I was struck by a post I read over the weekend by Renee at About a Bugg discussing how her daughter was struggling to come to terms with the unexpected loss of her pet. Renee commented that it seemed that anger was an easier emotion for her daughter to deal with than sadness.
I completely 100% believe this is true. Over the years I have witnessed Gilbert struggling again and again to deal with sadness and other complex emotions like shame and remorse. He seems to get frustrated with how these emotions make him feel and lashes out in anger as a result. Anger is like his default setting, in some ways.
And I can understand why.
When you think about it, anger is possibly the least complex emotion. It is easy to distinguish, particularly for those on the spectrum who can struggle to understand and cope with their feelings. It usually has an identifiable cause, therefore it’s easy to point the blame somewhere. And it can be over very quickly, especially once the point of blame is identified and targeted.
Sadness on the other hand is far more complex. It can sometimes be hard to define, especially if there is no clear reason for feeling down. It can linger on and sometimes there is no way to escape the sheer weight of it. It can feel suffocating and inescapable and endless – that’s how it feels to me anyway. I can only imagine how overwheming those feelings would be for my son.
I have noticed that when faced with other emotions, Gilbert expresses himself in anger. For instance, he has a high pain threshold so on those rare occasions he feels real pain, he can’t cope. He explodes in anger and rants on and on about the person or the object that hurt him until the pain subsides. When he is sad he is irritable and grumpy and on edge – anything and everything sets him off.
Not that long ago, Gilbert had trouble sleeping one night. He was very restless and told me he felt “hot and angry”. I asked him why and he told me he couldn’t stop thinking about the way he had treated me earlier in the day. He was sorry and wanted reassurance that I still loved him. Trying to deal with shame and remorse had brought him to tears and to the brink of another meltdown just because he couldn’t properly deal with those emotions.
I was proud of him for trying to tell me how he felt – he has come so far to be in a position to even do that. But while I was happy to see his progress I also felt an overwhelming despair for him. How will he be able to cope with all those inexplicable emotions yet to come in lfe? How will he cope with the burgeoning hormones of adolescence and all that will follow?
I suppose all I can do is to continue to support him and understand him and love him. To continue to be his interpreter in life and attempt to demystify as much as I can for him. To continue to “normalise” emotions for him and explain that what he feels is natural.
And hope that in this way we can eventually re-wire his anger default setting and better understand the emotions of autism.