When An Autist Can’t Cry
I remember the day that I stopped crying. It was when I was bullied as a very young child, my first year in school. The bullies were waiting for my reaction, and I realized that if I didn’t give them that, they had less interest in me. Thus started a lifetime of tuning out of my emotions, sometimes being unaware of what my emotions are, and other times feeling like they are out of control, but showing in ways that other people cannot identify what they are.
Not crying was a useful tool for an undiagnosed autistic child who so often had no friends and was delayed in learning most social skills. I learned to self-isolate. In elementary school, I avoided the other kids most of the time at recess by walking around the playground area outskirts with a book in hand. If bullies shouted at me, I gave them in response zero facial expression, zero emotional response, until the bullies went away. They called me a robot sometimes, but they eventually left me alone.
I solved the major problem of my life, right? Good for me. But I still couldn’t understand social interactions to save my life. No one said what they meant, but someone I was always expected to figure out what my response was supposed to be, even though no one gave me a clear list of social expectations, and if they did, they made no sense and were nearly useless. Eventually, I stopped knowing how to cry. Or I stopped being able to release my emotions in that very normal human way.
As a teenager, I remember hearing adults and other teens talk sometimes about “having a good cry.” I had no idea what this mean, but I had a few friends I trusted enough not to laugh at me when I asked, but when they explained that after crying for thirty minutes or so, they felt better, I was even more confused. If something pushed me to the point of crying, past my high stone walls of defense against showing any emotion, I most definitely did not feel better about it afterward. I occasionally had what I now understand should probably be termed “meltdowns,” in which a social situation became so unbearable that I lost control and started crying and flailing about, trying to get home to a safe situation. Crying did not make me feel better afterward. It made me feel exhausted, embarrassed, and like there was something deeply wrong with me as a human being.