Emotional Intelligence

Honestly, I don’t know nearly enough about this topic, but I’m going to give it a stab all the same.

Emotional intelligence. According to a paper published in Psychological Inquiry (Vol. 15, No. 3, 2004), emotional intelligence is defined as:

the capacity to reason about emotions, and of emotions to enhance thinking. It includes the abilities to accurately perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth (Mayer & Salovey, 1997).

Persons with autism are said to lack a highly developed sense of emotional intelligence, especially in regard to social interaction and communication. Like everything related to autism, it’s a very wide spectrum. One of the reasons (besides simple denial) we were so hesitant to have Jonah evaluated for autism was his sometime-ability to empathize. Our picture of autism didn’t match J’s brand of autism.

He is also quite capable of perceiving emotions, though his range is somewhat limited. His common questions include: Are you happy? Are you mad? Are you irritated? Sad doesn’t enter the picture very often. I introduced “irritated” as a gradient of mad. Any kind of negative feelings cause J to passionately proclaim “I’m having a BAD day!” even if the rest of his day has been peachy. So that’s where his difficulty regulating emotion comes in, not unlike his difficulty modulating sensory experiences.

When it comes to generating emotions, well, you should watch the kid in front of a mirror. Or a video camera (especially Skype). Give him a little time and the right frame of mind, and you’ll see tears. Real tears, manufactured while you wait! He’ll contort his face, stick out his lower lip and work himself up into a bona fide tizzy.

What brought this all to mind was an incident a couple of nights ago. The boys were bathed and pajamaed, newly diapered and mouth clean. So I pull G up on my lap to read a final book before bed, and the little stinker had, in the five minutes since his father had dressed him, completely filled his pants. “Whew-ee!” I exclaimed. “Where’d that poop come from?” [It’s a little game G and I play. He almost always answers “Jo-Jo!”, followed by “Daddy!”]

Jonah and John overheard us, and John came out to tell me that Jonah had just informed him that it’s his [John’s] fault that Gabriel pooped. I can only infer, sheepishly, that Jonah has heard me (more than once) thoughtlessly blame John for things completely outside of his control. Yeah, it happens. But the connection Jonah made in that moment kind of astounded me. He was imitating my bad behavior. More than that, he had emotionally reasoned that if something goes wrong—if something is less than ideal—it’s Daddy’s fault. To say the least, I was humbled. Mortified is probably more accurate. I firmly resolved, in that moment and in many moments since, to wholeheartedly pursue unflappability. A little more tranquility and a lot less flusterability. I know, it’s not a word. But it should be.

Which leads me to consider: what’s workable? What’s not? Maybe for Jonah, the most important skill we can help him develop is the ability to recognize what he can get better at and what he can’t—and to seek accommodations (whether they be emotional, intellectual, or physical) for the areas that are, let’s face it, beyond his control.

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