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What is alexithymia, anyway?

If you've got a neurodivergent kid or you're neurodivergent, yourself, you've probably heard of the term alexithymia.

No, it's not the latest Amazon Echo device.

It's a term used to describe a unique way some people experience and express emotions. Specifically, individuals with alexithymia struggle to distinguish between emotions and bodily sensations — finding it challenging to identify and communicate their feelings.

In fact, alexithymia loosely translates to “no words for emotion” in Greek.

How common is alexithymia?

1 in every 10 people has alexithymia, and it’s much more common in those with depression, ADHD, or autism. In fact, 1 in 5 autistic people have it to some degree.

Alexithymia often tags along with various neurodivergent conditions, but here's the thing: it's not exclusive to neurodivergent folks. Anyone, neurotypical or not, can have some degree of alexithymia.

Alexithymia is a spectrum, which means it affects everyone differently.

What is alexithymia like?

Often, people with alexithymia will use words like “anxious” or “overwhelmed” to describe their feelings when, really, they’re feeling so many different things, they don’t know how else to describe it.

Common features include:

  • Difficulty identifying + describing feelings

  • Difficulty differentiating between bodily feelings (hunger cues, exhaustion) and emotions (anxiety, sadness)

  • Paying more attention to external occurrences than internal experiences

  • Difficulty generating mental pictures or fantasizing

  • A tendency to avoid emotional or intimate situations

  • Difficulty forming + maintaining close relationships

  • Anxiety around social situations involving emotion

Alexithymia in kids

Imagine being a kid, navigating the rollercoaster of emotions that childhood brings. We all know kids feel BIG feelings. Now, imagine not being able to understand what you're feeling or express those big feelings into words. Frustrating, right?

Here are some signs of alexithymia to look for in your kids:

  1. Limited emotion talk — Kids with alexithymia might not chat as much about their feelings. Remember: it's not that they don't have emotions, it's just that they just find it a bit tricky to put them into words.

  2. Difficulty recognizing emotions in others —  Understanding what others are feeling might be a bit challenging for these kids. So, empathy might take a little extra time to develop or it might seem like your kid isn't being as empathetic as some believe they should.

  3. Physical expression of emotions — Sometimes, you'll notice that emotions come out in physical ways, like through actions or even symptoms like stomachaches and headaches.

How to help kids with alexithymia

If you think your kid may have alexithymia, don't worry! There are so many ways to accommodate them. And remember: there's nothing wrong with thinking a bit differently!

  1. Create a safe space — Encourage open conversations about feelings. Make it clear that it's okay not to have all the words right away. Be patient and understanding!

  2. Use visual aids —Sometimes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Visual tools like emotion charts or flash cards can help kids associate feelings with specific expressions.

  3. Modeling — Talk openly about your own feelings, and why you're feeling them. For example, you could say "I'm feeling frustrated right now because you didn't put away your toys."

  4. Mindfulness — When your kid feels overwhelmed, encourage them to notice different parts of their body and what they feel like. What's going on around them? This helps build awareness skills.

  5. Create a schedule for daily tasks + needs — Write it down (or use pictures) somewhere your kid can see whenever they need. Reminders like "Don't forget to drink water!" or "We eat breakfast in the morning, even if we may not realize we're hungry!" can go a long way.

  6. Celebrate small victories — Building emotional awareness takes time. Celebrate the small victories and reassure them that it's okay to feel whatever they're feeling, however they're feeling it (or seemingly not).

  7. Embrace alternative communication — Kids with alexithymia might express themselves better through art, play, AAC, or other non-verbal means. Encourage and appreciate these forms of communication, too.

  8. Therapy — Of course, visiting an expert can make a huge impact. They know even more strategies to help.

Ways to accommodate for alexithymia in adults

You might be reading this and wonder if you've got alexithymia, too. Well, everything above still applies to you! Here are some more grown-up-specific tips. Remember: you've made it this far, so you're doing just fine!

  1. Therapy or psychoeducation — Getting expert help can make a huge impact. It can also help you gain confidence!

  2. Guided trainings — There are online and in-person trainings for in identifying + communicating feelings available. If you can't find anything online, ask your doctor!

  3. Daily reminders — Setting reminders for daily tasks + needs (like eating meals or drinking water) can help you remember to take care of your body, which in turn, helps you take care of your mind.

  4. Journaling — Keeping a cause + effect journal for your feelings. When you notice yourself feeling a certain way, try to write down the way you're feeling and trace it back to what made you feel that way. This will help you build more awareness.

Understanding and supporting folks with alexithymia is all about embracing different ways of expressing and experiencing emotions. By creating an environment that allows for diverse forms of communication, we can make space for everyone to live in the way that best works for them.


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