Alexithymia is a condition or difference, which roughly translates in ancient Greek as “no words for emotions.” People who experience alexithymia can have difficulty identifying feelings, describing feelings to others and distinguishing between feelings and the bodily sensations of emotional arousal.
Alexithymia is a common experience for us Autistic folk – I have issues with understanding how I feel and it is near impossible for me to explain them to someone else. I can feel the physical sensations associated with emotions but I find it hard to translate that into commonly used words for emotions. Then comes the difficulty of scouring my memory to see where the emotions come from and what I am reacting too. This is made more frustrating by my memory issues and difficulty understanding and processing time.
Alexithymia isn’t necessarily an Autistic issue though, it can effect other Neurodivergent folk and can be a response to trauma. The difficulty to identify and describe feelings is not helped by communication and language differences between Autistic people and non-Autistic people, what Damien Milton and Luke Beardon call ‘the double empathy problem’. It is easier for me to explain how I feel to the Neurodivergent kids I work with because we have similar communication and sensory profiles, including issues with interoception.
Interoception is the sense of the internal state of the body, both conscious and subconscious, including hunger, thirst, pain and fatigue. I find explaining the inner workings of my body difficult, especially when asked pain or sickness levels on a scale from 1-10. My understanding of my body just doesn’t work that way, I also very rarely have pain or fatigue free days. Misunderstanding my feelings and my body is consistently made more difficult by neurotypical language and communication which doesn’t mean anything to me.
Then there is the wonderful mix of interoception issues and alexithymia, where physical sensations affect mood and both are confusing! My worst experience of these two together is hypoglycemic rage, commonly known as being ‘hangry’ – angry because you need to eat. I have this more often than others because it mixes with another skill of mine (!) executive dysfunction, where I forget or simply cannot feed myself as my body simply says ‘no.’
All of these things intermingling, and the behaviours which can come with them, can be massively misunderstood by others. These misunderstandings come with another bunch of confusing social interactions, feelings and physical sensations.
Alexithymia and interoception issues are a viscious cycle of misunderstanding, emotional response, unanticipated behaviours, and the inability for me to pick up what my body is so desperately trying to put down.