Why I Don't Show My Emotions as an Autistic Woman
Personal perspective: The challenges of regulating emotions in autism.
Posted August 23, 2022 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
- Autistic people tend to experience emotional regulation issues.
- They may find it difficult to appraise emotional situations, or may suppress their emotional responses.
- Good appraisal skills are linked to positive mental well-being and suppression is linked with depression.
Autistic people often have difficulties with emotional regulation,1 which refers to someone’s capacity to modulate and control their emotional response, whether positive or negative, to particular situations.
One common emotional regulation strategy is to reappraise, or assess, a situation in a way that leads to an adjustment of how one thinks about the situation. Another emotional regulation strategy involves suppression, or adjusting one's behaviour in response to the situation. Suppression might involve hiding how we feel in a given situation. While reappraisal is linked with positive well-being, suppression is linked with higher levels of depression.2
In an ideal world, we’d all be able to achieve a perfect balance between reappraisal and suppression. After reappraising a situation and determining that our boss doesn’t hate us—they just think our idea needs some more work—we could then stay calm enough so that we’re able to continue with our work meeting for the next half hour.
In practice, however, autistic people often face difficulties with both reappraising a situation and suppression; in general, they have a tendency towards less reappraisal and more suppression.3 In other words, we reassess less and hide our feelings more.
This certainly makes a lot of sense when I think about my own experiences of emotional regulation. When I’m “in the moment” and am being triggered emotionally—whether in a positive or negative way—I’m too emotionally stimulated to be able to make any sense of what’s happening.
And partly because I have a history of responding in an intense, out-of-control, and sometimes violent manner, I suppress what I reveal to other people so that I appear calm and even emotionless. I also suppress to such an extent that, in the moment, I feel very little. Instead, I experience a delayed emotional response which is intense and overwhelming.
One example of this was when my best friend was leaving the U.K. to study in the U.S. for a year. I was devastated at her leaving and had worried about it for weeks.
But as I waited with another couple of friends and her family at the airport, I was all smiles. As everyone else said their tearful goodbyes, I was completely calm—until about an hour later, when I was dropped off in the city centre. In response to an unsuspecting tourist asking me for directions, I began sobbing uncontrollably and continued to do so during the hour’s train journey home.
Another example occurred when I had my first scan during my first pregnancy. I was so overwhelmed with excitement, worry, and feelings I couldn’t even name that my expression was completely blank the whole time, as I tried hard to hide the full range of emotions that were coursing through my body. A few weeks later, when I received a letter from my (now ex-) partner, he commented on the fact that my face showed no emotion during the scan. He took it as a lack of interest on my part; I realised then that he didn’t know me at all.
Like many autistic people, I have a history of meltdowns which are intense and scary, both to experience personally and for others to be around. As a child, I trashed more doctor’s rooms than I can remember, permanently scarred my mum on one occasion, and ran about screaming if I didn’t want people in the house. Because I know my capacity for responding in ways that are extreme, and which I’ve learned are unacceptable to most people, I shut off until it’s safe to experience my emotions.
I’ve also learned that my body takes a long, long time to recover from an emotional outburst. Despite employing every breathing technique I know and making an effort to meditate, it takes me hours to physically calm down—and I need to be alone to do so. This is another reason why I can’t allow myself to let go in the moment if the situation is too emotionally charged.
Many of my clients report similar delays in their emotional processing, and describe how it takes them time to make sense of a situation or to allow themselves to experience it at an emotional level.
Chantelle told me, “It’s only since my diagnosis that I’ve been able to make sense of why I appear totally calm to other people, and can even suppress my emotions to such an extent that I feel calm—and then, at some point, I’ll explode or collapse. I’m terrified of my capacity to lose it, and I’ve gone so far the other way that other people describe me as 'cold.'”
If you’re autistic and have emotional regulation issues, it’s important to find ways of managing your responses that are good for your well-being. Autistic people often face criticism for how they respond emotionally. One client told me her husband mockingly called her the “Ice Queen” because she appeared to be emotionally unresponsive.
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If releasing your emotions in front of other people feels too uncomfortable or dangerous, you have every right to develop strategies that meet your needs. Just remember that even if you suppress in front of others, it’s important at some point to acknowledge the depth of your feelings and take some time to make sense of the situation.
If you’re a parent, or someone close to an autistic person, it’s important to realise that—even if on occasion they appear to be emotionless or expressionless—they may be experiencing an intense emotional response, but just need time to process and make sense of it. Not displaying emotion in the moment doesn’t mean they don’t feel happy, sad, or anxious. It just means they need to experience that in a way, and within a time frame, which works for them.
1. Mazefsky, C. A. (2015). Emotion regulation and emotional distress in autism spectrum disorder: Foundations and considerations for future research. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45, 3405–3408.
2. John, O. P., & Gross, J. J. (2004). Healthy and unhealthy emotion regulation: Personality processes, individual differences, and life span development. Journal of Personality, 72, 1301–1334.
3. De Groot, K., Van Strien, J.W. Self-Report and Brain Indicators of Impaired Emotion Regulation in the Broad Autism Spectrum. J Autism Dev Disord 47, 2138–2152 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-017-3138-9