Emotional Age and Maturity

This week’s horrible article by Temple Grandin’s mother contained a lot of unfounded and unsupported assumptions.  I’ve written about the assumptions around connecting late sexual experience with child porn, but there’s another damaging assumption in the article that is worth talking about on it’s own – the concept of emotional age or emotional delay.

People who haven’t studied autistic emotions (either formally or informally) often come to the conclusion, “Autistic people’s emotional development is years behind the development of peers.”  Actually, they usually phrase it as “Children with autism develop emotionally at a slower rate than their peers,” but I’m not going to get into the autistic vs person with autism debate now (others have already explained it).

Essentially, the idea is that a 20 year old autistic might have the emotional development of a 10 year old (or a different age – most advocates of this theory are quick to point out there are differences among autistics) and mature much later than their peers emotionally.

There’s a problem, though: autism is not “persistent childhood syndrome.”  Autism isn’t about developing slower.  It’s about developing differently.  Not different in speed, but at a more base level – different in order of development, different in outcome of development, and different in distribution of strengths and weaknesses.

Before we can talk about those things, we need to talk about other parts of autism.  Autism also involves how we communicate with the world.  An autistic person might, for instance, have significant trouble explaining what they are feeling or what an emotion is like.  That doesn’t mean they have underdeveloped emotions, but simply that they can’t express it.  Emotional language is difficult for a lot of autistic people (myself included), although usually not in the ways people think.  That said, differences in nature, strengths, and weaknesses of communication make people think we have emotional differences that we don’t have.  For instance, how do you show love?  There’s a ton of ways to show someone you love them – anything from saying, “I love you,” to action, whether it’s a hug or whether it’s doing something inconvenient for yourself that you know the other person will enjoy.  It’s not all the same!  But if someone tends to use a form of love expression that differs from what another person might expect, it gets interpreted as “this person doesn’t love me.”  This is true for NTs (neurotypicals) as well as autistics (a lot of relationship counseling of NTs seems to revolve around how to show love for each other), so it only makes sense that autistics might express in ways that baffle or confuse a lot of NTs.  But there’s a difference between baffling expression and lack of the emotion.

That’s not the only difference – another difference is in how we perceive the environment and our base stress levels.  Being in some environments, or being in a situation where you’re under tremendous stress, changes how you interact with people.  For instance, see this presumably non-autistic politician calmly discussing pension reform:

Now maybe the politician in the video is emotionally immature.  But maybe he’s not.  Maybe he’s just stressed and frustrated and lost control of the moment.  This happens to us all (I’m not going to comment on the maturity of the woman behind him responding by laughing – she also is presumably non-autistic) in situations where we are sufficiently provoked or stressed.   Now, imagine that you’re in a lot of pain, under a lot of stress, maybe bullied at school constantly.  Might you not lose your temper and display emotional “immaturity” more often?  Is it really emotional immaturity?  Are you handling your emotions well (considering other things you might do, maybe you are – maybe this is what gave you an outlet for your emotions other than suicide).

But, if an autistic has a meltdown, or can’t handle the current situation, rarely is the focus on her situation.  No, she needs to “learn how to handle her emotions.”  She needs to mature.  Never mind that she might be in pain because of the light and sound around her, that she can’t explain something that’s bothering her due to communication differences, and that others are treating her poorly.  No, she’s at fault to many people.  She’s supposedly immature.

So, now that we know some things that don’t point to lack of emotional maturity, what do we know about autistic emotions?

First, we know that autistic people have trouble expressing emotions – as hinted to above – in ways that NTs find acceptable.  Certainly many people, NT and autistic, can improve how they express emotions.  But it’s not typically seen as lack of emotional development (except by armchair psychologists) in NTs when an NT has trouble with this.  It’s seen as someone who has trouble controlling their emotions, not as someone who is a decade younger inside.  There are studies on this (too often, when talking about something like this, you’ll hear “we need to study autistic people’s emotions.”  I hate to tell this to some people, but we do!).

One of our most common reactions to intense emotion is to basically “hold it in” or suppress our emotions to deal with stress, fear, or uncertainty.  I know people who have seen autistics seemingly “fly off the handle” with no real provocation (that they recognized – in other words, that they had empathy for) will disagree with me, but research says otherwise.  It says that we actually do this a lot, more than neurotypicals.  And that we use less of the neurotypical reappraisal, which can be seen as reanalyzing a situation – did the person try to hurt us, or is there another explanation?  Obviously both strategies have their place (and autistics do both), but autistic people tend to do the suppression more than neurotypicals do.  This isn’t something that leads people towards child porn or causes them to be like children when they are adults (these are both aspects of the horrible Daily Beast article).  Instead, this deals with how we respond to emotions, not what emotions and desires we have.

That gets to the second point – we have the same emotions, but may feel them more intensely.  That makes sense, since it’s well known that we feel other things (like sound or light, for instance) often in more intense ways.  This research has shown that autistic people do have empathy.  Not only do we have it, but we feel it deeper and stronger than neurotypicals in many cases.  Maybe that’s why so many autistic adults are involved in social causes that are largely ignored by the general population (I can name 10 autistic adults I know that are involved in immigration social causes, but I can’t even name one non-autistic adult I know that is – and I know more non-autistic adults than autistic adults).

High empathy doesn’t lead someone towards sex crimes or child porn, nor is high empathy associated with stunted or delayed development.  In fact, high empathy would give someone even more reason – assuming that they didn’t have enough in them already – to avoid child porn and other sex crime.  Couple that with the staggering statistics on sexual abuse of autistic children (in my experience, most of us have been abused as children, and research seems to back me up), and it’s easy to see that, combined with empathy, the vast majority of us would not be drawn to child porn.  We know what it’s like to be the abused child (I’ll also add, to bolster things I’ve already said, that we’ve already learned about children and sex through our abuse, and have no need to learn about sex that way as adults – we were the victims of that already – even if Temple’s mom disagrees).

We also have the other emotions and attractions.  Including sexual attraction.  One thing that is more common among autistic people is homosexuality and other non-heterosexual sexualities.  Research supports this.  However, what research doesn’t support is a link to child pornography.  There are anecdotes and some academic writings similar to the Daily Beast article, but they are generally case studies and hypothesis, and thus not able to be used to draw broad conclusions.  Nobody debates the existence of sexual predators and child porn viewers among autistic people – the question is whether or not there is a link to autism (just because an autistic person does something doesn’t mean autism was a contributing factor).  In the accounts I’ve read of autistic child porn viewers, all of them had one other element: either the person was in an adult relationship (in many cases, married) where presumably adult, age-appropriate sexual activity occurred, or the person had otherwise expressed a sexual interest in adults.  In addition, in most, the person also assaulted or harassed adults.  I say this to confront Temple’s mom’s unsupported hypothesis that autistics, being emotionally undeveloped and thus like children emotionally, seek out images of children.  Clearly even in the academic case studies of autistic adults who view child porn, there’s not a lack of interest in adults – those emotions and attractions are definitely there.  We’re not talking emotional development delay – we’re talking someone who places their self-gratification and unusual desires above society’s rules and other people’s welfare.  That’s not “being childlike.”  It’s being criminal, something autistics and non-autistics both manage to do (ironically we don’t blame a desire to be part of a group facilitating some criminal activity, like some gang activity, on the neurology of the person doing it unless they are non-neurotypical – even though the desire to fit in is important and common for people who have neurotypicality).

Another factor involved with autistic emotion is the social acceptability of expressing our emotions.  Here, I’ll stray a little from research recognizing that personal experience is not something we can draw firm conclusions from (so if you want to criticize something here, THIS is the personal experience part!).  One of the tactics of bullies in my childhood was to provoke me to “tattle” or have an “outburst.”  The bullies were skillful – they knew how to manipulate the situation so that the teacher or authority would see Joel seemingly overreacting, without seeing all the background for why Joel reacted the way he did.  So, for instance, they might tease me all day when the teacher isn’t looking or watching, but when I’ve finally had enough and blow up, the teacher just sees me yelling and screaming at the bullies.  When asked, “Why?” I likely can’t respond coherently or calmly, or I say, “He’s teasing me” to which the teacher thinks, “That reaction is WAY beyond how he should have reacted to being called a name once” (and it would be, if it was once).  So, now, I’m emotionally immature (ironically, the bullies who exploit this are not).

We do experience emotions differently and deeply.  Adults aren’t children, even if the adults have emotional differences.  It might sound good to think of an adult as a child as why the person would be sexually attracted to kids, but that’s not supported by studies of pedophiles (a group that has been extensively studied).  Yes, there are autistic criminals, pedophiles, and child porn viewers.  We’re not all saints, and there are some pretty horrible people among us – just as there is with the rest of the population.  We’re not unique and free from the sins of humanity.  But we’re also not more likely to sin, nor more likely to “act like children emotionally.”  We will act differently than neurotypical adults, that’s for sure.  And there’s a wide variety of difference, but none of that is like a neurotypical child.

Part of fixing the problem of poor sexual education among autistic people involves us treating people as they are, not as we think they are or want to see them.  That’s where this scares me the most – if you think a 20 year old is emotionally a 10 year old, what did you think of them as at 10 years old?  Certainly not a 10 year old.  So, if they were like a 5 year old then, you probably don’t need to think of them as soon-to-begin puberty.  So you get to put off that sex talk that you might give a neurotypical (although, unlike what Temple’s mom says, most people put off that talk for neurotypicals too – they just don’t have the justification; dads are not generally teaching kids about sex, nor are moms – so don’t blame the absent dad for this, as the present dad and the present mom don’t do it either).  But the reason for this talk isn’t to keep your child from becoming a predator as much as to keep him from becoming a victim and to help him as he grows develop the type of relationships that are positive and affirming of everyone involved.  That’s something everyone needs.

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