Navigating Emotions – for Aspie’s, ASD’s and Normals

My college sophomore constantly discovers differences between herself as a Aspie* and her bell-curver* classmates.  This time she found she is a lot worse at understanding other people’s facial expressions than she first thought.  A teacher showed her class a bunch of faces and ask them to identify the emotions expressed.  Every one else was immediately naming the emotions they were supposed to be. But she didn’t even get a third of them right.  She was coming up with a couple answers that each could be and doubting herself because there wasn’t any context.  All of her answers were usually wrong from the intended one.  She was able to connect her confusion to experiences of working on projects with partners who would not tell her how they felt about something even though she asked politely more than once. It was a frustrating situation.

Bellcurvers = Normal

Bell-curve-normal friends suggested that “most people* do not say what they are feeling verbally because they are in fact saying it with body language and facial expressions. Most people are born programmed to be able read these signs with no effort. The people in the class could distinguish the emotions from the pictures because the furrowed eyebrows and tightly puckered lips will mean anger in any context, so no context is needed.”

Me (3yo) and my sister. I'm on the right, obviously.

Me (3yo) and my sister. I’m on the right, obviously.

Me at 5yo. The only one NOT smiling.

Me at 5yo. The only one NOT smiling.

Reflecting on my own childhood and youth, I realized that I have studied these silent signals since I was quite young, with the intent of blending in and passing for normal.  If you look at my earliest childhood photos I am the one with the blank, often serious look on my face.  The same look is used for early diagnosis of autistic children.  Later on I affect an expression more in keeping with the others.  But as late as high school I clearly remember friends and strangers alike passing me in the hall and shouting at me to “Smile!” and “Don’t be so serious!”  It was a command that I thought very sexist. “I’m not your hood ornament,” I would think, “If you don’t like my looks, look at someone else.”

Me in High School practicing “Normal” (On the left, obviously)

But I did try.  From elementary school on I recall watching and copying  people’s gestures and expressions for hours at a time.  In high school I made a study of people’s walks.  My Aspie sophomore has the walk typical of most ASD folks:  hunched shoulders, hands dangling limply at the sides, slightly concave chest, feet sloping forward in an awkward shuffling pace.  If you are ASD and want to find others in your tribe, look for that walk.

The ASD walk

The ASD walk

All that studying of mine has led me to be a very good counselor.  And since I have been working as a counselor for many years now, allow me to share some of my observations as well as skills and techniques for navigating the world of emotions.

Skills for Understanding Emotions

As a therapist, helping people sort and deal with their feelings is pretty much my job.  Once I have an idea what kind of feelings are blocking a person, the hypnosis can be VERY effective at changing the negative patterns for good…in just one session.  So the real challenge is simply getting people to talk about their feelings.  Despite what our normal friend said,  I can tell you MOST people are out of touch with their own feelings, let alone other people’s.  Often, they manipulate themselves into feeling things they were taught was appropriate. Example: women will often deny feeling angry and instead say they feel sad. Thus, anger over something they could stand up for and make it STOP…becomes depression because they don’t vent it, they push it inward where it begins to eat away at their happiness.  Similarly, men often deny ALL feelings BUT anger.  And, like the women with their depression, when men channel all their feelings into anger they create more problems than they solve.  Problems like rage, belligerence, isolation, alcoholism, and violent crime.  (It’s not because they’re men or women.  It’s because of how they were socialized as children.  If you have children in your life, PLEASE read:  How to Raise Children and Pets  )    Don’t take my word on this, go ahead and look it up.

What you’ll find is statistics that show depression is much more common in women than men, and men are more likely to show anger, suffer alcoholism and commit violent crime. This has MUCH more to do with socializing and parenting kids to fit into discrete little boxes called “male” and “female” than it does with the actual differences in male and female brains.

Another problem I see with the BC-normal assumption that recognizing emotions by expression is somehow instinctive?  Normals* often place responsibility for other people’s feelings on themselves & NOT on the one feeling stuff.  This can lead to a lot of problems.  As a baseline that kind of thinking leads to people who, like my clients, do not even know WHAT they are feeling, let alone how to process it.  It can also lead to irresponsible behavior (making others responsible for our feelings) and in some cases it leads to manipulation.  There’s an old stereotype that says women use tears to manipulate their men.   In my experience, though, MEN use emotions to manipulate just as much as women.  But when we take responsibility for our OWN feelings and let others do the same, there’s no room for manipulation.

The way to do it is say what you’re feeling as soon as I can identify it.  Also say what you want, early and often.  When you cry, it’s NOT because I’m sad or hurt, its to release a big wave of emotions – any variety of emotions.  Always let people (especially the men) know, “I’m  NOT hurt or sad, I’m just overwhelmed with ______ (happiness, relief, stress, worry, etc).”

If you are a BC-Normal and you’re still reading, first:  Thank You!  Secondly, please consider that recognizing other people’s feelings is probably NOT instinct.  It’s probably conditioning and rote memorization.  You’re probably guessing those feels wrongly about 50% of the time AND that is probably leading to misunderstanding, confusion, and frustration.  And it’s probably may allow other people to manipulate and use you against your will.  At the very least, it is occupying a significant portion of your brain and energy that could otherwise be used for creative problem solving.  So, the following tools could really free you up.

Guessing rather than expressing feelings makes for great comedy.

Guessing rather than expressing feelings makes for great comedy.

Skills and Tools – for Getting People to Talk about Feelings

One of my techniques for helping men open up and share so I can help them is to start an argument. This also works well with military women.  If you get someone to debate with you about any topic you will begin to hear bits and pieces of their emotional life.  I’ve learned to listen to what they are NOT saying and you can too.  If a person says, “My GF is totally vegan, she won’t even buy meat.”  He hasn’t told me that he’s NOT vegan.  He hasn’t told me that he’s annoyed that his girlfriend won’t go to a steakhouse or bring home some fried chicken for dinner.  Those are the things he’s NOT saying.  Those are the things I write down as emotional road blocks. You can also use empathy to sense their feelings.  But everyone has a bit of empathy if they dare to use it.

Empathy for a friend

Empathy for a friend

You can also get people to share feelings by asking for advice.  Mention an imaginary “friend” who’s struggling with…whatever.  But its a Rule that people often like to give advice about other people’s feelings, rather than talk directly about themselves.  Most of the time we are projecting our own feelings when we consider how others might feel.  They may also volunteer what this other person “should” do, which gives you the chance to ask “Why?”  At that point they will likely share anecdotes from their own childhood that are key to their emotional state.

By far my favorite technique is the Pregnant Pause.  I simply ask directly, “How are you feeling?” or “How do you feel about that diagnosis (project, upcoming test, etc)?” And. Then. Wait…………………..and wait……………..and wait………  Most BC-Normals are VERY uncomfortable with silence, so they will begin to hunt around and guess at what they might actually be feeling.  Then my job is simply to repeat what they’ve said so they can hear it for themselves.  They say, “I’m fine with it.”  Me, “You’re fine…?”  Them, “Well, you know, I’m a little nervous, I mean, shouldn’t I be?”  Me, “So you feel nervous?”  Them, “Hell’s bells!  I’m in a complete panic!! What should I do?!” Me, “Oh, sure, I’ll bet anyone would feel a bit panicked.”

You see, BC-Normals have been conditioned to look outside themselves for approval.  Aspie’s and other ASD’s* are simply resistant to that kind of conditioning.  If you ask an Aspey friend how they’re feeling about the up coming presentation, expect her to pause for a few moments and then report, “I think I’m well prepared, but every so often my thoughts spiral into a crescendo approaching panic.  I’m just not that comfortable with so many people looking at me.” or they will simply say, “I’m not sure HOW I feel, its such a jumble of things.”  In any event, and ASD will tell you the truth as best they can, no guile, no subterfuge, no “shoulds”.  ASD’s are not necessarily better at feelings, they just resist the conditioning that convolutes them unnecessarily.

Skills and Tools – for Spotting Feelings

If you can’t tell by looking at someone what they feel, you may try to get a response by asking directly, “What are you feeling?” But there are many situations in which BC-Normals won’t answer that, or won’t answer honestly.  Remember, the reason is likely because they’ve been conditioned to think people should guess their feelings.  If you ask directly, they may get offended, or begin to blame you – especially if what they’re actually feeling is something they’ve been taught is “rude” or “wrong”.  Don’t feel bad and don’t accept blame.  It’s really NOT about you and there really are NO rude feelings and NO wrong feelings.  It’s just unfortunate conditioning.  And by “conditioning” I mean they were smacked every time they did it wrong, usually without explanation.

Guess Work

Don’t give up, either!  Say something like “You look cross”
That usually gets the person to say, “No, I’m ______( tired, jealous, angry, hungry).”  Notice, ALL of those feelings can look alike.  Also notice, when you guess at someone’s feelings, soften the word a bit.

  • Instead of Angry, say cross.
  • Instead of painful, say tender.
  • Instead of depressed, say sad.
  • Instead of panicked, say uneasy.
  • Instead of exhausted, say tired.

There’s a reason for this softening.  It is important, because the poor Bellcurvers have usually been punished for emoting too strongly.  YES, actually hit for crying! They may have internalized the notion that some emotions can be TOO emotional.  This is hogwash and poppycock.

poppycock hogwash1

Emotions are never too anything.  They are exactly right for the individual feeling them, unless they are being stuffed, stored, or inverted instead of being ventilated by identifying them and talking or acting on them.  But, if you guess using an intense descriptor, many bellcurvers will deny the feeling, even if you got it exactly right, because they’re afraid of being too emotional.
Lastly,  if you’ve tried asking, and you’ve tried guessing, and they still won’t share, you don’t need to bother yourself with their feelings.  All you need to do is communicate.  What you say is:  “Well, I don’t know how you feel, so I can’t take your feelings into account.”  Then do your best to shake off their stares and glares and funny expressions and move on.  Do your best to work around their feelings, whatever they are.  Eventually, this technique will either get the BellCurver to put their feelings into words for you OR it will get them to share their feelings with a third person or two (in the form of gossip), who will most likely tell you about your friends feelings.  Regardless of whether you hear the feelings from your friend or a third person, count it as good.  You’ve finally got the info you needed.  Your friend got to express themselves.  And MOST importantly what other people think of you is None. Of.  Your. Business.

In fact, I’ve had people tell me they thought I was “really cool” because I don’t care what “They” think.  Huh, imagine that!  Cool because I don’t even try to be cool.  And all this posh glamour can be yours at the low, low cost of Minding Your Own Business!




Pay attention to my anger!


No please!

Happy hour?






Skills and Tools – For Dealing with Your Own Feels

Avoid emotional tangles and passive-aggressive mean-fests by applying these neat-o skills:

  1. Identify your own feelings ASAP. Say, “I feel _____.” both early and often.  That will keep the simple feelings from building up into unmanageable globs of mish-mashed feelings.
  2.  If you’re not sure HOW you feel, but you know you are feeling something big, Say, “I need a day (moment, few hours, week) to think.”  Say, “I don’t know how I feel yet.”  “I’m not sure how to feel about that.”  “I’m not ready to talk about it.”  Then, please take the initiative to bring up the issue again when you can name some of your feelings.  Remember:  You’ve got a right to ALL your feelings.
  3. Telling others that is something that works well too.  Whenever other people tell you THEIR feelings spontaneously: “You’ve got the right to your feelings.”  I’ve used that as a parent:  Kid, “I don’t want to go to school!! I HATE school!”  Me, “You’ve got the right to feel that way.  I’ll give you 15 minutes more sleep, then we have to get moving.”  As a teacher: Student, “I HATE you, Ms. Thompson!” Me, “Ok, you’ve got that right.  The assignment is due by the end of the class.”  And as a partner: BF, “You’re making me mad!!”  Me, “You have a right to your anger.  Any thing I can do differently?”
  4.  When talking face to face make emoticons with your face and hands.  If you’re not sure which ones to use you can watch anime characters, matching the faces with the feelings or words.  You can watch your teachers, parents and friends then recreate their expressions and tone, like I did.  You can also try out for plays or hire an acting coach.  A lot of ASD people do VERY well as actors.  You get to try on a bunch of different personas without risk and the director will often tell you what emotions to show for which lines.   And its fun!  Which is the MAIN point of emotions: to know when you’re having fun and to have fun with other people as much as possible!

*Aspie, ASD = Asperger or on the Autism Spectrum

*Normal, Most people, Bellcurver, BC-Normal = Not on the Autism Spectrum

ASD feels KEY: 3, 11, 3, 2/5 – 2/5, 8, 2/5, 4 – 2/5, 13, 6, 7 – 11, 8, 15, 16 …..oh, whatever!!






More About Autism – Stimming

I “accidentally” diagnosed myself as Asperger’s/ASD when I was helping my daughter answer some detailed checklists for her counselor.  I guess I’m one of those females that slipped through undiagnosed.  Looking back, I can see that what I did was observe “normal” people in social interactions, notice patterns, and develop algorithms to explain the appropriate behaviors and then store those algorithms as “rules” to follow in social situations. These rules have helped me pass for (almost!) normal most of my life and I have relied on them to help my daughters through social situations.

In any event, I’ve long been aware of my differences.  I just didn’t know there were others like me.  But one of the distinctive things about the ASD brain is that all ASD folks are wired differently.  Yet there are similarities.  There are patterns that can help parents of ASD kids as well as adult ASD folks like myself.  My goal is to help explain what’s going on with the mental wiring and how you can make the most of the advantages…and circumvent problems.



One type of behavior that sets the ASD population apart is stimming, short for self-stimulatory behavior.  The thing about it is most all people engage in stimming when they’re trying to think.  If you’ve ever tapped your pencil, drummed your fingers, chewed your nails, or scratched your head in thought, you have engaged in stimming.  So why is it that ASD folks get so carried away with the stimming that they are known to rock themselves, flap their arms, chew pencils into twisted skeletons, talk to themselves out loud, or pace incessantly?

stim pencil

The answer is basically that people stim NOT to think but to STOP thinking.  Stimming is just a way to distract the conscious mind so that the subconscious can use the brain long enough to come up with a new idea. Most of the creative new ideas are products of the subconscious, which operates outside of time to access ALL of our memories at once, cross-reference them with the problem at hand and come up with new possibilities at the speed of thought.  In order to let the subconscious do all that we’ve got to stop thinking of the problem consciously.  And, as I mentioned in my last article ( link!) ASD people think a lot more than normal.  So, it often takes more stimming to stop the ASD conscious mind long enough to access the subconscious.

Another part of the answer is that ASD kids often have people who attempt to stop their stimming before it has had the desired effect.  So then it becomes a circular exercise.  The stimming increases and may take more dramatic forms (like slapping one’s own head) as the ASD person gets frustrated or overwhelmed with emotions, whilst still attempting to clear the conscious mind and get back to the original problem and its solution.

How to Control Stimming

Given that, what’s the best way to stop a person from wild uncontrolled stimming?  DON’T try to stop them at all.  Instead of getting all bent out of shape because someone is tapping or rocking or talking to themselves, try building some acceptable forms of stimming into their day.  There are companies who have wonderful collections of objects for stimming, from textured putty to chew-able jewlery, to phone cases with built in bubble wrap.  And you can also rely on everyday objects, like bubble wrap, silly putty, moon sand, gum, etc.

stim toy

stim toy

In fact, you can teach any child to engage in stimming in order to access creative ideas, integrate newly learned information, or process emotions.  Teachers and parents would do well to follow any 20 minute lesson with 10 minutes of stim play, such as sand and water tables.  Or kids can hold a bit of clay or putty to fiddle with DURING lessons.  Even better, hands on activities can be used at regular intervals to allow students to make those neuron connections.

chewy jewlery

chewy jewlery

What you want to avoid at all costs, however, is pressuring an ASD person while they are stimming.  Remember, all people use stimming to problem solve.  So if you fuss at, restrict, shame, talk to or otherwise interfere with an ASD person’s stimming you are actually heaping on more and more problems to be solved.  Now, in addition to a thinky problem they have a complex emotional problem or two.  This will only make them need to stim faster, harder, or longer.  Instead, just hand them something to mess with and leave them alone for awhile.

You might also want to consider that YOU may be the problem that needs solving.  If you are insisting that the ASD person do (or STOP doing) something that defies reason and logic you are presenting them with an untenable problem.  Such a problem will require a lot of stimming to solve.  There are many such unreasonable requests built into what we call “societal norms”.  For example we may insist that a person wear uncomfortable and restrictive clothing, put water on their face, eat foods that are strangely flavored or weirdly textured, stand up in an erect fashion, sit still for long periods of time,  rub a prickly brush coated with a chalky tingly paste around in their mouths, pull another brush painfully through their hair, ALL before leaving the house for school or work.

brush-hairwash face2

They may be expected to RESIST normal human activities such as digging in their nose, mumbling to themselves, wiggling, releasing bodily gasses, scratching itches, or any array of primate grooming activities native to our very species.  If your senses are much more finely tuned than the “norm” all of these things may cause you problems.  Introduce sights and sounds that may pass below the perception of most “normal” folks (see: linky!) and your Autistic person has a weeks worth of problem solving built into the first couple hours of the day.  Is there any wonder that the stimming gets more and more exaggerated?

So, part of the solution may be to simply CHOOSE to let things that really don’t matter, NOT matter.  Or to become aware of sensory distractions that may be “white noise” or “part of the scenery” to the less sensitive person.  Or to ask.  Or to let the ASD person know their requests will be honored.  Does it really matter that a child eats their lima beans if it makes them gag?  Aren’t there other veggies they could consume?  If they want to wear their favorite shirt everyday, why not buy 5 or 6 identical tops?  Albert Einstein did that as a professional adult.

There are many ways to handle and manage stimming.  The first step, really is to understand that stimming is NOT a problem.  Its a problem solver.  The problem may be that social norms have evolved to support a non-thinking, insensitive, unaware average population.  And its become fashionable to force sensitive, quick-thinking aware people to dumb it down in order to fit expectations.  But what if individual happiness was more important than fashion?  What if diversity was more valued than fitting in? What if we could usher in that utopian future simply by pausing every 15-20 minutes to let people think?


Even if you or your kids don’t seem to be on the ASD spectrum, you can still benefit from creating the pattern of taking stim breaks for thinking and integrating new information.  Its that “study break” that everyone recommends but instead of wandering off in search of a snack or spending an hour watching TV, you simply set a timer and play with clay or bubble wrap or manipulable toys.  You let your thoughts slip away.  Let yourself become absorbed. Then ten minutes later your brain comes back on-line refreshed and you’ll find you have some new ideas and inspiration!

I use stimming in my office all the time.  I find that I can take a client’s detailed history, making notes.  Then I can step back and look at those notes while drumming my fingers, humming, and fiddling with papers.  And, (once I’ve reassured my client I haven’t gone mad) boom! there’s the perfect plan for their treatment popping into my head.  You see, every problem CONTAINS its own solution, but sometimes the connections are buried in your subconscious memory.  Something that you haven’t thought of in years, something that your mind learned while you weren’t really paying full attention, a chain of events with a missing link, then suddenly something clicks into place and fills the gap.

Think of stimming as the process that gets things into and out of the deep freeze of the mind in useful formats.  Then find a few favorite stim toys to keep at hand, and watch what your amazing mind can do unleashed.  You need never have “writers block” again!  In fact, you can use your subconscious to create new solutions, problems solve, simulate test runs, make connections to old information, notice patterns, weed out outliers and data that is inconsistent with tested facts and systems.

Stimming Idea Links:

bubble wrap phone case

bubble wrap phone case