By Marga Vicedo
“Sometimes can tell when people are happy even if not smiling because can tell by the face. When people are happy eyes always glow and face shine like sun. And if people are sad face always looks gloomy like clouds. And between happy and sad lie partly cloudy.”
“You are being emotional,” someone may tell you during a conversation. It is not a compliment. It usually means you are being irrational or at least unreasonable. The underlying assumption is that you are not thinking clearly because you are letting your emotions interfere with your reasoning. This belief is not only prevalent in daily interactions. The separation between cognition and affects has a long history in philosophical and scientific approaches in the Western world. The emotional and cognitive realms are often seen as separate, if not opposed to each other. In this view, emotions cannot help your thinking; on the contrary, they will always cloud your judgment. Clear, rational, objective thinking is supposed to require leaving one’s feelings aside.
In the field of autism, this view about cognition and affectivity also has a long history. In 1911, Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler introduced the term “Autismus” to refer to a symptom of schizophrenia. He defined it as the tendency to detach from reality. For Bleuler, that tendency resulted from “autistic thinking,” which he defined as the opposite of “logical thinking.” Logical thinking was connected to reality. Autistic thinking was disconnected from reality because it had been distorted by certain affects, especially a person’s desires and fears.[ii] Most child psychiatrists who adopted Bleuler’s term autism did not elaborate on his views about the contraposition between autistic and logical thinking. However, the idea that autism was a condition of the affects persisted. When John Hopkins University child psychiatrist Leo Kanner first presented childhood autism in 1943 as an independent condition, he saw it as a child’s innate inability to form affective contacts with people.
Our views about autism have changed profoundly in the last few decades. However, the idea that autistic people have some disturbance of the emotions, specifically that autistic people have a limited understanding of the emotions of other people, has persisted.[iii] I believe that this view derives in part from accepting the separation of the emotional and cognitive abilities in psychological development.
Yet, there are different ways of coming to understand how other people feel. One could understand the emotions of others because one has experienced them in similar circumstances, or one could understand them because one has learned to identify the situations that trigger those emotions and their signs. More than anyone else, Jessica Park taught me this. Jessica was diagnosed as autistic in 1961, when she was three years old.
In her adolescence, Jessica developed a system based on clouds and doors to organize her world. The system included twenty-nine kinds of days: “dayhigh” was a day with high sun and no clouds; “daynothing” was a day with a clear sky. Any cloud in the sky would ruin Jessica’s mood.[iv] Using clouds and doors, Jessica also cataloged other experiences and objects, including gum-wrappers, flavors, music, and numbers.[v] Jessica gave classical music two doors. She gave four doors and no clouds to hard rock music because she felt such intense pleasure listening to it that she needed to put four doors between her and the sound. Thus, her system helped her organize not only the external world but also her inner emotional experiences. In a sense, the clouds and doors served as emotional currency that allowed her to make conversions in a system of emotional exchange, an emotional economy of sorts.
Over the years, Jessica has established different systems to navigate the world around her. To develop those systems, she looks for patterns everywhere.
Like many autistic people, Jessica is a “pattern thinker,” as animal researcher Temple Grandin says, or a “pattern seeker,” as psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen puts it.[vi] During her adolescence, Jessica’s greatest passion was finding order in the world of numbers. In one of her drawings, she represented herself doing just that.
Jessica’s pattern identification abilities are impressive and often she discovers or establishes patterns that are not readily seen by others. Once, at age twelve, Jessica drew a grid with ﬁfty numbers, in no apparent order.
Mathematician Freeman Dyson, a friend of the Park family, figured out that the grid contained the squares of the numbers 51–100, with the ﬁrst twenty-ﬁve being the even numbers (arranged in terms of the number of powers of 2 they contained) and the last twenty-ﬁve being the odd numbers (this time arranged in ascending order).[vii]
Jessica’s mother, Clara Park, told us that numbers became Jessica’s “primary expressive instrument.” Jessica was fascinated not only by the order one could find in numbers, but also by their emotional charge. For Jessica, some numbers were “too good” and others were “HATE” numbers. Even with an emotional charge, the world of numbers is immutable and is an ideal terrain for seeking patterns. It was not so easy with other features of the human world that Jessica also needed to communicate with.
Human emotions are some of the most complex things to organize into neatly separate categories, as the famous British naturalist Charles Darwin discovered. In his 1872 book, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, Darwin embarked on the ambitious project of cataloging all human emotions that are revealed in facial expressions. He sought to establish the universality of facial gestures that allow us to recognize the emotional states of other individuals.[viii] It was a project that has continued to this day. Whether the expression of certain emotions is universal and innate remains a contested issue. However, the capacity to ‘read’ emotions on somebody’s face is not universal.
For Jessica, identifying the emotions of other people through their facial expressions was not always easy. But she resorted to her ability to find patterns and to connect those to her systems. In this way, she found out that “When people are happy eyes always glow and face. And if people are sad face always looks gloomy like clouds. And between happy and sad like partly cloudy.” Over the years, Jessica worked with her family and friends to learn about each other’s feelings. All learning is reciprocal. In her accounts of Jessica’s development, her mother Clara told us that Jessica had to learn what it means to be discouraged or dismayed and what events caused that state. For their part, her family members had to learn that leaving the light on at night in any room caused Jessica profound distress.
Through examples, Jessica also learned more about empathy and developed her ability to act empathetically based on her understanding of other people’s desires. With the help of Joan, one of her friends and house companions, Jessy set out to practice more “thinking of others.” One day, Jessica told her mother: “I put nutmeg instead of cinnamon in the pudding because I know you don’t like that.”[ix] Jessica definitely has the ability to take the perspective of others and can take their preferences into account in her decisions.
Later, using storybooks and other tools, Jessica also learned what feelings are appropriate in certain social situations. We all need to be socialized into a community, which includes learning many of the cultural expectations about emotional reactions through observation and imitation. Jessica had to apply a more ‘intellectual’ approach to understanding the feelings of other people. Jessica’s growth shows us that different people combine their intellect and their emotions in diverse ways.
Jessica found her own way of combining love and intelligence to navigate the complicated and often chaotic world of human emotions and their expressions. She used her cognitive abilities for patterns and systems to interpret how other people feel. In her efforts to understand her daughter, Clara Park, too, combined the cognitive and the emotional, intelligence and love. When Jessica was a child, Clara was seen as a “refrigerator mother,” a cold mother who was responsible for her daughter’s condition. Although criticized for taking an intellectual approach to mothering, Clara argued that “intelligence and love are not natural enemies.”[x] The intellect and the emotions are deeply interrelated. Different people combine them in various ways to make their way in the world and to understand and empathize with each other.
[i] Quoted in Clara Park, “Social Growth in Autism: A Parent’s Perspective,” in Social Behavior in Autism, ed. Eric Schopler and Gary B. Mesibov (New York: Plenum Press, 1986), 81–99, 94.
[ii] Eugen Bleuler, “Autistic Thinking,” American Journal of Insanity 69 (5): 873-886, 1913, 874, 882.
[iv] Clara Claiborne Park, Exiting Nirvana: A Daughter’s Life with Autism (Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 2001).
[v] Park, Exiting Nirvana, 82.
[vi] Temple Grandin and Richard Panek, The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum (Boston: Houghton Mifﬂin, 2013), 141. Simon Baron-Cohen, The Pattern Seekers: How Autism Drives Human Invention (New York: Basic Books, 2020)
[vii] Park, Exiting Nirvana, 93-94.
[viii] Charles Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998 ).
[ix] Park, Exiting Nirvana, 147.
[x] Marga Vicedo, Intelligent Love: Clara Park, her Autistic Daughter, and the Myth of the Refrigerator Mother (Boston: Beacon Press, 2021).
About the Author
Marga Vicedo, PhD, is a philosopher and historian of science. She is a professor at the University of Toronto, where she teaches and writes about the history of biology, psychology, and psychiatry since the turn of the twentieth century. She is on the editorial board of numerous journals, including the Review of General Psychology and Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, and is the author of The Nature and Nurture of Love: From Imprinting to Attachment in Cold War America and Intelligent Love: The Story of Clara Park, Her Autistic Daughter, and the Myth of the Refrigerator Mother. Connect with her at margavicedo.com.