Emotional Cues vs. Social Cues

(Alternate title: One of These Things Is Not Like the Other)

While many autists deal with alexithymia – difficulty experiencing, expressing, and describing emotional responses – some autists describe themselves as empaths. In fact, there’s a theory that many autists don’t lack empathy but instead feel so much empathy that it’s difficult to process and cope with the input.

I’ve always considered myself an empath. I feel, acutely and often with painful intensity, emotions that others feel/express. It’s not something I’m terribly successful at shutting off, although I have learned a few techniques to reduce the intensity sometimes. I care very deeply about people and go to great lengths to not cause anyone distress or pain. Partially that’s self-preservation, because their pain is mine; partially it’s just the fact that I don’t want to hurt anyone if I can possibly help it. I’m a big softie.

Being an empath, I read emotional cues very well. I can usually read emotional cues that someone isn’t aware of, in fact, and call out an emotional state before the other person realizes they’re feeling that way. I am quite good at observing and identifying emotional states–it’s one of my strengths.

Unfortunately, I am really not good at understanding social cues, especially when they conflict with or are supposed to overwrite emotional cues. I am apparently not the only one (look towards the end of the article).

The difference in emotional and social cues can occasionally be subtle. An emotional cue is an expression; a social cue can also be an expression. I can tell if someone’s upset; I can’t tell if someone is giving off social cues to ignore their upsetness. I have gotten into considerable trouble before because I will address the emotional signals and completely ignore the contradictory social signals, resulting in a person who feels misunderstood because I’m not reacting to their deliberately-chosen social cues and instead reacting to their subconscious, barely-realized emotional cues.

I learned from those messes, and now I will ask a person if they want me to ignore their emotional cues. It’s, ah, probably not the level of subtlety most people would desire, but honesty and earnestness are my best bets when I’m not fluent in social signaling. Happily, my closest friends know how to respond–bluntly–when I ask that, and we can usually get to a happy compromise.


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