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Why Autistic people may experience intense emotions

Some of us experience emotions intensely, whereas other people hardly feel emotions at all. Other people are aware of feeling something, but might not be able to recognise or describe what that feeling is. Then there are other people whose face, body language, words and gestures don’t give an accurate representation of what they are feeling inside.

One of the reasons why each of us is different is neurodiversity. Every single human has a unique mind, a unique sensory profile, and our own way of processing the world. Neurodiversity is not a condition found inside an individual, but a feature of the human race.

Autistic people tend to experience sensory information differently to non-autistic people. We might experience some sensations in a heightened way. For example, I only need a tiny amount of noise to register with my brain, and if there is lots of noise it can feel too much, or in some situations, my brain may even perceive the noise as a threat and instruct my body to have a survival response that is outside of my conscious control. On the other hand, my sense of proprioception, that is, knowing what my limbs are up to, is muted. I need lots and lots of input to know where my body is, and I tend to fiddle and fidget to get this input.

Sensory Processing:

Our sensory processing systems don’t just process information coming from outside our bodies - sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell. They process internal information too. These senses include interoception, which includes body signals like hunger, tiredness, pain, and emotions. The other two sense systems are proprioception; and our vestibular awareness of where our body is in space and how gravity and movement affect us. Our unique sensory profiles are made up of those sensations we like and dislike, and those we seek out or avoid.

Each of us will experience interoceptive information differently. Just like our other senses, this could mean we experience internal body signals in heightened or muted ways. Some of us will recognise body signals like our heart beating faster, or our tummy rumbling – and be able to work out what that means – and work out what we can do about it.

Rorie and I were in the office yesterday delivering our new Autism Awareness training course, and we got chatting about how our respective sensory processing systems worked. He’d been having computer trouble earlier that sounded very frustrating! Rorie described to me how when he was dealing with his IT issue, he noticed sensations in his body of his heart beating faster and also noticed his hands felt clammy and his head felt itchy. Rorie realised he was getting stressed, so went outside and threw a stick for his dog for a bit, and then came back in feeling much better. That may sound a very simple example, but in fact there are lots of complex things going on: He felt the sensation in his body, understood what it meant, recognised what would help him feel better, went and did it, and then recognised when he felt better and carried on with his day.

We discussed how difficult it must be for those people who need to have lots and lots of sensory input in order to recognise what they are feeling. They may not notice how stressed they are until their heart is pounding in their chest and their stress levels are really high, and by then it’s really tricky to regulate themselves. On the other hand, some people only require a small amount of sensory information, so might notice a tiny change in their body, or feel such intense sensations of being stressed that are so overwhelming they are unable to regulate themselves either. We shared how important it is to have people around us that accept our different ways of being in the world and help us co-regulate.

Some of us may find the sensation of being stressed, upset, happy, or excited so unpleasant that it is almost unbearable, whereas others may find these sensations tolerable, or manageable, or in the case of emotions like happiness, they may find the sensation enjoyable. Alongside our muted or heightened way of experiencing emotions, the impact of Sensory Trauma may be playing a part in how we experience and manage strong feelings. You can learn more about Sensory Trauma from our book.

Sensory Trauma:

The psychological and physiological impact of events that cause Sensory Trauma are similar to those found in other types of trauma. Sensory trauma may not necessarily come from events that we traditionally consider to be traumatising. Things like abuse, war, disaster and so on. It can be difficult for non-autistic people to appreciate events that have the potential to cause Sensory Trauma, because it may arise from ordinary, everyday experiences. This may result in Autistic people living from moment to moment not just on the lookout for potentially traumatic events, but hypervigilant, with our bodies and brain activated and ready to pick up on potentially traumatising sensory information. When people are physiologically activated in this way, we experience the world as threatening and not a place of safety at all. Living in a state of activation can have a lasting effect, that in some cases may result in our nervous system activating a survival response even when there is no threat there.

Autistic people are more likely to be bullied, or out of work, or experience difficulties in school. We might experience stigma, or we may need to mask our autism. We might not have a strong sense of our own identity. We may lack a background of consistent, regulating support from caregivers that would have provided us with the ability to regulate and soothe ourselves. Even when caregivers have been full of love and tried everything they can to soothe their child who is experiencing sensory distress, they may not have found consistent ways to do it as they may lack shared ways of experiencing the world. This can make it more difficult to bond and connect with people throughout our lives. All these issues combined may have an impact on how we experience emotions – and how we experience the events that cause those emotions. Not only might the sensation within our body when we feel upset or rejected feel intense or muted; the events leading to that sensation may not be the events other people would typically associate with feeling upset or rejected.

Autistic people experience the world differently and therefore respond differently. When we experience Sensory Trauma, our response is proportionate to our experience.

We can support each other, regardless of our neurology. Emotional and sensory regulation is about getting the balance of sensory information just right. If we only need small amounts of information to register with our brain, then we may need to reduce input. If we need lots of sensory information, then we may need to increase input.

Sensory and Emotional Regulation and Co-regulation:

I plan time into my day to do regulating activities. I go for a walk every morning – and again at lunchtime – and in the evening. Being able to physically move enables me to get the proprioceptive input I need to feel embodied and present in the moment. The more embodied we are, the more meaningfully we can engage with others. I balance the amount of noise, light and smell that I am taking in, by using tinted lenses, active noise cancelling headphones and nasal inhaler tubes that I have made myself with a choice of stimulating or calming fragrances. I use mindfulness. Not just mindfulness exercises, but doing activities like making and drinking a cup of tea mindfully so I am fully present and not rushing around on autopilot. The key principle behind all these strategies, is that I do them proactively. It is much easier to remain regulated than to become regulated following a survival response that has left me completely shut down, withdrawn and disconnected, or hyperalert and in a state of terror. Once I start to become dysregulated, it is even harder to sense what is happening inside my body, and I can end up knowing something is very wrong, but I don’t know what and I don’t know how to remedy it.

Each of us has a sensory processing system and each of us needs to be regulated. Non-autistic people need to be regulated too, and lots of people instinctively do things like have a soak in the bath; turn the volume down on the radio when they’re trying to park; or take a deep breath. The world is more set up for non-autistic people so self-regulating opportunities are often easier to come by if you’re not autistic.

Rorie also finds walking regulating and the whole team at Autism Wellbeing make sure we each attend to our self-care and regulating our senses and emotions. We also help each other regulate – I’m no IT expert but I’m good at staying calm and focused when dealing with computer issues, so I’m a useful person to have around when we’re setting up our online training because my calm mood is regulating for others who get stressed by these things.

Co-regulation is when we support someone else to be regulated – and in return, we become more regulated ourselves. It’s a win-win situation! This can be something we do instinctively like offering a hug to someone who wants one or turning the volume down on the radio so there is less noise to process. Co-regulation works across neurodiverse groups of people, like our team at Autism Wellbeing. Autistic and non-autistic people can co-regulate each other. In our team we might co-regulate by being alongside each other when we’re undertaking something that one of us finds difficult – like in the IT example. Or perhaps we’ll notice when one of us needs to have a drink or snack, or take a break or move about – and encourage them to do so, or do it with them. Even sharing a laugh, funny picture or amusing story with each other can be regulating.

Co-regulation is a two-way process bringing regulatory benefits to both sides of the interaction. Parents and other caregivers play a vital role in helping young children soothe their intense emotions. These co-regulating interactions between caregiver and child shape the child’s ability – or inability – to regulate their own emotions as they grow older. The process of co-regulation creates a foundation for the child’s development. Once an effective co-regulation pattern is formed between infant and attachment figure, the child can grow in productive, healthy and predictable ways towards emotional maturity.

An important thing to remember about co-regulation, is that you must be regulated yourself before you are able to help someone else regulate themselves. Follow the advice given on aeroplane flights about putting your own oxygen mask on first, before helping your child put theirs on.

Autistic people often experience difficulty with self-regulation and so may have to rely more than our non-autistic peers on compassionate understanding, validation and co-regulatory support from other people. In our training, Rorie describes how important it is that we meet Autistic people “more than halfway” when supporting them. This concept recognises that Autistic people may already be processing a lot more sensory information than non-autistic people in the same environment, and may also be activated and hypervigilant for potential threats. When we begin to consider how differently Autistic people may be experiencing the world, it makes more sense as to why Autistic people’s responses to situations may be so different too.

Autism Wellbeing’s work draws together our neurodiverse ways of experiencing the world. Our training courses, workshops and consultancy work are experiential and encourage participants to see the word from each other’s perspectives and value each person’s lived experience. We are in the process of producing a brand new Sensory Trauma online course that will provide more information, ideas and insights into Sensory Trauma. We are also producing a course about Responsive Communication which will support people to understand how their own lived experiences may be different to those of the Autistic people in their lives, and how they may better tune in to those experiences. Both courses will be CPD certified.

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Hi Emma. Can you share any preferred methods and techniques for dealing with difficult or troubling thoughts, that have the potential to cause intense emotions? I find mindfulness and thought diffusion - not hooking on (or unhooking!) - helpful, also some standard CBT type methods, but just wondered if there are any that are particularly suited to autistic people's brains? Thank you!

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