Recently I’ve been trying to explain to my wife how emotional overtones in what people say can overload me. It was difficult to get across for two reasons.
The first reason is that she still gets the impression that I don’t feel emotion because I don’t show emotion. She struggles to understand how anybody can be experiencing feelings without any outward sign. This can be one of the key barriers to understanding between somebody on the autistic spectrum and somebody who is neurotypical.
The second reason is that overload is difficult to explain to somebody who has never experienced it. It’s not identical for everybody; indeed I don’t experience it to the same degree every time. Essentially it is overstimulation of some form, either emotional or sensory. The intensity of the signal coming into my mind causes me to fixate on it like a rabbit caught in headlights.
I pick up on emotional content most when I’m one-on-one with somebody. In a group there’s typically too much going on and I start to miss behavioural cues. But face-to-face with one person I find I can often get the “out of band” data along with the signal. I can hear some emotions in the tone of voice and even recognise some body language. It’s not as instinctive as it appears to be with NT folk. But now and again, particularly when I know the person well, I get an empathic gestalt of their emotional state.
Imagine if you will that you are sitting on a quiet, deserted shore. The sun is shining: it’s warm. There’s just enough of a breeze to be comfortable and the small waves lap rhythmically. You are relaxed; you lean back and close your eyes sleepily…
..and then you open your eyes again to find you have been transported in that instant to the middle of the city at rush hour. Traffic all around: engines snarling and horns blaring. People jostling and rushing all around you. Noise, smells, lights, touches coming from all directions: a cacophony registering on every sense at once. And that’s how it feels to be hit by that tidal wave of emotion.