Last year, I discovered Asperger’s syndrome and emotional regulation were connected. For many on the autism spectrum, emotions come in three flavors: happy, depressed, and anxious. Typical people detect a broad, nuanced range of emotion, whereas some autistic individuals possess emotional dials that click on grooves set at too happy, too anxious, or too depressed.
My good moods have never been manic, but they are disproportionate. I’m rarely a little jolly; I’m full-on yahoo happy. My tipping point for bliss is low. A new set of watercolors evokes a shout and a jig, which I try not to perform in front of the craft store staff. Even when I eat, I am not normal. I am jazzed because these nachos are delicious!!!
My proclivity for cheer is a blessing. Despite other dysregulated emotions, I am grateful to bob in a mirthful sea.
Opposing happiness is depression. I equate depression with being tired. Not tired in an I-need-to-sleep way, but tired in an I-need-to-be-alone way.
This weariness is a murky, heavy sensation. Like a thick toxic gas, it engorges the limbs and stifles the mind. For me, this miserable state is indistinguishable from all other negative emotions.
In fact, I experience illness, tiredness, boredom, and depression exactly the same. I only differentiate these conditions by how they respond to various interventions:
- Illness responds to rest.
- Tiredness responds to tea.
- Boredom responds to art.
- Depression responds to activity.
Each time fatigue grips me, the Cure List brings relief. It may be cumbersome, but the strategy helps me more than any diet, therapy, supplement, or medication. I advocate a list strategy for all who struggle with “big chunk” emotions.
While I cannot differentiate negative emotions, I can categorize a thousand types of anxiety. Perhaps my experience of happiness and depression are crude because my mental wiring is bound up with endless gradations of anxiety. Every miniscule discomfort and nagging worry enjoys its own specific register. The unease of an unlocked door differs from the fretfulness of unsanitized hands.
Likewise, not recognizing someone I should know prickles my skin in a different way than missing an obvious joke.
My son, however, cannot discern anxiety from anger. To him, all anxiety feels like anger. I wonder how many “anger management” classes host similarly wired individuals.
Literature concerning self-acceptance tends to ignore the greater issue of societal acceptance. A person who experiences emotions differently than the majority can feel isolated, especially when pressure is put on them to conform. Emotions are our deepest, most personal gifts and the last place anyone should meddle.
I encourage spectrumites struggling with emotional regulation to pursue strategies to boost their quality of life. Keep a mood journal and look for “big block” patterns—that’s how I recognized that I experience negative states as tired and positive states as “really happy.”
Experiment with what helps regulation and document the activities that enhance wellness the most. After I’ve drank my tea, I kick-start a sluggish brain with some organizing (or spinning!). It pulls me out of a depressed day I would have confused with a sick day. And when I’m sick—Netflix!
I love floating through life with extra happiness. I channel the mental zing anxiety gives me into worthy tasks. I still struggle with negative states but my tools work well. I accept myself.
We each can be our own master, our own specialist, notebooks and calculator in hand. Even when our brains muddle over feelings we can use our strengths as data gathers and pattern recognition experts to craft our own wellness. Meet life’s persistent challenges with confidence by mastering the strategies that work best for you.