I talk a lot about delayed emotional processing in autistic people because I’m one of those individuals that has delayed emotional reactions fairly often. But, I know when you’re new to the idea of learning how your brain processes things, you read something like “delayed emotional reactions” and you’re like, “Well, what does that mean?” So today, I want to share two recent emotional processing delays that I personally experienced, in the hopes that it will help some of you who are trying to identify this stuff in yourselves.
Delayed emotional processing: it took me over two hours to feel sad.
This morning, I woke up around 8:00AM and I looked at my phone. Somebody had texted me with a bit of bad news. No one died – it was just mild bad news.
In my brain, I thought, “I bet I will feel disappointed when this hits,” but I didn’t have any physical emotional reaction in my body to the information. I got up and I went through my morning. I helped my kids and I got on my treadmill and I did all the things. Then, around 10:30AM, I started crying.
I had been thinking about the text I’d gotten and I’d been working through it, and so the physical reaction of the emotion wasn’t unexpected. But, when I looked at the clock, I realized that it took two and a half hours from when I got the initial information to when the physical emotional reaction and the specific identification of, “Oh, I feel sad,” came.
I knew what I expected to feel based on what I know of myself and what was likely to happen, but
the actual emotion didn’t happen until two and a half hours after the specific cue for the emotion. That’s delayed emotional processing in a nutshell.
Uncommon physical reactions to emotions: my jaw chatters uncontrollably when I’m upset
Another thing happened the other day with a client (who will remain anonymous, but I did get their permission to share this). The client was dealing with a very difficult decision. Our conversation was very heavy and the client was clearly expressing and going through some big feelings.
I had a lot of empathy for them, but I didn’t have a lot of physical reaction to the feelings that I was seeing being experienced. Then, close to the end of the call, after maybe 45 minutes of having this really intense conversation, my jaw started chattering.
For me, this is an emotional indicator. If I’m upset, my jaw will tremble or shake by itself with no other physical cues. I’m not crying, I’m not feeling jittery, I don’t get a racing heart. Nothing else happens.
You know that feeling of camaraderie when somebody is going through something really difficult? It’s sort of empathy. It’s not really sympathy. You feel like you want to fix it for them. It’s that, “Why do people have to deal with this? I wish it were better for them!” kind of feeling. That feeling made my jaw chatter violently for about 20 minutes after the call ended, but caused no other kinds of physical sensations in my body.
Delayed Emotional Reactions Contribute to Autism Myths
I wanted to share those two experiences because they both demonstrate what I would consider typical emotional reactions for a lot of autistic people. If you have slower-than-average processing in any other part of your life, you may also be processing emotions differently.
As my experiences show, we autistics often get the environmental input first, but then the actual physical reaction, or even the label for the emotion in our brains, doesn’t come until hours later. As you see, it took almost an hour in an intensive situation for my jaw to start chattering, and almost three hours in a sad situation for me to start crying.
This is why some autistics are labeled as “cold” or “unfeeling.” In the moment, I might not have a big reaction to emotional news. Internally, I might think, “Oh, that’s disappointing,” but I won’t have a physical reaction or a facial emotivity that neurotypical people can see when they look at me. But then, three hours later, it will seem like I start crying out of “nowhere.”
Delayed Emotional Processing Contributes to Autistic Relationship and Communication Issues
Different kinds of emotional processing can also affect relationships. Whether you’re in a family or a romantic relationship, our unique brand of autistic emotional processing can come across as emotional “coldness” if our relationship partners aren’t educated about what our processing looks like.
For example, if I, an autistic, am having a very emotional conversation with a friend or partner, they might perceive me as looking like I “don’t care.” My partner might think I don’t care because I’m not crying, not visibly excited, I’m not yelling — I’m not having an obvious, outward, physical emotional reaction to this highly intense conversation.
But then, several hours to several days later, I may have a big physical reaction. I could be at work, I could be at school, I could be helping your kids in the park, and suddenly I’m angry about the discussion we had days ago. That’s because it’s taken me a longer time to process our conversation and for the feelings to develop in reaction to the information I received in that discussion.
My difference in how I process emotions as an autistic isn’t better or worse than my partner’s faster emotional processing. Because I take longer to feel an emotion, I don’t get panicky in the moment. I’m often much more practical and able to take charge in emergency situations than my friends are. But then, several days later when everyone else is fine, I may finally process the emotional charge of the situation, and start feeling panicky “out of nowhere.”
Because my friends have taken time to understand my different emotional processing style, they recognize it for its strengths and can be there for me when my emotional reaction is delayed. But for a friends group or partnership where one person doesn’t understand the other, the difference in processing styles can cause the relationship to suffer.
Do you relate to my experiences of autistic emotional processing? Is your experience similar or different? Let me know in the comments.
Do you have trouble recognizing your own feelings or the feelings other people are having? Are you an adult with autism or Asperger’s?
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Thank you for this! I had to function during emergency situations because no one else was doing so, hours or days later having the breakdown once I felt safe. Especially delayed anger. I thought of how my emotions were treated as a small child, and also toilet training. I learned it was not safe or acceptable to express my emotions (like urine or stool) the instant I felt pressure to do so. I had to wait until I had emotional privacy, alone, to release. I can only express once I feel safe. Trauma and vulnerability made it a survival tactic.
Thank you for your comment, Alex. I am so glad to hear that this article was helpful for you. I’m so sorry for your experiences of having to be the functional person in emergencies, and hope that you know that you’re not alone in that. I’m working on several other resources on trauma in neurodivergent individuals precisely because the experience can be so common.
I’ve felt for so long like I was “doing life wrong” because I processed my feelings in a delayed way. I believed that this was the cause of my problems, and that I’d never be able to heal from my problems until I could do it the “right” way. It’s wonderful to consider now that I’m not broken – it’s OK to process differently!
A caution though: another function of emotions is to alert you to red flags, like people who want to take advantage. For this, I start to notice my thoughts and behaviours: especially being preoccupied with how to fix myself/work on myself so that I can be good enough (which alerts me to the fact that I feel shame), and fawning (which alerts me to the idea that I am abdicating from my own life in favour of pleasing others). If I notice these thoughts and behaviours, I know I have to look more closely and see what’s going on – with my history, I need to be very careful, especially to recognize and avoid gaslighters.
Also, on the subject of emotions: there’s a book called How Emotions are Made by Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, which basically says people recognize valence (pleasant vs unpleasant) and intensity of emotions, but distinguishing between particular emotions is just a (useful) social construct. There’s no physiological or brain-scan fingerprint that distinguishes mad from sad from scared.
I realize this is a long comment, but from my understanding, autistic people will likely (a) appreciate that I’ve done a lot of research into a topic that interests me, and (b) hopefully find something that I said valuable.
Hi LH, thanks so much for your nuanced and thoughtful comment. I agree that emotions have a very useful role in letting us understand our environmental context, and their interpretation is valuable. And to anyone reading, Dr. Barrett’s work is very good, and certainly worth checking out from the library!