Category Archives: Thoughts for Psychologists

I’m not a psychologist, but I have taken courses in basic psychology and pastoral care. I am a trained science researcher, and these posts contain thoughts which may be useful for academics exploring how the experience of Aspies can differ from that of typical humans.

An Ill Wind

It was only while I was in seminary that I discovered that most human beings are well aware of when their bowels are building up gas, and can exert considerable control about when to hold it in as well as when to let it out. I, unfortunately, only become aware of the presence of gas a couple of seconds before it breaks out. At this stage I have only one choice to make – to clench or not to clench. Clenching is just as likely to force the gas out with impressive sound effects as it is to push it in deeper. Not clenching has a good chance of allowing a ‘silent but deadly’ escape. When I sense gas coming, I have only moments to try to judge whether to clench or relax for minimum embarrassment!

I’ve often wondered if there’s any connection between poor flatus control and being autistic. I couldn’t see any obvious link until I discovered recent articles on the distinction between autism and alexithymia, notably this scientific paper which proposes that alexithymia is a general lack of awareness of one’s own body – not just the signs which indicate emotions.

Why do people speak of emotions as ‘feelings’ and associate them with our heart and our guts? There’s a growing body of evidence that for a neurotypical person, awareness of one’s own emotional state is strongly linked to interoception – the human body’s ability to be aware of its own internal states. The speed of one’s heartbeat, the filling or draining of blood from one’s cheeks, the tension in one’s chest or bowels – all of these are associated with particular emotional states, and knowing what one’s body is doing is part and parcel of knowing how one is feeling. So could the inability to know one’s own emotions be due to a particular person having a body only weakly wired for the brain to know its physical state? This would provide a clear link between a lack of awareness of gas in my bowel, and a lack of awareness of other cues which should make me aware of my own emotions.

I also consider myself to be a clumsy person. Nor can I ride a bike – my sense of balance isn’t good enough. Could these be consequences of a weakness in proprioception – the body’s knowledge of exactly how its limbs are placed?

There are other ways, too, in which I seem to have non-standard body reactions. Apparently people ‘feel good’ after strenuous exercise. But they don’t eat food just before going to bed because of the way it makes them feel. But I’ve never derived pleasure from exercise, and never noticed ill effects if I should need to eat late and then go to bed… except in recent months when eating a certain brand of chocolate digestive cookies at bedtime caused me to wake up with trapped wind in the middle of the night. Since that brand of biscuit never caused trouble before I put it down to some change in gut flora.

I simply place these thoughts on the record for future researchers.

The Glass Ceiling

It’s been a long time since I wrote on this blog, after my triumphant Graduation Day. But a graduate is not as skilled as a professor, and I have continued to reflect on my abilities and limitations.

A few days ago I watched the movie Still Alice, a portrayal of a young professor’s decline due to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Her neurologist commented that intelligent people seem to decline more rapidly with Alzheimer’s – they develop coping strategies to ‘work around’ their memory loss until the disease progresses to the point where they can’t do so any more and their full decline is laid bare. A similar cliff-edge seems to apply to my ability to build close relationships.

I’ve been reading around the subject of alexithymia lately. There’s a growing body of research distinguishing other autistic traits from the inability to know one’s own emotions and identify emotions in others. The term alexithymia literally means ‘no words for feelings’ but also covers the absence of feelings. A recurring theme in alexithymia, which I have also noticed in my own life, is what happens when a relationship grows beyond one’s ability to compensate for not actually having emotions:

Here’s a quote from an article by Emma Young; it concerns the difficulties an alexithymic man, Stephen, began to face in his marriage:

“At the beginning of a relationship, I’m totally into who that person is,” he explains. “I’ve been told I’m very good at maintaining a honeymoon period for ‘longer than expected.’ But after a year, it takes a massive turn. It all falls apart. I’ve put myself on a pedestal to be this person which I’m really not. I react mostly cognitively, rather than it being emotions making me react. Obviously, that is not valid. It’s not real. It seems fake. Because it is fake. And you can only pretend for so long.”

Or consider this comment by Dr Samantha Rodman:

Alexithymics often have a range of canned responses to normal social situations in which empathy is required. They can mimic others’ responses and assemble a repertoire of phrases like, “That must be so hard” and “Awww,” with the correct, imitated, tone. Only an intimate partner will notice that the same responses recur over and over and the pseudo-emotion that is exhibited dissipates instantly.

I’m in an invidious position. Do I care about other people? Absolutely! Am I able to empathise with other people? No. I don’t experience a rich palette of emotions myself, so it’s simply not possible for me to know ‘from the inside’ what another person is likely to be feeling in most situations. I do know, intellectually, that it’s important to come across as sympathetic in certain circumstances, and I do my best to literally ‘make the right noises’ – but this can only get me so far.

Due to covid-19 I am currently residing with some other members of the Catholic community I belong to. In a recent conversation, a person shared a piece of sad news. I said “Aww” in the tone of voice I usually use to indicate compassion. Someone then passed comment that that was my “sympathetic noise”. That’s probably a sign that members of my community have known me now for long enough to notice that I am not expressing a deep heartfelt empathy but doing my best to project a simulation of empathy – because it’s the only way I can communicate that I do care.

Why is it that 30 years after realising I was part of a community of loving, caring humans and nearly 20 years after getting my diagnosis of Asperger’s, that in my circles of friends I am often welcomed but seldom wanted? The people I call friends are happy when I call them but rarely if ever call me? I am wanted for what I can do as a priest, or to fix someone’s computer, but not for the sole reason of my company. That combination of not giving and receiving non-verbal cues, and having a limited understanding of other people’s feelings, combine to mean I rarely appeal to others to rise to the rank of ‘close friend’. If they are wanting to reach out to that one person who gives them empathy in return, it won’t be me. I keep reaching this glass ceiling beyond which I see people who seek out one another’s company, but I am never the one sought.

Sometimes it has happened in my life that there’s been one person who has drawn close to me. Usually this is someone who is bubbly, often but not always quite tactile, and tries to build good relations with everyone they meet. I experience this as someone ‘taking an interest in me’. At one level this is true, but at another it’s not very personal because the other person is trying to take an interest in everyone. This becomes a dangerous situation for me, because at my brain is reacting as if this person were signalling a desire for a reciprocal close friendship – and if I am not very careful, I can become over-dependent on this one person. Then I will probably overstep my ability to emulate emotions without realising it. The good-natured friend politely tolerates my increasingly gauche behaviour until I cause some kind of bust-up. And unfortunately, although in more recent years I have tried explaining about my autistic condition and my need for verbal feedback, such good-natured friends turn out to be very reticent about giving any negative feedback until a pinch has become a crunch!

42

Recently I went out for a meal with a friend who is also a science graduate, and our conversation turned to deep matters. My friend was pondering our insignificance as creatures on a tiny planet in a single galaxy in a vast cosmos. Did our lives have meaning?

This proved a golden opportunity for me to gain another perspective on the question whose interpretation has always foxed me, the question of whether life is the kind of thing which actually has meaning.

For my friend, a fellow Catholic, if there were no afterlife, there would be no cosmic consequences to our moral actions; then, the only consequences of our human acts would be ephemeral memories which are mostly wiped out when our generation of friends is dead, and totally obliterated once our sun goes nova – if the earth hasn’t already been destroyed by some other cosmic catastrophe.

I looked at things differently. What is the difference between performing an act of kindness, and not doing so? The most precious memories of my life are a handful of times when someone has communicated affection to me powerfully. If those friends had not done the affectionate things they did, I would not have those memories. Each memory is a jewel, and given the choice of having no jewels or a handful of jewels, I am surely better off to have a handful to cherish.

For my friend, these kinds of memories were ‘insignificant’, because once I am dead and gone, they will be in the past. They are not a lasting legacy. Compared to the size and duration of the Universe, they are infinitesimal.

For me, these are peak human-scale experiences in my human-scale life. That matters. I am not comparing them to the Universe at large – only to the alternative of “no such experiences”. Something is infinitely more than nothing, even if the same something is infinitely less than everything! My friend compared himself to the vastness of the Universe. But I myself am vast compared to the millions of millions of bacteria in my body, and the trillions of trillions of atoms of which I am composed. I live at the scale between atoms and galaxies – which is (thank you JBS Haldane!) exactly the right size for a human being!

I love teaching and helping others. If I had not started believing in God, I think I would still have lived a life where the things that made me happy also happened to help other people. Helping others is not ‘insignificant’ to me or the others involved.

I do sometimes wonder what my legacy will be. What will I leave behind when I am gone? There are some niche scientific papers I authored or co-authored. There is this blog, which I hope will continue to be useful to Aspies and their friends. I wonder for how many decades, if not centuries, it will be archived somewhere accessible? Maybe someone will write a better blog which deals with the same matters with greater insight and wit. If so, it would not bother me for you to read that blog instead because what matters to me is that you are blessed with the best insight, not that you must reap from my personal labours. I write in case for some readers, right now, this might be the best currently available.

You can read everything above without Christian faith being relevant. Add faith, and my legacy increases. By my preaching and celebrating the sacraments, I will have affected whether certain souls will spend eternity in heaven rather than Hell. My own moral choices will have eternal consequences on Judgment Day when Christ says ‘well done, good and faithful servant’. These things matter too. But if I didn’t know eternal life was real, I think I would be happy to settle for making other people happy in this life as the best consequences I could obtain.

What if I had grown up differently, seeking pleasure through crime, illicit drugs or some other addiction? Those ill-gotten ‘peak experiences’ might have seemed significant to me, even if they blessed no-one else and even caused distress to my family. I seem to remember Robert Spitzer writing of our growth through seeking our own happiness, through the happiness of others, to doing good because we grasp that some acts are transcendently good.

In the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there is a machine called the ‘Total Perspective Vortex’ which causes a person to see how insignificant their life is compared to the universe at large. Perhaps Douglas Adams was grappling with these same questions. When I bade farewell to my friend at the end of the meal, only then did I discover that we had been dining at Table 42!

The Good Doctor

I’ve been watching a medical drama recently – The Good Doctor stars Dr Shaun Murphy, who is a surgeon on the autistic spectrum. The way the character is written, his autism is more extreme than mine – I readily laugh, recognising (at least some of) the ways Shaun doesn’t realise he should be sensitive to his friends, colleagues and patients.

One episode in particular drew together several themes I’ve written about recently on this blog. The 14th episode of Season 1, entitled She, confronts Dr Murphy with a teenager who is biologically male but identifies as female. For most of the episode, Shaun finds this hard to process. TFor Shaun, this person is objectively a male, so he must call the person “him”. The teenager, however, argues that she is “meant to be a girl”. Shaun responds that there is no “meant to be”, only what is.

I think the scriptwriters have done a good job of capturing the sense of what it is not to understand the concept of meaning, which I’ve written about previously. It also highlights the dangers of philosophising about human identity by scholars who might themselves be autistic and not intuit what it is to have a sense of meaning or purpose. On the other hand, we can ask legitimate questions about why we have this sense. I’m beginning to realise that most human beings are hard-wired, when they watch a film or read a book, to ask: “What real-world principle is this about?” I can ask this question, but it’s hard work and doesn’t come naturally. It’s only just dawning on me that most storytellers are not only trying to tell a story but also make a point.

 

Three Minute Therapy

Spoiler Warning – if you haven’t seen Molly’s Game, look away now.

Earlier this month I went to see the film, Molly’s Game, tracing the rise and fall of Molly Bloom. The only daughter among three siblings in a highly competitive family, an injury put paid to her hopes of being an Olympic skier. A gap year job unexpectedly found her assisting with, and then running, high-stakes poker games for the great and the good of Los Angeles. With nothing but her wits to assist her, Molly thrived for a time in this environment, but then was drawn into a culture of drug use and overwork and crashed out, accompanied by threats from the mob.

At her lowest point, her Dad catches up with her in New York. He’s a professional psychologist, and since his relationship with her as a dad hasn’t been great, he says he’s there as “a very expensive therapist and I’m here to give you one free session”, which he unpacks as three year’s worth of therapy in three minutes, doing what everyone wished their therapist would do – answer their questions about themselves. But first Molly has to ask the questions.

In fact, he leads her to the first one – “Why did I choose this lifestyle?” He tells her that her true addiction is “having power over powerful men”. Since the film portrayed the decaying relationship with his wife, I found it no great surprise that the second was “Do you think you were a good husband?” But Molly was pressed to come up with the third question and paused long enough for me to realise that I had absolutely no idea what it was going to be. Eventually it came, as her father anticipated: “Why didn’t you like me as much as my brothers?”

Now I haven’t ready Molly’s book so I don’t know how much dramatic license the scriptwriter has taken with this scene, and scriptwriters have the advantage of godlike control over their characters’ words and actions… even so, there’s useful material here for the aspie trying to understand typical human beings.

The middle question is clearly triggered by obvious bad actions. We see the husband cheating on his wife. Easy observation for an aspie – “rules are being broken!” But for Molly, perhaps it’s less about rules and more about her need for security – or her father as a hero-figure. (“I don’t have any heroes” she says.) The first question is about Molly’s motives – and I have commented previously about the power of self-knowledge in the noisy mind of a typical human being. The third is about Molly’s sense of how a significant family member feels about her.

I don’t know how my parents feel about me, except when they choose to put it into words. I know how they act towards me (kindly!), but I’ve never sat down to try to analyse their motives. They don’t share my faith, so I don’t expect their uncritical applause for the things I do as a Catholic priest. I do have a brother. They do treat him differently in some ways, but he’s different from me – he has a mortgage and I don’t – so it’s only fair they support us in different ways. Since I became an adult, I have never considered it my right to receive any particular support from my parents; whatever they do give, I accept gladly as an undeserved gift.

As an aspie seeking to understand human beings, it’s insightful to be reminded of two things. First, most people are conscious of the power-balance in relationships in a way that makes them seek more power – I guess my working model is that I don’t care who makes the decisions as long as they are good and fair; I can lead or follow a competent leader as required. Second, that most people are wired to care about what other people think about them, but especially their parents. As a pastor, that’s doubly important. Just because I don’t have role models or heroes, or expectations of my parents, it doesn’t mean that’s typical!

 

A Transcendental Meditation

A while back, I began a new series of blog posts, taking as my launchpad C. S. Lewis’s classic Mere Christianity. We considered Lewis’s description of the Law of Human Nature – to what extent all human beings have the same inner experience of ‘the voice of conscience’. Lewis argued that we had a common sense of fair play because we all have some sense of The Good (which, he goes on to argue, comes from God.) This leads us to a philosophical question – is Goodness objective?

I was recently alerted to the Relit approach to Evangelisation, which is build around awareness of the transcendentals – Truth, Goodness and Beauty – and the expectation that for any given human being, one of these is a more meaningful “way in” than another person. This seems plausible, and certainly reflects the reality that there are different kinds of human mind, more attuned to Truth or to Goodness or to Beauty. But is this telling us something only about diversity in human minds?

Are Goodness and Beauty objective? A priori truths seem to have some kind of objective existence. Mathematical axioms follow logically from premises; mathematical models of the physical universe successfully (and therefore objectively) predict how the universe will behave. There is a meaningful sense of which we can speak of a priori Truth existing independently of the existence of conscious human beings. We can cautiously also speak of contingent Truth existing objectively: whether we accept Darwinian evolution or read Genesis literally, either way there was a time when the earth existed without human beings to observe it. The world was the way it was at that time – that’s contingent truth. An atheist could go further and argue that Truth exists with no mind to observe it; a Theist would say that all which is True is known by the mind of God.

As for Beauty, Bishop Robert Barron tries to argue that there’s a difference between subjective and objective beauty. He likes deep-dish Chicago pizzza, but says that’s his own subjective taste. Yet he says that certain works of art – a Beethoven symphony, Chartres Cathedral – are objectively beautiful. The trouble is, I can’t sense the beauty in Beethoven or Chartres. And if I can’t, that means one of two things – either the beauty of these great art works is as subjective as the flavour of Bishop Barron’s favourite pizza – or there’s an objective standard for beauty I ought to be able to learn to apply whether or not I can feel the beauty.

Here I need to borrow an unusual word from Lewis. In his Out of the Silent Planet, he imagined Mars to be inhabited by three quite distinct species of thinking beings who coexisted peacefully with one another. The term for an intelligent, reasoning creature was hnau. When a human being lands on the planet – not speaking the same language as any of the inhabitants – the native tribes first have to figure out if the human is hnau or a mere animal.

Would other hnau recognise Truth? We expect they would recognise a priori mathematical truths and contingent physical truths about the universe we both inhabit. When human beings have sent deliberate messages into space we have used these universal concepts – prime numbers, the properties of the hydrogen atom, the molecular structure of simple sugars.

But are Goodness and Beauty objective? Would other hnau agree with our sense of what is Good or Beautiful, or inasmuch as the human race has a shared sense of the Good and the Beautiful, is this telling us about a common property of the human brain, shaped by natural selection for the survival of the human race?

I have written earlier in this blog about my lack of intuitive sense of beauty and of goodness. If Goodness and Beauty are objective, it should be possible to teach me some rules I can apply to determine if something is Good or Beautiful, even though I cannot experience goodness or beauty through a working “recognition circuit” in my own brain. If I cannot, in principle, learn to do so, then these things must be subjective, and the common experience of humanity is telling us only about the average perceptive properties of the human brain.

“If most people agree that standard X is more moral, or more beautiful, does that prove that standard X objectively exists?”

No. If the only hnau we can converse with is our own species, it is only telling us that most human brains have a “Goodness recognition circuit” or “Beauty recognition circuit” which gives weight to X. There might be some evolutionary advantage to us having that trait.

Good Vibrations

Recently, I had a conversation with a Catholic writer on spirituality. In one of her works she had referred to living plants ‘pulsing with silent, invisible energy’ and sensing God’s presence which caused an atmosphere to become charged with ‘vibrations of love’.

This sort of language generally unsettles me. Vibrations are the language of Eastern and New Age spirituality, not the Catholic tradition. And yet… I have learned in my journey as an Aspie that when I come across language that makes no intuitive sense to me, it is often a sign of how my lived experience of the world differs from that of the more typical majority. So rather than write her off as a clear case of someone straying outside the Catholic fold, I asked if she could describe these ‘vibrations’ in a way that could make sense to a person who had never personally experienced them. Even if what she has experienced might not be a ‘majority’ experience, it could still be valid.

She struggled to find the right words, and we went round in circles for a time. Then I asked if it was something like what happens when you put your hand on a refrigerator and feel it humming because the motor is running. She was happy with this analogy.

This got me thinking. Not only have I never experienced ‘vibrations’ in a spiritual context, but also, I seldom sense an ‘atmosphere’ when I walk into a room. Celtic writers might talk of praying in a ‘thin place’ but I wouldn’t know one if I fell through it. Yet many people use this language often enough that it seems to be meaningful to most listeners. Could it be that something akin to synaesthesia is taking place?

The human brain is capable of ceaseless wonders. There are many documented cases where the parts of the brain which deal with two different senses seem to be cross-wired, resulting in written words having characteristic colours or particular sounds translating as tactile experiences. Could it also be the case that the part of the brain which interprets emotions could be cross-wired with the part responsible for hearing or touch? Could a brain which, unlike mine, can take in and process a thousand micro-expressions to analyse a room of human beings, synthesise its findings in the form of an audible or tactile hum, which would then be perceived as a vibration? Might a similar mechanism account for those people who claim to be able detect the ‘aura’ or ‘bioenergy’ of another person? Indeed, I note that the Wikipedia article on Synaesthesia tantalisingly lists a rare form of synaesthesia as: personality-color (occasionally referred to as “auras”) – but without further expansion or reference.

I cannot rule out, of course, that the reason Eastern religions speak of a spiritual energy variously called chi, qi, ki or prana, is because such an energy genuinely exists but is such a subtle phenomenon that science has not yet been able to detect it – no scientist can ever definitively proclaim proof of non-existence except in tightly defined conditions. It is of course possible for an objective phenomenon to exist, but for some humans to be incapable of sensing it – such as color-blindness or ineed Aspie ‘mindblindness’ to emotional signals. I lean towards the idea that this energy is a cultural construct with no underlying phenomenon. But the ‘synaesthesia’ hypothesis raises an intriguing third possibility.

Learning from Experience

When was the last time you made a big mistake?

Typical human beings have an important safety mechanism: that little voice in the back of the head which is constantly saying : “What would other people think of me if I did such-and-such?”

My Aspie brain doesn’t do that automatically, so I have to use my reasoning to anticipate when my actions could prove awkward to others. What do I draw on to make such decisions? Principles about right and wrong, and lessons from the school of hard knocks!

I’d like to share two examples of mistakes typical human beings might not have made. They are both mistakes I have never repeated, because I learned quickly from those experiences – but they were deeply embarrassing at the time.

The first story comes from the days when I was a university student living in a shared house with male and female residents. One day a group of us were enjoying a conversation in the kitchen, and I was standing alongside another resident. In the flow of conversation, I made a comment about something that “would set your heart racing” and to emphasise the point, reached across to tap the resident on the chest.

But the resident was a woman.

Now, I know very well that a gentleman does not touch a lady’s breasts, and I have never groped a woman in my life. But my inner “program” which says “don’t touch a woman’s breasts” didn’t have that extra line of code which says “trying to tap a woman’s chest from alongside her will be interpreted as trying to grope her, don’t do it”.

Fortunately, no harm came of the incident, apart from some teasing among the residents about “the day I tried to grope so-and-so”. But that day I learned a new rule: “Don’t go anywhere near a woman’s chest even if it’s not the breast you are trying to touch.” Could I have worked out that rule in advance if I had thought through the scenario slowly? Probably yes, but it was never a scenario I had anticipated.

The other story comes from my time as a seminarian, when I was on a weekly placement in a high school. Now, what are the principles of school chaplaincy? You are there to “get alongside” the students, winning trust and building relationships. You are not there as a disciplinarian – leave that to the teaching staff. One break time I found a group of teenagers playing some game throwing balls (or were they apples?) at tin cans set up to be knocked over, so I joined in and started “larking around with them”. One of the staff members observed this, and I was called into the Head’s office. I was told in no uncertain terms that this was “unprofessional” – and so on that day I learned a clear limit and I have never made the same kind of mistake again.

I’m sharing these stories because they may be useful for professionals who have to manage Aspies. Has your Aspie made a serious social error like this? I would encourage you to ask them about their track record. Have they made similar errors in the past? Have they been able to learn from each error and not make the same kind of mistake again? If your Aspie is teachable, and willing to learn from their latest error, you can expect diligence in ensuring it does not happen again.

There’s an adage in business that you should recruit for “character, not competence” – because you can train a recruit of good character, but you can’t correct the flaws of a bad but competent character. Please remember that an Aspie’s character is to be ignorant of the social norms which typical human beings intuit, and that for an Aspie, good social skills are an acquired competence.  If your Aspie is a character willing to learn from their experience, you have no need to be concerned.

Them and Us

During my summer travels, I visited a science festival – that’s something I’ve always enjoyed since my teens. But now I have an added purpose: when I attend lectures on psychology or sociology, I am also looking out for tips about how typical human beings function. The lecturer explains the facet they are investigating – and now, when I think “I didn’t know some people’s brains worked like that,” I note that this is probably a clue about most human beings, present company excepted.

For instance, I recently heard about a research study dividing 5-year-old children into groups which were identified by wearing a yellow scarf or a green scarf. Immediately the children started identifying with ‘their’ colour, willing to express dislike for those wearing the opposite colour. In a German study, children would keep a secret entrusted to ‘their’ group but quickly betray a confidence about the ‘other’ group.

It’s always puzzled me why I should be loyal to ‘my’ group rather than even-handed to all comers. I would happily identify myself equally as a citizen of my nation, my state, my region and my continent, and regret that international borders mean that someone can’t simply choose to live in my country should they so wish. I see now that this goes beyond the Aspie trait of being extremely principled, but has an added dimension of not being wired to favour ingroups over outgroups.

Another study showed that identity was highly malleable: if you tell experimental subjects that the study is about ‘soccer fans’ then they will show altruism to someone in a rival team shirt over someone in a plain T-shirt because the rival fan is part of the ‘ingroup’. But tell a similar fan that you are studying supporters of their team, and the rival fan is now deemed part of the ‘outgroup’ and not extended the same altruism as you would show those wearing the colours of your own team.

Further, part of the art of being a demagogue is to get a group of people to identify as part of your ingroup, and amplify positive differences compared to ‘them’, whoever your outgroup might happen to be. This drives me to conflict as a pastor: is intentional creation of an ‘ingroup’ a necessary part of being an effective leader of a congregation, or unethical manipulation of souls? Certainly Jesus challenged the Jewish ‘ingroup’ identity by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan.

One final thought, for the researchers: if you are writing a paper about some ‘Them and Us’ phenomenon, do you really want to be cited as ‘Principal Author et al.’? (Think about the Latin…)

During and After

When do you feel the emotions associated with key moments in your life? Are you conscious of them in the moment, or only once you have time afterwards to process what has gone on?

I find in my life, I tend to have stronger emotions reflecting on what previously happened, than in the moment (though there are exceptions).

When I was an undergraduate, my friend Kate gave me an unexpected kiss when I made her tea at a black tie dinner – she didn’t like coffee. In the course of the next 48 hours it dawned on me that a beautiful woman of my own age had given me a kiss (for the first time ever in my life) – and I woke up to the fact I was living among a community of touching, feeling, human beings and not really taking part (a bittersweet awakening).

Much more recently, celebrating a significant anniversary of my priesthood, a friend I hadn’t seen for nearly 20 years (and who hadn’t RSVP’d to say she was coming) surprised me by turning up, and leaning in close when someone took a photo for us. This is all the more precious because that friend had left me a note, rather then saying goodbye in person, when our work situations took us in different directions. Although I didn’t feel powerful emotions at the party, my long-term memory of that event is marked by very positive feelings.

Throughout the two decades when I’ve woken up to interpersonal emotions, I’ve had more experiences of this kind (“I’m really glad that happened”) than times I have felt something positive in the moment (“I never want this moment to end”). Awkwardly, I think the latter sort have only ever happened when I’ve been touched by a person I have “fallen in love with” at some point in my life. 

Is it the interpersonal chemistry itself which is enabling the feelings in my otherwise unfeeling psyche? Is it the rare fulfilment of a desire to be close to that particular person? Or is it simply that in these cases the emotional volume is loud enough for me to hear what is always there but which I am otherwise deaf to?

To look at it another way, how might I feel when someone touches me or hugs me?

Warm and fuzzy – but this solely applies when it’s a person I not only trust but also experience some chemistry with.

Intellectually satisfied – when someone I trust but don’t have chemistry with, because I recognise the sign of affection

Annoyed – when it’s someone I have given verbal or body-language signals to, that I do not wish to be touched.

I wonder how much of this is peculiar to my Aspergers’ way of experiencing the world, and to what extent it is true for typical human beings?