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Autistic Emotional Intelligence: Understanding How Your Child Processes their "Feelings"

When my youngest son was 18 months old, he developed leukemia and spent 12 months in the hospital. During that time, I didn’t experience any feelings of sadness or fear that he might die, even though I was acutely aware that this was a real possibility at the time. People commented that I was unusually composed and asked how I could hold myself together.

Three years later, after any threat for my son was long gone, we were at the same hospital getting bloodwork. I looked down at the vinyl floor that I had stared at thousands of times before and felt a flood of emotions rise up. I started crying uncontrollably. I’m sure those same people who wondered how I had held myself together all those months would have been just as perplexed at this teary response to the flooring.

You likely have witnessed your own neurodivergent child respond unusually to emotional situations- laughing at a funeral, crying when you throw their dead batteries away, or shutting down for two weeks unable to complete simple tasks upon hearing about a tragedy halfway around the world on the evening news. Not only are these children’s responses enigmatic to others, we live in a culture that naturally has specific expectations about how we are “supposed” to respond and significant consequences for those outliers who do things differently.

Understanding that your child has a valid and reasonable basis for their unique emotional responses, is key to helping them grow up to be healthy and well-adjusted adults. And that is the focus of our discussion today.


Emotions are an integral part of our sensory experience. They are the body’s internal guidance system or compass that lets a person know when something needs to be adjusted, maintained or ceased. Just as the brain signals the body to remove a hand from a hot stove or to snuggle deeply into cosey covers after a long day- frustration, sadness, joy, disappointment, and satisfaction all serve to direct our decisions.

Autistic Children Often Feel Emotions More or Less Intensely

Contrary to popular opinion, autistic people are not lacking in emotions and empathy. As a matter of fact, most of us on the spectrum are extremely empathetic and have the capacity to feel emotions quite deeply.

Take the simple act of making eye contact. I’m told that looking into someone’s eyes causes no discomfort for most people. But for me, and many fellow autistics, processing the thousands of datapoints we pick up in this seemingly benign act becomes emotionally overwhelming, exhausting and sometimes even painful.

This means avoiding eye contact has nothing to do with disinterest, social ineptitude or an attempt to be defiant, and everything to do with judiciously managing sensory overload in the moment.

Let that sink in for a minute. Eye contact, the very method of communication that our culture has established to allow for human connection and understanding, causes pain and distress day in and out to many autistic children.

If one has a cut, we don’t rub it. We give the affected skin space to heal. But society systematically expects these sensitive children to make eye contact multiple times a day in order to fit in. It is the emotional equivalent of rubbing sand into their wound and dismisses their need to regulate their uncomfortable sensations.

In many cases, it is precisely because of our passionate responses that we become detached or appear aloof and uncaring. We need to shut down or back away to protect ourselves from what would otherwise feel unbearable. This method of separating from emotions is a classic dissociation associated with traumatic experiences and it makes sense given how embedded traumas are to the autistic experience.

My ability to shut off any feelings when my son went through chemotherapy had already been established in early childhood as a result of repeated traumas in the form of painful sensory overload and bullying for which I lacked the ability to escape from or communicate about at the time.

This dissociation is exactly why you will find some autistic adults function exceptionally well in high stress jobs such as emergency medical technicians. These individuals can effectively flip off the switch to their emotions while handling a crisis.

Processing Delays

Processing delays can also contribute to delays in emotional responses and this means feelings may surface at a time that is unrelated to the event that caused the sensation. I worked with a woman in her 60’s with significant processing delays. She told me one day:

“My brother always said the kids I played with when I was 8 were mean to me but I didn’t understand what he meant until just the other day. Now, suddenly, I can’t stop thinking about it and it’s really distressing.”

In short, your child may experience emotions more intensely or less intensely than others and they may experience a delayed reaction, days, months or even years later.

Safeguarding Autistic Emotions

Parents often report concerns to me that their son or daughter is only willing to do one task a day or is not willing to embark on specific tasks or activities such as learning to drive or getting a job. They want to find a balance between unrealistic expectations and enabling. Several things unique to autism need to be considered:

Chronological vs. Developmental Age

Children on the spectrum develop their social emotional skills later than their nonautistic peers. Just because your child is chronologically old enough to do something like driving, doesn’t mean they are emotionally ready. Their body may be 16 years old but their emotional readiness may be at the level of an 8 or 10 year old.

Perseveration and Visual Thinking

Children on the spectrum often also have strong perseverative thoughts and detailed visual memories. This makes it extra difficult to brush off any disturbing ideas. Pair that with their emotional sensitivity and watching a movie or a news flash can cause an autistic child to get stuck re-traumatizing themselves with disturbing images or thoughts that other children would simply forget about right away.

Teachers and parents want to make sure kids are informed and prepared for the realities of the world, but my autistic middle and high school clients often report feeling deeply upset and shutting down when being required to read stories or watch movies about war, rape or other violence in school. As a matter of fact, I know many autistic adults who choose to only watch and read G rated content because it feels safe and predictable.

Expectations Based on Developmental Age and Emotional Sensitivities

You wouldn’t expect an 8-year-old to get behind the wheel of a car or read “Night” by Eli Wiesel. It’s ok for you as a parent to adapt expectations to meet your child’s developmental level. This will decrease and sometimes even prevent anxiety and trauma in addition to ensuring your child is emotionally ready to be exposed to any specific content.

In my experience, autistic people are not lazy. Burnt out and overwhelmed -yes, but chances are your child is working hard to regulate anxiety and their sensory system every day behind the scenes. They are working hard to understand the world around them and to express themselves effectively. Noises and sights that most people are able to just ignore or filter out for example, may each stand out in painful ways to the neurodivergent brain and it takes energy to process each of these.

If your child is resistant to an activity or learning a skill, there is a good reason for it and the best thing you can do is to help them identify and articulate how they are feeling and then address whatever underlying factor is causing the resistance. If your child says, “I’m not ready for that” listen. Explore the underlying feelings of anxiety or inadequacy. If they say or show signs that they are burnt out and need a break, give them time to heal and recover. And remember, it takes more recovery time for autistic people as a rule than it does for non-autistic people.

The Emotional Relationship to Objects, People and Events

Temple Grandin once mentioned in passing that she doesn’t “get” dating but felt a strong sense of loss at the idea of ceasing further space exploration. I completely understand. Books and boxes were my friends when I was a child. They provided me a sense of security and satisfaction. I felt a strong connection to them that I did not have with children my age. Reading these stories and stimming with the boxes gave me a sense of their creators and the materials they were constructed from, and in doing so, I got a sense of my relationship to the universe at large.

Grandin and I are not outliers. Autistic people often develop passionate relationships with a favorite subject matter, object or person. I hear many stories of children expressing intense loss or sadness at the sale of the family car or the throwing out of a box of rubber bands. Your autistic child may feel deeply connected to their prized possession or their special interest. And while these things might not have the same value for you, recognizing and validating the importance to your child can help them feel understood and seen.

What’s Next?

As parents, one of the most powerful things we can do is act as role models for our children. It’s not our job to protect them from experiencing pain in the world, but rather to show them how to deal effectively with life’s challenges. As you care for yourself and your own emotional needs you show your child how they too can successfully manage and work through tough times. Next month we will explore specific strategies to help you better cope with the challenges you face each day.

For more information or to learn more about how Toni can support you, your child/teen and/or family, contact Toni at

Autism Life Coach



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