Is alexithymia linked with autism?
We have all experienced difficulties at some point in expressing in words what we feel or in identifying and describing our emotions. However, the ability to distinguish, regulate, and respond to our feelings is essential for mental health. Emotional awareness plays a crucial role in these functions, and when it is impaired, it is called alexithymia. This condition is not uncommon. In fact, it affects 1 in 10 people and is most prevalent in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Parents and caregivers of neurodiverse children may have noticed that their kids struggle to understand and express their emotions. Alexithymia can have a significant impact on their daily functioning and create frustration for caregivers who seek to provide support without knowing how to do so. If you’ve been wondering, “Is alexithymia linked to autism?” this blog by ABA Centers of Florida will further explore what this condition entails, why it is more prevalent in people with autism, and how parents and caregivers can offer practical support to their loved ones dealing with alexithymia and autism.
The Handbook of Clinical Neurology defines alexithymia as difficulty in identifying and describing feelings, complicating the brain’s management of emotional awareness and expression. Experts have linked this condition to brain functioning. It is present in a variety of disorders, such as autism, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Individuals experiencing alexithymia can feel all emotions and sensations, but they struggle to give them attention and articulate their feelings with clarity. This difficulty in recognizing, describing, and regulating emotions complicates the process of coping with and overcoming those emotions. As a result, it increases the risk of mood disorders such as anxiety, depression, and addictive behaviors. In recent years, researchers have discovered that the neurobiological basis or root cause of alexithymia lies in interoception.
Interoception: Exploring the Neurobiological Cause
According to research by the American Psychological Association, interoception refers to awareness of bodily sensations, that is, the ability to be attentive to internal sensations in our body, such as heart rate, breathing, temperature, hunger, pain, and emotional feelings. This research highlights that interoception is a crucial additional sense for understanding how we feel at any given moment.
A person with good interoception acts according to these sensations, such as reaching for a snack when hungry or putting on a sweater when feeling cold. On the other hand, someone with low interoception might go a day without eating or attending to their own needs. However, interoception also addresses the recognition of emotions, which are experienced uniquely by each individual. For example, for many, a rapid heart rate and chest pressure may indicate anxiety. These internal sensations are fundamental to identifying and describing what we feel, and this experience can vary for each person.
Considering each individual’s interoceptive experience allows us to move beyond alexithymia and understand that there are different ways of perceiving internal emotional sensations. With no clear interoceptive understanding, emotions may seem abstract and difficult to articulate through language. This insight can help us find new ways to offer support.
The Link Between Alexithymia and Autism
Research conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information reveals a notable prevalence of alexithymia, a condition often associated with emotional processing difficulties, in individuals suffering from inherited neurodevelopmental disorders like ASD. Studies estimate that around 50% of people diagnosed with autism exhibit significant signs of alexithymia, a proportion significantly higher than that found in the general population.
While ASD is associated with communication and language difficulties, existing studies propose that the elevated presence of alexithymia within neurodiverse people might be the main driver behind these issues, independent of the fundamental symptoms of ASD. Furthermore, researchers have linked alexithymia to an increased anxiety level among those with ASD, a condition that people with autism frequently experience.
While there is limited research on the genetic aspect of alexithymia, recent studies have identified potential genes and environmental factors that may have an impact on its onset.
5 Tips for Providing Support to Individuals with Autism Experiencing Alexithymia
Caregivers of people with autism and alexithymia can offer support through activities focused on interoception, considering the following aspects:
- Prioritize Your Loved One’s Self-Regulation: Individuals with autism might find it challenging to direct their attention to internal sensations when they feel their body dysregulated. Contributing to the internal stabilization and balance of the nervous system is essential to provide adequate support for those experiencing alexithymia and autism. In addition, external factors present in the environment also play a crucial role. Caregivers must ensure that the environment provides the individuals with a sense of security and regulation, thus allowing them to divert attention to their emotions and feelings.
- Encourage Connection with Interoceptive Sensations: Once the individuals have achieved regulation, it is possible to safely stimulate interoceptive sensations within the body through fun and playful activities. Games and recreational activities allow your kiddo to practice identifying these internal sensations and strengthen their connection to themselves. You can implement a variety of approaches that generate intense feelings in the body, such as interactive games, physical exercises, yoga sessions, holding an ice pack, or performing simple everyday tasks, such as washing dishes, wetting hands, or taking a shower. While doing one of these activities, take a few minutes to reflect on how the body feels to foster a deeper connection.
- Empower Communication Skills With ABA Therapy: Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is the benchmark for autism therapy due to its high efficacy in treating autism with a science-based methodology. ABA addresses a variety of deficits associated with the autism spectrum, such as communication, social interaction, and behavior. During ABA therapy sessions, behavioral professionals work on developing and strengthening communication skills, providing tools that empower individuals on the spectrum to express their feelings and emotions effectively. In addition, they offer communication alternatives, such as art or assistive communication devices.
- Validate All Ways of Feeling: There is no single correct way to navigate through emotions. Many self-regulation programs often convey the idea that there is only one right way to feel. However, stress, for instance, may manifest in various sensations like tense muscles, sweating, or a rapid heart rate for some individuals. Not everyone experiences anxiety in the same manner, and that is completely fine. Acknowledging and validating the different interoceptive and emotional experiences of each person is crucial in paving the way for those who find it challenging to articulate their inner feelings. Establishing an accepting and secure environment that enables individuals with ASD to explore how they perceive their bodies and interpret these internal sensations fosters their overall interoceptive functioning.
- Be Patient and Compassionate: Cultivating kindness and accepting that there will be times when your loved one may not know exactly how they feel, which may also happen to you, is essential. Expressing our emotions can be a complex task, and this is especially true for people with autism, who face daily communication and language challenges. Trying to connect with sensations and emotions can be successful on some days and not so successful on others. Patience and persistence are vital to recognizing those sensations, identifying patterns, and linking them to emotions, thus facilitating communication of emotional experiences.
ABA Centers of Florida and Autism Support
At ABA Centers of Florida, we realize that the world of diversity can present challenges, mainly due to the unique characteristics of conditions such as communication and language difficulties. However, we firmly believe that with proper and practical support, the world of neurodiversity becomes an opportunity to discover and interpret the environment uniquely and fascinatingly.
With our ABA therapy services for children and teenagers in Doral, Tampa, Orlando, Boca Raton, and other areas throughout Florida, we strive to help those individuals with autism, as well as those who also face conditions such as alexithymia, strengthen their communication, interaction, and language skills. During our therapy sessions, our expert RBTs and BCBAs dedicate time and play activities to generate interoceptive sensations and connect with body sensations. These activities encourage the identification of emotions and feelings, providing tools to learn to recognize and express them verbally or through artistic and other forms of expression.
If you are looking for support for a loved one with autism who is facing challenges in communicating and expressing emotions, feel free to call us at (772) 773 – 1975 to schedule a free consultation or leave your information and questions on our website. Recognizing and expressing our emotions is essential to taking care of our mental health, and autism may require additional support to achieve this.