“Alexithymia is a personality construct characterised by the subclinical inability to identify and describe emotions in the self. The core characteristics of alexithymia are marked dysfunction in emotional awareness, social attachment and interpersonal relating. Furthermore, people with alexithymia have difficulty in distinguishing and appreciating the emotions of others, which is thought to lead to unempathic and ineffective emotional responding. Alexithymia occurs in approximately 10% of the population and can occur with a number of psychiatric conditions.” From Wikipedia. The article goes on to state that approximately 85% of autistic people are affected.
I hadn’t heard of this condition at all until I started reading about autism. Of all the autistic traits that I have (some common ones I hardly have at all) this one is probably the most prominent in me. I don’t like the thoughts that come with it. So I have problems with feelings, does this make me some kind of sub-human, a robot, an automaton? In the name of research, I took the online Toronto Alexithymia test and the results came as no surprise. I scored “high alexithymic traits” in all categories. My total was 148. My results were: Difficulty identifying feelings 23, Difficulty describing feelings 17, Vicarious interpretation of feelings 11, Externally-oriented thinking 33, Restricted imaginative process 22, Problematic interpersonal relationships 29, Sexual difficulties and disinterest 13.
To anyone who asks “What do you mean, you can’t describe your feelings? Surely everyone can do that?” I would reply: I can tell you if I’m OK or not-OK. Sometimes it’s not clear-cut: I’m OK-ish. Most of the time I’m pretty much OK, just on a level. Especially in the mornings, I’m a morning person. And especially after coffee, (though I only have 1 or 2 cups a day). I can tell you if I’m hot, cold, hungry, thirsty, tired or bored. If you asked how I was and the answer was not-OK, it’s probably for one of these reasons. But they’re not emotions, you say – they’re physical needs. Yes, I can sort my physical needs and that’s good. So let’s look at real emotions: I can probably tell you if I’m happy, sad or angry. Most of the time I’m none of those things. (My autism diagnostic report very accurately stated that I am a calm and measured person.) I can definitely tell you if I’m excited: the anticipation of some future event can make me all fizzy and bubbly inside and I want to jump up and down and flap. (#excited is a frequent hashtag I use on Twitter.) Although when the date of the event arrives, I don’t actually know how I feel about it. I am so busy negotiating the logistics of the day, such as getting myself to the right place at the right time, making appropriate social interactions, not letting sensations overwhelm me, that I couldn’t tell you how it’s going. It won’t be until several hours, days or even weeks have passed that I could tell you, or more importantly tell myself, how I felt about it, and even then it might not be accurate because the feelings from the actual day have gone. I’ve missed so many opportunities to respond to people based on instant feelings, that people think I’m cold or don’t care. It’s not that at all. It’s that I can’t do instant feelings.
So, how have I managed for 46 years to cope as best I can with alexithymia? The answer is, I think, I have used logic to compensate. I’ve learnt from experience how people in general are supposed to feel and respond, and I’ve gone along with that. I know something has gone well, if the people around me have appeared to enjoy themselves, if they’ve talked to me and included me like a fellow human and I haven’t felt too much like an alien. I know something hasn’t gone so well, if I’ve felt awkward, people haven’t smiled, somethings felt heavy and uneasy. I’m getting there – I’m better at this than I used to be.
Finally a note on alexithymia and lack of empathy. I don’t believe I am an unempathic person at all. I cry at films or music just like anyone else. A few autistic/alexithymic people may be criminals and psychopaths, but I believe that’s a tiny minority. Yes, I have difficulty reading and labelling others’ feelings, and knowing the appropriate response. But that is absolutely not synonymous with not caring. My response will sometimes be delayed, as I have to take time to think it through. I sometimes think it’s quite the reverse, I have too much empathy – how can most people watch the daily TV news and not get upset? I can’t. Best not to watch it. I think that because I have to filter everything through the logical part of my brain for it to make any sense at all, it enables me to think more deeply about many things than an average neurotypical person, and that can only be good.