Autism and Emotional Dysregulation
Among the unfair perceptions and misinformation about autistic people is the idea that we’re unfeeling robots. I’m certainly not, and I’m pretty sure any autistic adult can tell you that we feel just as much as any NT, and maybe more. If we come off as unfeeling, it’s a matter of self-protection because our emotions can be overwhelming. It’s my opinion that because we experience everything on a different level than NTs do, our emotions are equally as heightened as the rest of our sensory experience. It’s no surprise, then, that many of us suffer from emotional dysregulation.
Emotional dysregulation is the clinical term for not being able to handle your feelings. It means that your emotional response to a situation is out of proportion or out of your own control. As autistics, we can easily get overwhelmed by our own feelings and therefore lose control of them and ourselves.
Why is Emotional Dysregulation Common in Autistic People?
Autistic people tend toward emotional dysregulation for a number of reasons. Some of us were just never taught the vocabulary or the skills to handle our emotions. Lots of us have spent our lives being told that our reactions and emotions were wrong or bad or that we “shouldn’t feel that way”.
There’s also the fact that many autistic people live with alexithymia, which is a condition that makes it hard to identify or describe your feelings. When you can’t even figure out what you feel, it makes it almost impossible to deal with those emotions in a constructive, mature way. That’s why Sesame Street has been teaching preschoolers to recognize and name feelings since the very beginning.
How Does Emotional Dysregulation Affect Our Lives and Relationships?
When you’ve been told all your life that your feelings are somehow wrong or inappropriate, or worse, you’ve been taught to ignore your feelings in favor of being compliant, it sets you up for a very unhealthy adulthood.
We second guess our feelings ALL. THE. TIME. Years of being told “you’re overreacting” or “you’re too sensitive” make us very susceptible to gaslighting. Often, we can’t defend ourselves against emotional abuse because we can’t be sure of what we feel or if we even have the right to feel what we do.
In common parlance, emotional dysregulation is known as “drama”. We may fly off the handle at any seemingly little thing and take everything personally – in a big, loud way. This is, of course, annoying as hell to everyone around us. It pushes away the friends we struggle so hard to gain, and it ruins the romantic relationships that we so desperately want. Even our family relationships suffer as our relatives get sick of dealing with us.
The worst part is that oftentimes we know we’re overreacting. We can tell that our response is heightened and out of proportion. But we’re overwhelmed by those feelings and we lack the skills to get back in control, so we can’t help it.
How Can We Learn Emotional Regulation?
Self-awareness is key.
The first step to managing your emotions is learning to be aware of them. Therapy can help with alexithymia – a “Wheel of Emotions” is really helpful, especially for narrowing down your feelings from vague to specific.
The next step is to recognize when you’re becoming overwhelmed by your feelings. This isn’t something that needs to be punished, just noticed. When I know that I’m getting overwhelmed, I can recognize that I am dysregulated in that moment. I never say that I’m overreacting – I’ve heard that enough from other people – I say to myself that I’m dysregulated and my reaction is not quite in line with the situation. That doesn’t fix it, of course, but it lets me take a slight step back and see that my emotions have taken over and I’m not seeing things clearly.
DBT is helpful.
DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) was originally developed to treat Borderline Personality Disorder, which is often characterized by emotional dysregulation. It focuses on four main strategies: mindfulness, distress tolerance, interpersonal effectiveness, and emotion regulation.
My first breakthrough with my emotional dysregulation came when my therapist put me onto The Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Workbook. Instead of just talking about hypothetical situations, this book is full of practical exercises to develop the skills to not only manage your own emotions but build healthy relationships as well. I’m not all the way through it yet, but I’ve gotten a lot out of it already.
One of the early exercises is to create a “distraction plan” of things to do when you feel yourself getting overwhelmed by your emotions. It instructs you to write out a list of ways to distract yourself like taking a walk, listening to some favorite music, etc. Another exercise focuses on self-soothing and offers examples for doing so by sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. This is probably my favorite approach because it lends itself so well to the autistic brain! Still another exercise offers coping thoughts and affirmations. They won’t all work for everyone (some of them felt really bad to me, in fact), but there are loads of examples to choose from, so I think anyone can find a few that work for them.
Emotional dysregulation doesn’t have to be an inevitable part of autism. Autistic children are capable of learning emotional management at developmentally appropriate levels and teaching them these skills early will set them up for healthier lives. Autistic adults who didn’t learn emotional regulation as children have a longer road to go, but we can do it, too. We can manage our emotional responses instead of letting them control us.
I grew up on Sesame Street and Mister Rogers, but I still have issues with emotional dysregulation – so I go back and watch those shows sometimes. Did you have a similar grounding from childhood that you go back to? How has emotional dysregulation affected your adult life? Do you have tips/tricks/recommendations for getting control of your feelings when they get overwhelming? What do you wish someone had taught you about handling your emotions? Have you tried DBT and how did it work for you?