by Lisa DeSherlia
Growing up, I did not need a formal autism spectrum disorder diagnosis for people to judge me as lacking in empathy. Of course, their misunderstandings in that regard were not the only ones that I had to endure growing up and that still affect me emotionally, but for the purpose of this post, the empathy issue will be my focus.
Before I go any further on this specific topic, let me fill you in on how it all started for me. Many years ago, when mom, who was fifteen at the time, disclosed to my dad that she had conceived and gotten pregnant with me, he was much displeased and kicked mom in the stomach, thinking he was going to “eliminate the problem.” This episode, along with mom’s traumatic labor and delivery, may have resulted in a cluster of problems for me growing up. My problems in learning and behavior earned me labels such as “Emotionally Disturbed,” “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder,” “Emotionally Immature,” “Mildly Cerebral- Palsied,” and “Epileptic.”
I remember when my late paternal grandmother came to our house carrying some belated Christmas and birthday presents for me. My dad was not with her. My mom and I were upset over how he would either be very late for his scheduled visits or not show up at all. Ultimately, he vanished from my life. In this instance, my grandmother told mom and me, “Your dad does love you. He just can’t show it.”
Then, as she was getting ready to leave, she told me, “You need to show your dad more love.”
When I entered adulthood and returned to college, I encountered more misunderstandings about my supposed lack of empathy, among other misconceptions about who I was. At one point, yearning to make a difference in my community through connecting with people, I applied for a volunteer position at a local pregnancy resource center that served those dealing with crisis pregnancies. After I had been accepted, I worked behind the scenes for about a month there. Then, the Director told me, “ Your services are not needed here. We believe you can be more effective elsewhere and are not a good fit for this kind of work.” Hearing this stung me, as it slammed the door on an opportunity to connect with people in a supportive setting.
When I vented about this to my spouse, he said, “Maybe they think you don’t have compassion for the clients.” What?
Another time, I took a counseling class. As was my usual style, I would clam up in class and, when I did speak, I apparently came across as too bold. I failed to make eye contact. Both of the instructors who team-taught this class told me, “You lack the basic interpersonal skills needed to work with clients and, if you are really interested, you should stick with research.”
Once, when one of the instructors handed me back my term paper, she looked surprised as she told me, “I can see by reading this paper that you are capable of empathy. However, showing empathy is not something that we do in written form. It’s oral also.”
Therefore, I came to believe that any positions or situations that called for much people contact, especially the helping professions, were not for me. People’s perceptions of me as lacking in empathy, among their other perceptions of me being lazy, stupid, weak, or plain bad, created the feeling in me that there was no place in this world for me. While a formal autism diagnosis would have stigmatized me, I do not think it would have been as bad as enduring inappropriate labels and misunderstandings.
I know full well that I’m capable of empathy and that I care. It is why I do many of the things I do in volunteering my time online and in my community. True, I know I don’t often experience and process emotions the way that others do. When I’m uncomfortable with my feelings, I tend to laugh inappropriately or, when I’m able, to withdraw. And I still tend to clam up. I have often been told that I express myself better in written form than through speaking.
My beautiful, precious daughter was diagnosed with autism just before the age of three, and it was through researching autism and hearing comments from family members that I began to see in myself many of the traits of high-functioning autism. Thank God, my daughter is doing very well, getting good grades in school, and getting along with both teachers and peers. She loves and enjoys life and is engrossed in her computer. If it were not for her coming into my life and for her diagnosis, I would have continued through life with no answers to my experiences.
I would gladly introduce anyone who insists that people with autism lack empathy to my daughter, and I would gladly share my story.
About the Author: Lisa DeSherlia is a wife and a mother to a beautiful, precious daughter who is formally diagnosed with autism and who is high-functioning, happy, and mainstreamed. Because of lack of access, Lisa has not been screened for autism, but because of long-standing AS/HFA traits, she and those who know her well believe that she is on the spectrum. Lisa has done much community service and is now engaged in advocacy concerning a wide variety of causes, including autism, epilepsy, religious freedom, missing/unidentified persons, and poverty. She authors a blog called On Life, Love, and Truth, with a Facebook page by the same name.
Being Misunderstood was written expressly for Autism and Empathy.