Asperger’s and the Emotional Cage

aspergers_emotional_cage_small_watermarkedHaving Asperger’s Syndrome can be challenging in a lot of ways.  Many of them involve dealing with the neurotypical world and its strange (to those on the spectrum) ways and rules.  Things that neurotypical individuals take for granted can be mysterious for us Aspies.  A big challenge I’ve recently realized can be the expression of emotions.

Some people will look at those with Asperger’s and mistakenly think that we don’t have emotions or that said emotions are less than our neurotypical counterparts – at least until said emotions explode out.  These people are horribly, horribly wrong.  If anything, people with Asperger’s feel emotions more deeply.  I’ll often find myself hurt about something for days while the other person has forgotten about the incident ten minutes later.  The trouble is that Aspies often find themselves unable to express those emotions.

Think of an Aspie’s emotions as being hidden behind a big sheet of tinted, sound-proof glass.  You stand on one side and the Aspie’s emotions are on the other side.  Through the tinted glass, you might be able to make out some shapes on the other side, but you won’t see it clearly.  Meanwhile, the Aspie on the other side is trying desperately to communicate how he or she feels.  Talking doesn’t seem to work and small movements seem to be lost on the other side as well.  Big movements might work, but lack any form of subtly.

An observer on the other side of the glass might mistake the lack of small movements/sounds for a lack of emotions – until the Aspie makes big movements or big sounds that get through the sound-proof glass.  The neurotypical observers are surprised but the Aspie is frustrated.  It’s like living in an emotional cage.

Personally, I’ve recognized this tendency with me since before I heard about Asperger’s Syndrome.  My go-to method for conflict resolution is keeping quiet.  I’ve always done this because I’m afraid of becoming so upset that I shout something that I don’t really mean.  I’ve found that NHL – who is obviously less adept at expressing his emotions having had less time to practice – is prone to this.  He’ll get upset over an issue (say, being made to go on a family walk when he just wants to play video games) and will shout things like “I hate you” and “I’m going to kick you” instead of calmly discussing his feelings.

Outbursts aside, however, I’ll often plan out arguments in my head.  I’ll lay out reasons why I feel a particular way, what the person did to make me feel this way, and the resolution I’m looking for.  The arguments are all there in my head, but when they come out of my mouth they get garbled and are less than persuasive.  It’s like being able to imagine a perfect drawing in your head but only being able to draw a stick figure – and a poor one at that.

It’s not just my own emotions that I have trouble with but expressing empathy for others’ emotions.  Plenty of times, B will have something going wrong, she’ll look to me for sympathy, and will find none.  That’s not because I have no sympathy for her.  I do, but I just don’t have the words to express it.  I’m standing behind that tinted-glass cage screaming how I feel but all that comes out is a muffled “sorry.”  I’m frustrated because I can’t express how I feel and B’s frustrated that I’m not showing sympathy for her situation.

Interestingly enough, I feel much more at home expressing emotions in writing.  There’s no immediate pressure to put the perfect words to my feelings.  I can write, delete, and rewrite how I feel before sending it on to the recipient.  It’s no wonder that I feel more at home in the online world than in the “real” world and that I feel more social on social media than when face to face.

All in all, having Asperger’s can be frustrating to all involved when it comes to expression of emotions.  Aspies can easily be misunderstood and thought of as having no real emotions when the opposite is true.  We Aspies feel deeply but just can’t find the words to express those feelings.  The next time you find yourself dealing with an Aspie, keep this in mind and be patient as they try to express themselves from behind their emotional cage.

NOTE: The “Asperger’s Emotional Cage” image above is composed of four emoticon images by nicubunu that are available from “Laughing Face“, “Crying Face“, “Loving Face“, and “Question Face.”


  • Karen Ison

    Thank you for the article. I have a 14 year old son with Aspergers going through losing his granddad and struggling to express his grief. The glass illustration has really helped me.

  • Aysha

    Thank you sometimes i struggle to understand what my aspie boyfriend is going through the glass illustration was really helpful:)


    Glad it’s not just me. I keep an irritated expression all the time. I can’t help it. I have to tell my coworkers, “This is my happy face.” Or “This is my interested face.” Lucky for me they all seem to understand and take my word for it. All my in-laws think I’m super cynical and maybe I am, but it has more to do with my frustration trying to communicate or even tolerate small talk. I can’t help but think I’m missing out when everyone is having animated discussion and laughing about dumb things. I’d rather just be alone with my irritated expression.

  • Vanessa

    It’s hard when I tell my bf that I am sad and he doesn’t say anything, all I need is “I’m sorry your feeling that way.” Why is it so hard to say?

  • Elle

    Gosh! lately I log into asperger discussion forums when I’ve had a hard time trying to convey a clear message about something to my kind of boyfriend who has not been officially diagnosed with asperger but who I am so certain has it, it, I’m willing to bet on it. Today is good example: I spend close to two hours composing as clear of a letter as I can to answer to HIS question regarding what I perceive as his latest meltdown and a frustrating talk about feelings, letting it clear I’m not expecting his immediate response since it Is a long letter and he has a very important conference this week (he is a theoretical mathematician. I imagine some of you smiling at this… At least among the NTs.) I’ve put on the table, very reluctantly and timidly, but as concise as I can, intimate feelings toward him which in a moment I dared express them, were either dismissed or mocked and answer to in a way that, didn’t i know better, would have felt callous and childish. He happened to be online at the same time. I see him writing and I try to pretend I’m off… But he knows I’m here. He says to me: is this a good time for a joke? I tell him no, I do not think it is a good time for a joke and I’m not in the mood for one. But I’m also not in the mood to discuss what I just left for him to read and take his time to think and reply to.
    We exchange a few trivial comments about food and our days (he lives in Europe, I, in the USA) and then, he cannot hold it any longer and asks me again ” would it now be the right time for a joke?”
    Cause I know he won’t be happy until I let him tell the joke, asking him to think twice if the joke is funny or worth telling (i know his jokes!) he makes an absolutely not funny remark about something I pointed out earlier in my letter. I patiently and without being upset (whats the point?) explain to him why it is no funny… Tell him I’m leaving for the museum, but leave with a great feeling of impotence and emptiness 🙁

  • Mark

    I’m training to be an actor and i often have my teachers say to me ‘there’s just no emotion there’ or ‘your like a robot’ or ‘you have no connection it appears’ etc.

    Would these be common things that someone might say to an Asperger person? I’m interested to know how an aspergers actor would manage in such an industry/ does that mean its the wrong career choice?