A young girl gets out, and looks at the damage. Turns out this is day 1 of her driving her first ever car. I have damaged it. I was just mortified. The only thing I did was stand there, feeling for her, knowing it was my fault, knowing I just wanted to disappear and make it unhappen. Later my son asked: why were you so cold? Why did you not even apologise or show any emotions? Exactly for the reasons you say: i was mortified! What can a guilty person say to make it good? I had so many emotions I just froze. The only thing I could do was sort the insurance and make sure she got paid out. That’s what I did.

      Perhaps it would be good to get more stories out there that not everyone responds in the same way to emotions.

      I know sometimes judges give a higher punishment if someone doesn’t show remorse. Now imagine if that is a person on the spectrum? Perhaps they show remorse in a different way? More research would be good for sure.

      I typically just give people an instruction manual with me. Explaining what I mean. It works for friends, but obviously harder for strangers. And of course I know what you are supposed to say and how you are supposed to respond in most situations, so I can do the small talk quite well now.

  2. I’ve often thought my emotions don’t fit the categories usually defined by NTs. I feel things like frustration, righteousness, sorrow, despair, satisfaction, zealousness and melancholy, but I can’t relate to the basic emotions like happiness or sadness. I think it’s because my emotions are always rooted in some object or event (except perhaps depression which often seems baseless), whereas happiness and sadness seem like intrinsic emotions which don’t have any external component.

    Very often my emotion relates to some kind of disharmony in the world, like some discrepancy between how something is and how I feel it ought to be. Often if whatever problem my bad feeling relates to is corrected then I will have a good feeling and I don’t think that’s just superficial, it’s because my mind can only be at ease once a troubling problem has a resolution. I think the solidarity is an important point too, everything to NTs is part of a competitive game whereas we are genuinely seeking common understanding.

    I get what you’re saying about therapists, the tactic of CBT seems to be based on the assumption that our emotions are irrational and flexible if we just looked at things differently, but I am already perfectly clear on reality and that’s what my emotions are based on, I would have to lie to myself to follow CBT and that’s a very short term solution because I can’t keep up lies for long. When I say I’m dissatisfied with the quality of my work therapists think I mean other people will judge my work poorly and so she asks consider all the positive feedback I’ve received, but in reality I don’t care how other people perceive my work, if it’s not meeting my personal standards the only solutions are to either change my standards or change my work.

    I’ve never seen the RBG film but I guess I’ll have to watch it now. Dissent is a very powerful one, that can bring me to tears if I think of someone courageously standing up to injustice and simply saying “no”. I remember the first time I read about people like Rosa Parks and Viola Desmond, thinking how their actions epitomized heroism, to stand for justice even when society says you’re wrong. I guess this is why I never seem to cry in movies about romance or death but I can’t stop crying in movies about social justice and civil rights. Vindication of truth is overwhelming.

    1. This reminds me of a movie date I had with my eventual wife. We went to see Hotel Rwanda. I almost had a meltdown by the end, crying uncontrollably. I was concerned that she mighr be put off by such a display, considering how different what she had experienced til then with me. But I think it gave her an opportunity to she that even though I seemed “cold and distant” at times, I could also feel and care DEEPLY,

  3. This made me think about how our social inclinations are sort of opposite to how we approach our work and special interests In interests and work we are very detail oriented and focus on small parts, but socially we focus more on the big picture. As in, we are more likely to feel deeply on a grand scheme of morality level than on an individual, “how was your day?” Sort of level.

    Also, I do emphasize with my friends and family on their day to day lives, but I show my empathy best by doing. I’m not super comfortable trying to comfort people with words, because words feel flat and almost assumptive. I don’t want to say “it will get better,” if I don’t truly know that it will. So, I’m more likely to ask what I can do. “What can I do?” Is not me dismissing emotions; it is my genuine effort to change what I am capable of. If I can’t change anything, I’m more likely to bring you cheesecake and say “this really sucks” than to be super affirming, but that is because authenticity and truth are more important to me than immediate resolution. This wraps into my “solidarity” emotion as well.

    Lastly, I find I respond more strongly to what I think of as unnatural hurts than what I think of as natural, though painful, life experiences. For example, I am full of rage and sorrow for neglected or abused children because those things should never happen. Whereas, while I do feel sadness when an older family member of a friend dies it is much more muted. This is because death in old age is a natural occurrence. It isn’t wrong; it just sucks.

  4. This will probably be considered totally “off the wall,” but I see most of the things you call emotions as ideas, abstractions, etc. Any of which can provoke emotions, of course, but they aren’t emotions in themselves. Which leads me to your problems discussing circumcision. The attacks on you had far more to do with your use of reasoned arguments in opposition to their emotions than it did with any of your emotions which, as you say, they don’t understand. Of course, they don’t, because you are supposed to be using the same kind of arguments they are — emotional. And how in the world you expect them to understand emotions that you conceal is beyond me. I deliberately keep my emotions to myself, but I long ago learned that the average person, NT or not, does not respond well to reason and logic. Which is why I no longer bother to participate in discussions that go off-track.

    You seem to think this type of conflict has something to do with autism. It doesn’t. I see this constantly in internet discussions, no matter the subject, or the type of people participating in it. Humans, in general, are not reasonable or logical. Unfortunately, when you use reason and logic, it just feeds into their image of autistics as cold and unfeeling. Since you aren’t going to change anyone’s mind, why even participate, to your own detriment, and the detriment of autistics as a whole? If you were accomplishing something, it would be worthwhile to risk conflict, but you aren’t, by your own admission.

    And, by the way, people on the spectrum are usually just as guilty of arguing from an emotional standpoint as NTs are.

    1. This comment is all over the place and seems to directly contradict itself at times. If people on the spectrum are usually ‘just as guilty’ of arguing from an emotional standpoint, for instance, then how can the author be further giving them an impression of being ‘cold and unfeeling’ by using reasoned, logical arguments? Those statements are in direct opposition to each other. Further, the suggestion that it’s bad and actively harmful to the autistic community as a whole for any one autistic person to engage in an argument using a specific kind of debate that might ~cast autistic people in a bad light~ is…wow, that’s a lot to unpack. Why should one individual’s actions reflect upon our entire community, as though we’re some kind of hivemind? That’s really only an argument that ever gets used against minority groups to stigmatize them, and it also only ever comes up in the context of trying to silence specific voices in those groups. You’re casting the fault for autistic stereotypes on the actions of individual autistic people, instead of recognizing that stereotyping groups of people (rather than judging individuals based on their individual actions) is a flawed and harmful way of thinking.

      Further, let’s delve into your presupposition that humans are mostly allergic to reason and logic(which to be honest is a mindset I mostly see from condescending internet pseudo-intellectuals who are disgusted by any appeals for empathy or morality from what they proclaim ‘SJWs’, so that’s already a questionable argument to be launching into from where I stand). You seem to be arguing that there is no point in actually bringing reason or logic into discussions at all, and that one should just pre-assume failure in communication rather than run any risk of not being listened to or understood. What an incredibly reductive, useless mindset that is! Even if stating one’s opinion didn’t accomplish its own ends in the form of allowing a person to self-express, even if logic and reason were both somehow as antithetical to emotion as you suggest(they CAN exist simultaneously, on the same side of an argument, regardless of whether one or the other is receiving more focus or being communicated more effectively), even if you don’t change anyone’s mind, presenting a different viewpoint in an argument isn’t some inherently bad or destructive thing. Just getting a different point of view out there can be elucidating, and it at least INVITES people to consider an issue in a light they may not have thought of it before. There’s no guarantee it will be constructive, but when are there any guarantees in interpersonal communication? To suggest that one should only communicate one’s thoughts and opinions if you can be absolutely sure a positive end goal can be reached by doing so is to suggest that someone shut down almost all self-expression and socialization, and further paints communication as a means to an end instead of an end in itself. Sometimes communication IS the point, not what you can gain from it.

      By the way, your personal anecdotes for the discussions you’ve seen on the internet aren’t particularly convincing that these communication patterns and issues the author sees have nothing to do with autism. For one thing, as I mentioned right off the bat, you seem to have admitted yourself that autistic people can argue either logically or emotionally, which means that – at least for you – it’s impossible to tell from the way someone argues whether or not they’re autistic. So, in those internet arguments you’ve witnessed, that supposedly debunk the idea that this trend is tied to being neurodivergent in any way…how do you know which participants were autistic, and which were not? Did you ask them? And if you have no idea, how can you claim to know better than the author, who DID poll the people they spoke to in regards to both their reactions and their neurotype? To be clear, I’m not insisting your point that this can be a trend that’s seen in the broader human experience is totally wrong – it may be, and I’m no expert myself – but I am saying that your anecdotal evidence of this has absolutely no weight or veracity to it. Your entire comment is borderline combative and seems to be you presenting your opinions and emotional response to this article as hard facts and counters to the author, when they simply aren’t. What ideas you have here that aren’t actively stifling or harmful, are simply ill thought out and contradictory.

  5. In regards to the article itself – thank you so much for your observations on solidarity! I’ve only recently permitted myself to self-diagnose as autistic – I hesitated on my self-diagnosis because I also have ADHD and I know that have a lot of overlap with autism, but my doctor refused me a clinical diagnosis on the basis of ‘not believing in labels’ (and perhaps I should be grateful for that, given that I’ve heard since that getting a clinical diagnosis has some significant downsides) – and I’m still in the process of accepting that so many things I thought were personal failings or bad habits of mine are simply natural functions of my autistic mind working in different ways than a neurotypical person’s. That my experiences aren’t annoying personal quirks or aberrations I ought to feel guilty for having, so much as traits and habits of an autistic person which may be baffling to neurotypicals, but which an entire community of autistic people can understand and relate to. I’m still in the process of discovering just how many aspects of myself are common autistic experiences that I no longer have to feel alone in Your paragraphs on solidarity were another watershed moment for me in that regard; I can’t tell you how often I’ve responded to someone over social media by relating my own similar experiences to what they’re discussing, only to be accused of derailing the conversation or trying to make it all about me, when all I was trying to do was to show in what way I can relate. Thank you so much for articulating yet another aspect of autism that isn’t just me.

  6. I am a neurotypical psychotherapist, and I appreciated reading this so much. It’s a good perspective for me to know. Understanding this could help me better help clients down the road.

    What struck me the most is the section “Are We In the Wrong?” where you compare the response that resonates for neurotypical people (“that must be so scary/difficult/painful for you”) to “How can I help?/Here is how to fix it/This is my own experience which is similar” which seems to resonate better for you. In my experience, therapists are taught to use the first one, and in a lot of circumstances I think that’s a good thing. Basically, we’re taught, “Don’t try to fix things, don’t try to make feelings go away, let it be okay that these feelings are here”. That is validating for a lot of people, so we often teach it to others as well. People frequently offer solutions to problems when others don’t actually want solutions. Trying to fix bad feelings tells them, “I’m not comfortable with your pain so you need to feel better right now”, and telling them how to fix problems says, “You aren’t handling this well enough on your own; clearly you need advice”. Telling them about your own similar experience says, “I know exactly what you’re going through” when no one can know that.

    But it sounds like maybe for you, “That must be so scary” is the phrase that says, “I know exactly what you’re going through” when no one could possibly know that. “This is my own similar experience” sounds like understanding and connecting. I’m glad you’ve challenged some of my assumptions here. It’s good to remember that we can communicate in such subtly different ways, that we can all need such different things, and anybody’s reactions might seem unreasonable because they are nuanced and complex.

    1. This! Holy crap, Kim, yes, this!

      I’ve been working so hard in therapy to learn how to be emotionally validating, to learn CBT so that I can respond more ‘appropriately’ – but every step of the way feels like I’m slogging uphill through a swamp. It’s unnatural. And I get that when my subjective experience compels me to behave in ways that NT’s can’t understand the compassionate people who care about me want to help me, but until I read this essay I don’t think I fully grokked just how different my subjective experience might be.

      Learning to do all of these other behaviors is like learning to do everything backwards and in heels – and it _sucks_ and feels so invalidating, constantly.

      Terra, this essay made me understand that I don’t have to accept the invalidation. I may have one day gotten there, but this helps so much!

    2. Kim, thank you so much for your response.

      I understand, now, that people need me to respond differently to them. I also believe that one reason that autistics are so vulnerable to narcissists is that they read the emotional invalidation as autistic empathy. If a neurotypical person says in response to someone whose car broke down on the side of the road, “Well, maybe you need to be more diligent about checking your oil and checking your transmission fluid,” an autistic person does not see this as gaslighting and is likely to think about setting reminders in his or her phone to get regular oil changes. The neurotypical person was purposefully responding in a way that was not empathetic.

      People think that we (autistics) don’t get hints, but again, that is a two-way street. We very much do get hints, but we are wired to respond differently. Or, we are wired to think some things are hints and some are not. When we tell a neurotypical a statement of fact, it is more like an open-ended question to which they can respond with their closest experience. If I say, “My car broke down on the highway,” and someone starts asking me questions about my car, I feel gratitude toward them because I assume they are engaging in my love language: joint troubleshooting. I don’t intuit that they are trying to make me feel like I did something wrong. I also think that they are trying to help me understand something about which they have some expertise.

      Autistic people are accused of talking about their special interest too often, but this is because we don’t like to lend advice or input about things with which we aren’t intimately aware. That would feel egotistical and narcissistic, to belie expertise that wasn’t ours. We think that someone is trying to connect with us on common ground, and that information-sharing is intimate. It’s because we have poured our whole heart and soul into obtaining that knowledge, and we think that others value knowledge as much as we do. We’re establishing common ground, the same way NTs do when they say, “The Lord is good,” to determine if someone is a Christian, or “Kids these days,” in response to a group of noisy children to determine if the other person shares their “seen not heard” philosophy. We, too, are information-mining, seeing how compatible our beliefs and passions are. We are being subtle, too. It’s just that neurotypical people don’t understand how much passion we put into our knowledge, and what it means and why we spend so much time on it.

      I have much bigger ideas to unroll this month than the emotional relatedness theory. I do hope that you will follow the blog and share with us

      1. I am autistic and don’t like people offering me solutions to problems unless I ask for them. I also don’t like when people say “oh that must be X for you” because they’re usually wrong.

        I prefer when people ask questions, or tell me about a similar thing they’ve experienced. Questions show they want to get to know me, and similar experiences make me feel less alone. It can also give me a hint on how to solve my problem without the baggage that straight up offering a solution does. (offering a sollution puts pressure on me to do that sollution, and for me the solution often reveals how little they get the problem – usually I’ve considered that solution and many others already. It’d be better if they asked ME what Ideas I had to solve it.

  7. Fascinating description. Since you’ve asked for others’ stories: I am, as far as I know, neurotypical. I also share a strong response to all of the “grand emotions” you describe, but that is how I would frame my experience: not that the “grand emotions: are feelings in themselves, but that they are triggers for feelings… they are experiences or purposes or goals which cause feelings to occur for me. (I don’t consider that especially better or worse than experiencing them as feelings; I’m simply reporting the difference.)

    Solidarity, Reason, Truth, Justice, Mercy, Work and the other descriptors you use are, as I perceive them, not things which exist chiefly in my emotional self. To me, they are *values* rather than *feelings*. As values, presentations of these things exist in fact, in the world of happenings. If I exhibit rational behavior, if I discuss something in a reasoned way, then I am building Reason. If I focus my energy to create an item or idea, I am making Work happen. If I speak what I understand to be accurate, taking trouble to ensure that it is real to the best of my ability, then I am creating Truth. If I do the fair thing without regard to my personal benefit or detriment, I am exhibiting Justice.

    These actions, in turn, gives me a *feeling* of satisfaction or comfort or relief or pride or whatever else comes up in response to the action. But the act of reasoning or being just or truthful are actions, not feelings, in my own mental lexicon.

    In practice, this shows up for me in many of the same ways it does for you. I strive to exhibit these characteristics in my daily life. I dedicate myself to my Work, I struggle politically and personally for Justice and Mercy, I use Reason to understand my world and to help others understand it and me. I research and speak in pursuit of Truth. I reach out in Solidarity to my community. And all of these things, whether I’m doing them myself or observing them in others, causes deep emotional surges in me, to the point where I, too, have to ration my intake of news so that I’m capable of coping with the pain I experience from the cruelty and the lies; or am overwhelmed at the sight of a single person’s courage. To you, it seems, the Grand Emotions *are* the feelings you experience; to me, they are the *source* of the feelings I experience. Otherwise, a lot of the details seem pretty similar. I don’t appreciate small talk either, though I’ve reluctantly learned to use it because sometimes others find it necessary.

    One definite difference I notice: I’m much less capable of troubleshooting when under stress than you appear to be. Part of the reason why many neurotypicals need to be validated at times of trouble before they can address attempting to fix the problem, I believe, is that when we are overwhelmed our ability to reason clearly about practicalities deserts us. Emotional validation is a type of interactive soothing tool, which helps us regain the control we need in order to resume normal function. In me, at least, it is not intended as a substitute for the Work of thinking out the problem and its solutions… it is a necessary preliminary to that Work.

    Perhaps one reason why some neurotypicals believe autistics to be emotionless is that they are either visibly better than we are at moving directly into the rational stage, or else their soothing techniques aren’t as recognizable to us? I don’t claim to know; I only speculate. But if, as I am told, most autistic self-soothing behaviors are solitary and don’t involve direct interaction with other people, it might look to someone who needed their soothing to involve help from another person as if you didn’t experience strong emotion because you didn’t appear to need any soothing even in situations which would leave most people overwhelmed. This might be true (in that, in that case, the situation which overwhelmed us does not overwhelm you, and so no soothing is needed), or it might be that you can self-soothe in ways which aren’t recognizable as such to the neurotypical; but in either case, it might come across as emotionless because you didn’t show one of the most common signs of emotion in neurotypicals — the need for soothing by others — before being capable of moving past the emotional overwhelm and into a mental space where it is possible to achieve Reason once more. I admit that I envy that characteristic, if indeed it is true of you! Reason is passionately important to me, but not something I can always achieve if my emotions are flooding me too much at the time.

    This has been rambling and disconnected, for which I apologize. I hope there is something in it of value, and which may help build Understanding.

    1. This is what I was thinking, but couldn’t quite put into words. Thank you. I am also thankful to Terra Vance for a new perspective on neurodiverse emotional response. Understanding and appreciation of each others differences is the basis for acceptance and harmony.

  8. I’m shaking after reading this. My wife suggested I read it. I’m 47 but still only now recognising that I’m not neurotypical. I’ve denied my self for so long. Seen myself as odd and worked hard to imitate the typicals around me. I did okay at that but failed a lot.
    You’ve put words to my experience. Thank you so so much. It was like reading that I’m not an orphan but have a big family.

  9. So much this! Thank you for this article. I will be sharing it with my helping professionals immediately.

    I have languaged this phenomena as Neurotypicals are driven by “ego” emotions, whereas we Autists are emotionally charged by “discordant” events in the collective experience.

    IE – NT’s are affected (to the positive or negative) by things that may be inconvenient, or preferable, or that otherwise affect their own ego selves.

    We Autists are affected by things that are in accordance, or are discordant to the collective experience of all inhabitants of this planet.

    How many times have I heard the lie that we Autists are not empathetic?!

    Actually, my empathy is so deep that I don’t prioritize my own small fee-fees (ego feelings) over the benefit of the whole of life. I work hard personally to get over the inconveniences of changing my personal preferences so that our planet and species have a chance of surviving this epoch of humanity.

    How dare anyone suggest that I suffer from a lack of empathy!? Especially someone driving around in a SUV validating every little ego ouch they encounter as they drink their bottled water bought from Nestle!

    I love your explanation about why we are so vulnerable to Narcissists. I noticed this phenomena years ago in myself. Wondering how do I, someone with such a fine tuned sense of honesty and justice, continually fall prey to Narcs?

    Yes! It’s the reflection that invites me to “up my game” that is actually gaslighting in disguise. It gets me every time! My lack of ego doesn’t protect me, thus the Narcs have found an easy target in me.

    Fortunately, I made it a special interest a few years ago to learn how to spot the Narcs. I could easily still fall for their “helpful” gaslighting, except that now when I spot one I immediately run in the other direction.

    One last point….my relationship with my Autistic partner is the best one I’ve ever had. I wholeheartedly support and trumpet the value of having a nero-similar relationship. I’m not dissing the folx in neuro-divergent relationships….I’m just saying that now that I’ve found myself partnered with someone who gets me, I’ll never go back to someone who repeatedly (and willfully?) misunderstands me and is unable to see/validate who I am.

    1. Just adding that there are good neurotypical – autistic relationships.

      My autistic mom has been in a relationship with a neurotypical man for 7 years now, they’re great together and she’s very happy. He wondered about her differences when they started dating, but she told him “well, I don’t notice some things and get exhausted easily and you smoke, we both have our things” and he laughed and accepted her as she is.

      It’s probably not such a deep-connection-relationship as an autistic – autistic relationship might be, but it’s very rewarding – he teaches her how to be light-hearted and how to relax, and she enriches his life by discussing complex issues with him. They’ve both changed so much for the better.

      So I think a neurotypical – autistic relationship can be happy, but it needs more tolerance on both sides and more “ingredients” need to be just right than an autistic – autistic relationship.

  10. It’s hard to explain how much I love this! I have always struggled to explain how deeply I feel things and why my emotions don’t always “line up” with the NT world. It also explains my shock at getting blunt feedback from other autistic people, yet still being loved and accepted. I suppose two many years of being groomed by neurotypicals to wait for the inevitable rejection following the criticism. I do feel pettier emotions as well but on much less grand a scale, and they do not influence my decisions as much as the grander ones.

  11. I was thinking more about this idea last night. Look, emotions are information-bearing signals that translate subjective internal state into meaningful cognitive models, right? People gain information by listening to their emotions.

    But if that’s the case, what would it mean for us to have an emotional response to unfairness or injustice? Might it not mean that we’re not responding to those things at all – that rather we are in fact sensing them?

    When something is unfair it _feels like something_. That’s not just a feeling, that’s a sense, isn’t it?

  12. Ah, Truth. Evidence. The very reality – Substance.
    That’s why Spinoza’s Ethics blew my mind – it put a lot of things we think about into mathematic, empirical form.
    So many NT people disregard truth, but it’s normal. We truely “intellectualize” and they find it impolite/masking because *they do not*, because they are neurotypicals and they are letting their “social instinct” run amok and roar with detestation, instead of leashing it in favor of understanding that detestation and turn it into constructive criticism and solid, reasonable hatred.

    In neurotypical terms of debate, rational arguments and constructive criticism are “soft”, “unemotional” and often even understood as dishonesty in opinion, which *may* eventually be true, but…
    Neurotypicals do not understand that, if they “police” the “debate” as such, they are *depriving themselves* of the *rationality they need* to brandish as the weapon to win against obscurantism, prejudice and evil. They are showing off those social instincts as “e-peens”, wielding them as symbols of power when the manipulators, the abusers, see them as the weak points they are and stroke them to allure them to their side, cultivating the hatred and turning it against the ideals they first defended !

    That feeling of equality, greater good and passion, those are the refined form of the raw emotions you see as trite, they are intellectualized emotions created by the balanced and sane cooperation between Emotion and Reason, between Mind and Heart.
    Neurotypicals demonize Emotion in intellectual disputes, but do the opposite in “hot” “debate”. Those alternating demonizations aim to destroy that balance and place Emotion and Reason in perpetual strife, a state of loathsome insanity, turning opinions into a frictionless ball of rage that manipulators can roll around and toss to their side.

    Neurotypicals need to understand “social instinct” is a tool but also both addictive and a critical weakness.

    1. I basically agree, just would like to add that it’s not a clear-cut difference.

      There are autists who disregard the truth – not often, but I’ve noticed that they tend not to be objective about things related to their childhood suffering – they sometimes disregard actual events and statistics regarding schools, child abuse or bullying. My autistic father is exactly as you describe, but for some reason, this doesn’t apply to teacher-related topics with him – he totally ignores all reports of kind teachers and continues to think all teachers are horrible.

      And there are neurotypicals who make the effort to be objective, check their sources and accept the possibility they might be wrong. Just had a great discussion with a neurotypical man who is like this. We both strive for the truth – in very different ways, but we both value fact more than social instinct. It’s a mark of a good scientist or an investigator – and I don’t think all good scientists and investigators are autistic 🙂

  13. Thank you for this! I’m an almost 30 year old woman, and I’m exploring the possibility that I’m on the spectrum. Lack of diagnosis or misdiagnosis, especially for women who grew up during the era when Autism first became well know, is rather common from what I’ve been reading. I’ve decided it’s better to start with reading as much as I can, especially from adult-diagnosed women, than it is to go to my therapist with my concerns. I know I want to seek official testing or whatever they do for adults at some point, but hearing from autistic people first just makes more sense to me. So again, thank you for helping me add to my understanding.

  14. I’m ND – I have discovered fundamental truths via my study of an English Language degree – only recently. I’m almost 50. What you have written absolutely and totally resonates with me (and I see similarities in my relationship with my partner too). But ultimately, I have always known my truth (I fight for the underdog, I too am moved to tears when I see images or actions of dissent (thank you for that new word – I am finding TRUE words every day). Everything clicked into place when I realised that the problem was not how I communicated with others, but that others expected me to behave and communicate just like them, in a society that made no sense to me at all. Thank you, all of you – for sharing your world with others for what can only be the greater good.

  15. I am the most likely autist daughter of a definitely autist Professor and the mother of an autist son. My father decided at the age of 15 that he wanted to make a contribution to the progress of mankind through Science, (because he was laid up in bed with shingles for 3 months, and there was a lot of optimism on the radio in the 50’s about Science) … and he’s done it, in his own area of expertise. He has carried that vision through 68 years of study and work, which I find simply amazing: and he is still going, at the age of almost 83. I am interested in the links between autism, religion, the monasteries and the development of the university system, which of course gave rise to the Enlightenment and to the enormous scientific advances of the modern era. I was born into a family where a commitment to Truth, Justice, Mercy and Progress were taken for granted, and it is very clear to me that in the past, many autists found their peace, their self-expression and their opportunities to do their best work in the environments characterised by the monastical tradition. In my wilder moments, I wonder if it was the autists who invented God. Thankyou for your article and for highlighting how totally normal it is for people on the spectrum to think and feel in these terms.

  16. Churchill described America and England as being two countries divided by a common language – this is a similar kind of thing. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of a reactive response when the other side has understood you fundamentally. My idea is to define the source of the difference. Partly it is taking things literally versus communicating socially and emotionally. So I tried to define NT language in a way that they could see what they were doing – instead of joining in the game (which never works) of responding to their definitions of us.
    We take facts individually,on merit but they can communicate socially through a hierarchy but also are unaware of it!
    Often responding not to what you ‘say’ (literal) but what they thought you meant (emotional)

    The word I used to define this, I called an ememe – so it’s a way of giving awareness to how they communicate so that they may better understand themselves – otherwise they are not going to be able to even start to understand us.

    1. Love this explanation Tim. Can you say more on wants people do if they communicate in ‘hierarchy’?

      1. maybe put those two posts together and work it into a guest post or something
        I do like the idea of ememes and hope other people start using it, as I see it as an interesting idea to encapsulate some of the differences

  17. Hi, I am an autistic disability rights advocate. This article moved me to tears of solidarity (sitting here at 5:30am weeping at my phone) and I will be sharing it far and wide. Thank you for writing it.

    1. Irina, from one disability rights advocate to another, your Solidarity means the world to me. <3

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