Have you ever asked someone with Asperger’s the question ‘how are you feeling?’ because you are concerned that they are upset about something? Was the answer ‘I’m okay’? Did this irritate the heck out of you because you knew they weren’t okay? You knew that they were hiding the fact that they’re not okay from you, and that hurt.
Problem 1: It’s an over used question
The problem with the questions such as ‘how are you feeling?’ and ‘are you okay?’ is that it’s almost a reflex to say ‘I’m okay’ or ‘I’m fine, thanks’. It is like saying back ‘how do you do’ when someone says ‘how do you do’. It’s a reflex response that has lost any real relevance to how the person is actually feeling. Asking ‘how are you feeling?’ has become a polite line to which people with Asperger’s have learnt to respond politely by saying ‘I’m okay’ even when they are filled with rage or are so upset they’re about to burst.
Problem 2: ‘Okay’ covers too big a range of emotional states
Another problem with this question is the word ‘okay’. ‘Okay’ covers an enormous range of emotions. You have to have an extraordinarily good day or a stunningly bad day before you would say ‘I’m great’ or ‘I’m not okay’. When someone asks me ‘how are you feeling?’ unless I really am about to lose it, I would respond with ‘I’m okay’ because I AM okay. I am okay in the sense that I am not about to scream and jump out the window. ‘Okay’ stands as a huge barrier between you and them because in trying to establish whether they are okay or not okay, they entirely bypass the huge range of emotions that sits between ‘absolutely great’ and ‘sodding dreadful’.
Problem 3: We answer literally
The final problem with this question is that people with Asperger’s give answers to questions in the most literal sense. I could be absolutely bursting with feelings and things I want to say but unless I am asked very specific questions that give me the go ahead to start talking about them, I cannot start. So if you want to know what things I am feeling, the question you have to ask is ‘what are you feeling?’ You cannot substitute ‘how are you feeling?’ with ‘what are you feeling?’ I know that the former is often used to mean the latter, but those two are very different questions that are going to get you very different answers from a person with Asperger’s.
The right question – ‘What are you feeling?’
The question ‘what are you feeling?’ tells the other person ‘please give me a list of emotions you are experiencing’. This question cannot be answered simply with the word ‘okay’. They have to respond by saying ‘well, I’m feeling fed up, and stressed.’ They have to look past just being okay, and really look at what emotions they are feeling. It gives them the go ahead they need to talk about all the feelings that are bubbling up inside them. This in turn gives you the opportunity to ask ‘well, what’s making you feel fed up? Is there anything we can do to help?’
James and I now use this follow up question with very good results. It’s particularly useful after an argument. After an argument, we used to ask each other ‘how are you feeling?’, which was of course met by ‘I’m okay’. So we were left to lick our own emotional wounds individually, because the opportunity to talk about how the argument had affected us never came up. Asking ‘what are you feeling’ gives permission for the other person to say how the argument (or the issue of the argument) has affected them, which gives us an opportunity to perform ‘emotional aftercare’ for each other. This has lead to our arguments becoming less about emotionally destroying each other and more about emotionally nurturing each other and helping each other solve problems.
So next time you ask someone how they are feeling and you come to a brick wall, try changing the question to ‘what are you feeling?’ It will give permission for the other person to speak about their emotions, which in turn gives you a much better understanding of what is making them upset. This will give both of you a really good foundation on which to start identifying and solving the issue.
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