Jule Epp

Autism & Emotion


Autism & Emotion

I remember what I thought of autism many years ago, as a young clinical psychologist - before my autistic son was born, before I started working with autistic children and adolescents. It was quite different from the image I had of autism as a child. When I was about 10 years old, I remember being drawn to the phenomenon. Somehow I heard a call coming from inside the deep well of autism. I started reading all kinds of novels about autistic children and developed romantic fantasies about “rescuing” them from the psychological cage that I imagined they were trapped in. In these books, it was usually the mother who had put them in these cages. And it was some brilliant therapist who could release them and lead them back into the “normal” world.

Then I grew up and went to university. I was informed that autism was a neurological disorder, not to be understood or treated on the basis of psychological theories. Autism was the field for neurologists. Autistic individuals had some kind of brain damage that was “causing” them to do what they do. There was no psychological meaning behind the behavior. There was no need for us to do more than develop a list of symptoms that point to this brain damage and find ways to humanely manage these persons by systematically training them to behave as normal as possible. I remember then – many years later - talking to an autism expert I sought out when my son was 4 years old. I remember telling her about my son’s obsession with death, how he would repeat anxiously over and over, day in and day out, “Is someone gonna die, Mom?! Is someone gonna die?!” And I remember her saying , “Just bang on the table when he does this and tell him to stop it!” She warned me not to interpret meaning into his behaviour. It was just a random short-circuit of the brain that needed to be stopped firmly before it gets out of hand. It was just a tic – nothing more. Fortunately, by that time, I had got to know my son from the inside out. So I knew better.

Now that my son is 14 years old, and I have worked in the field of autism for years, I have found my own footing when it comes to understanding autism – and it is neither the romanticized, psychoanalytic cage theory with its “refrigerator mother” correlate that I read about when I was 10, nor is it the robotic, computer-mimetic theory of meaninglessness that I learnt about in university and encountered in the world (think also of the film Rain Man). For me, it is the understanding of the evolutionary function of emotion, as presented by Gordon, which builds the basis for synthesizing both the psychological and neurological aspects of autism into a coherent whole. And the picture that then emerges is one that takes the “idiosynchrosy” out of autism and makes it instead representative of our most fundamental human condition. THAT is the call I heard from deep inside the well of autism when I was 10 years old. It is a call that resonates with us all if we let ourselves “hear” it.

For me, the foundation of my understanding of autism, which contrasts starkly with the idea that “it’s just a tic”, can be summed up by the following statement from Gordon: “The brain has its reasons”. What this evolutionary understanding of the brain allows me to do is to give the neurological aspects of autism due weight without having to forfeit meaning. Autism does, indeed, have a neurological basis (see also Gordon’s material on Attention Problems) – but that does not force me to reduce an understanding of autism to that of mere faulty circuitry – suggesting machine-like randomness and absurdity. The brain has its reasons means that the brain has an ordered agenda. The autistic brain has this same agenda. The agenda of all human brains – autistic or not – is one that has evolved over millennia in order to serve us in terms of survival or development. At first, this agenda does not require our intentionality or even our consciousness – that would be, evolutionarily speaking, too risky when the stakes are so high – although intentionality and consciousness do become essential later for the full unfolding of human potential. What the brain does fundamentally need right from the beginning in order to realize its evolutionary agenda is emotion.

This is what Gordon calls “the work of emotion”. Emotions serve the brain’s agenda by moving us in ways that ensure our survival and development. Referring to the laws of thermodynamics, Gordon describes emotion as carrying a kind of electrical “action potential” that needs somewhere to go, that seeks expression. In this sense, emotion has something fundamentally to do with movement – within and without – with being moved and with moving. With this in mind, it is impossible not to see how extremely “moved” my young autistic kids are: they are running around the room, jumping, rocking, flapping, making all kinds of sounds. When asked why the children are doing this, even colleagues in the field might answer: “Because they are autistic”. In other words, this movement they see in the children corresponds to an item on the list of symptoms that belong to the pathology of autism. Seeing this movement in the children does nothing more than confirm that that which they see is, indeed, autism. How differently we would respond to autistic children if we looked beyond the behavioural “symptom” - if we saw the children as being strongly moved by emotions at these times - moved by emotions that they may not be feeling, whose sources we may not at that moment “see”, but emotions that are meant to serve them in some way none the less. Even my Asperger kids sitting at their desks at school are wriggling in their chairs, suddenly jumping up, running out of the room, or bursting out with a sound or a laugh. How differently we would respond if we saw their movement at that moment as coming from an emotional “loadedness” that is demanding expression, instead of focusing on the behaviour and trying to teach them to sit still (“And still it moves”). Instead of fighting against the brain’s agenda at these times, we could align ourselves with it by supporting the movement within them – facilitating expression – and understanding what “job” the emotions are trying to do.

In order to understand the work of emotions, we need to understand the brain’s primary agenda. Because we are fundamentally social animals, whose survival and flourishing depends on others, the evolutionary agenda of the brain must facilitate this dependency on others and the emotions must, in turn, serve it. This explains the brain’s primary agenda, which is to secure attachments, and the corresponding “work” of emotions, which is to fix the problem of separation. And here we come to a deeper understanding of why my autistic kids are so “moved”. Profound attentional problems resulting from insufficient filtering processes lie at the heart of autism and have far-reaching developmental consequences – both on a sensory and a relational level. The lack of ability to tune out information results not only in constant neurological overload but also in a profound difficulty in establishing, upholding and deepening attachments. My autistic kids just can’t “hold on” to the people they care about. And as a result, they are constantly confronted with separation. Separation or even the threat of separation is what puts the emotional system in emergency mode and working at its peak to “move” us. THAT is what was moving my son to keep asking, “Is someone gonna die, Mom? Is someone gonna die?!” It wasn’t a meaningless tic. He was experiencing a vague but constant threat of separation, that felt to him like someone was going to be taken from him at any moment.

In my work, I see very “loud” versions of the full-blown separation complex daily: I see the high levels of alarm that underlie the intense arousal, anxiety and obsessive-compulsiveness. I see the high levels of frustration that are at the root of the aggressive outbursts and self-harm. I see the massive pursuit in a desperate clinging to objects, places, routines and the familiar. The entire palette of emotional responses meant to “move” us to fix separation are what we see in the behaviour of autistic children. THAT is what is “moving” them so profoundly, although they do not FEEL it consciously. Particularly in the eyes of my young autistic kids I see the charged, wild arousal levels. They don’t know why, but they just HAVE to move.

In a certain sense, Bruno Bettelheim, with his psychoanalytic interpretation of autism, was right: The brains of my autistic kids are responding to a state of abandonment – but not the abandonment from a cold-hearted, refrigerator mother – but an abandonment resulting from their own profound difficulties in “holding on” to their attachments. Because this abandonment is much too much to bear, I also see the viscious circle of increasing exacerbation resulting from the defensive detachment that almost always – to a greater or lesser degree – ensues. The brain is forced to protect the child. There is a retreat from attachments and we are left with the sense that the child is living “in a world of its own”. I believe this is deeply disconcerting, disorienting, and highly alarming for us when we sense it in the children. We feel their distress, we feel that we are somehow the answer, but we can’t reach them to offer them what they need. We are left feeling extremely helpless – and if the she-bear is activated in you as a mother of an autistic child – you will feel a wild desperation to an extent you have never felt before. Perhaps this explains why my autism expert wanted to assure me that my son’s behavior was meaningless, that it was just a tic. Perhaps she thought it would make me feel better. Perhaps it made her feel better. It is hard to contain the feelings that autistic children arouse in us. It is hard to listen to that call we hear coming from the well. But it is very important that we do so.

It often astonishes people when they see how quickly we can build a bridge to autistic children when we understand them from the inside out. By sending a very clear invitation to exist in our presence and then drawing extensively on our deeply-ingrained repertoire of attachment behaviours, particularly the ones we use the world over with babies (e.g., using wide eyes, open mouth, exaggerated expression, synchronizing, imitating, etc.), we can lessen the need for defensive detachment, as well as compensate for the attentional problems that originally prevented the autistic child from forming secure attachments. In other words, we can begin the back-and-forth dance of attachment with them. Once the attachment dance is underway (and I have never yet worked with an autistic child that did NOT begin to dance with me in some way even within the very first session), we can then begin to play. And once we begin to play, the developmental ball is rolling. This sounds very simple, but it demands high levels of attentiveness and sensitivity on our part to tune in to the individual child in such a way as to reach him but not overload him. That is why we need our feelings in order to work with autistic children. Only then will we be able to sensitively lead them by means of play to their own feelings (by inviting them, softening them, reducing defendedness) which, in turn, will rev up the motor that drives the maturation process.

Key for the child is helping the parents find within themselves their own Alpha-dance of attachment. The softening and dancing I do with the child has little long-term value if the dance is not picked up by the parents at home. Ideally, we evolve a grand, extended circle dance of attachment – including as many of the child’s attachment figures as possible. When this happens, it doesn’t take long for that wild, electricized look of alarm in the young autistic child to disappear. We still have an autistic child – we haven’t changed the primary filter problem - but we have been able to compensate for it enough so that the fixing of the separation problem no longer becomes the constant top priority. A degree of rest sets in – atleast for a while - and we can begin to play.

I suppose it is no surprise that the main game I play with my young autistic kids is hide-and-seek. This game is all about separation. We play it over and over and over again. We NEED to play it over and over again! So over and over again, we wait with bated breath during the time of “hiding” i.e., separation; we play with the suspense of drawing out the time of waiting longer and longer; we tingle with anticipation when we know the re-union is imminently pending, and we laugh with delight and relief when we are together again. This we do over and over, session after session. Experimenting with this way and that way, bringing in variations. Until the child suddenly finds the game “uninteresting” and begins exploring the room for new adventures – perhaps to be found in that box full of coloured blocks in the corner. This moment always makes me smile. I step back and let the child go on his way… Although I stay close – to share and mirror his feelings of wonder at the world – or to start another game of hide and seek.

In my experience, the journey of emotional development in an autistic child is not fundamentally different from that of “neurotypical” children, although it takes longer and demands more supports from us as adults to keep the impediments of maturation out of the way - or atleast reduce them as much as possible. I don’t believe we can compensate fully in most cases of autism, although I do believe we can always compensate to some extent. If we can support play in the autistic child, we can do a lot to help emotion do what it needs to do with the child in terms of the 3 laws that Gordon speaks of: emotion seeks expression, emotion seeks consciousness, and emotion seeks equilibrium.

Emotional expression comes quite naturally in play and we can further support this by staying emotionally responsive ourselves, keeping the emotional content in play in the focus of our attention, and sensitively/playfully facilitating its expression - often simply by inviting it and expressing it together. Consciousness can be supported even in severely autistic, nonverbal children by working with lots of mirroring, expressive gesturing, exaggerated body language and other forms of nonverbal communication – I use lots of onomatopoeic sounds. I have found also that gently (and patiently) leading into the adaptive process – moving from mad to sad - can be done without any language at all, which, in light of the amount of futility that autistic children face, is good to know! Finding the equilibrium – the mixed feelings – is a process I have observed and supported in my Asperger kids – sometimes in play (we made films in which the characters they played experienced all kinds of mixed feelings) or sometimes simply by talking and reflecting with them about their week. The journey to mixed feelings was a difficult one for my own son because his emotional intensity made mixing so hard. But we’re getting there. He rarely now experiences the “purity” of emotion that tended to get him into such trouble at school. But when the feelings get really big – if someone uses too firm of a voice with him (and he begins to worry that he is “bad” or that the person doesn’t like him any more… i.e., threat of separation…)…. then we can still lose the mix…

I read an article about autism with a wonderful title: “Human, but more so”. I believe this sums up autism for me. At its root, autism has to do with what “moves” us all most: separation. What we see in autism is emotion doing what it is supposed to be doing: trying to fix separation. And we see in autism what happens when the ways we are being moved to fix separation aren’t working – when we still lack that which we most need to survive and flourish, namely, secure attachments. But when we understand this, we also know what we need to do. And it clearly isn’t banging on the table and telling the autistic child to stop it. As distressing as it is to hear the child’s call from deep inside the well of autism, we need to hear it because we need to respond to it. And we need to find what this individual child needs in order to hear us. It won’t be something exotic. It will be something within our repertoire of attachment behaviours, but it will have to be fine-tuned to the individual child. Granted, we are not likely to be able to “free” the autistic child of his primary neurological difficulties, but we can compensate from the outside enough to be able to dance the dance of attachment together. It may often be a rather awkward dance, but, in my experience, we can at the very least dance well enough to be able to delight in each other and have lots of fun playing and exploring the world together… And, my goodness, that’s a lot! Often we can do much more than that: by removing the impediments to maturation via attachment and play we can support the natural processes that then "move" a child to reach his or her true potential.

Jule Epp©2016