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The Most Hurtful Comment Someone Said About My Nonverbal Learning Disability

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“You lack empathy…you get it, but you lack empathy and because of that, you don’t belong here.”

The second half of that sentence is paraphrased, but it has stuck with me as the most hurtful thing anyone has ever said to me.

I was attempting to enter the helping professions; that was said to me by a licensed mental health professional. I sat there in complete shock. I had approached her for help and those were the first words out of her mouth.

How on earth could I lack the basic ability to relate to and understand my fellow man, yet want nothing more than to help them?! It didn’t make sense. It took me years to realize and understand..that’s because it wasn’t true. But true or not, she said it, and it hurt like hell. I have nonverbal learning disability, but this assumption is also damaging for those with autism, and even some with learning disabilities.

I feel bad when I realize that I’ve hurt someone’s feelings, or come across differently than I meant to. If I see someone in distress, I immediately ask if they’re OK and if they need anything. One of my first questions to anyone who struggles with a physical limitation is, “Does it hurt?”And God forbid I ever see a stray animal, or go to a shelter, because every single animal in need of a home will leave with me. These things don’t indicate a lack of empathy.

I do not lack empathy in the least. What I lack is the ability to express it in a socially acceptable way. My social filter is defective, and I’ve been known to blurt out things most people think…but shouldn’t say. That’s because I don’t see the point of not expressing something I feel needs to be said. That doesn’t mean I’m rude or insensitive; at least, not on purpose. Just blunt, at times, more so than I intend to be. And yes, I can realize when I’ve gone too far, and yes, I feel bad and apologize for it.

But when I hear a “lack of empathy,” I think of certain stereotypes, and I’m not the only one who does. As untrue as I know this is, it doesn’t keep others from believing it. Even professional literature about my condition mentions it outright as a major symptom. Even if someone tried to educate themselves, they would still read that it’s a hallmark. We need to change this narrative. It’s no surprise that it can be extremely damaging.

I was in my mid-20s when I heard it for the first time. Imagine how much it could hurt a child if they grew up believing it, or were told by a significant adult that it’s a part of who they are. And it’s not just the words that hurt. Believing this about people like me will affect the way you treat them. No one has the right to assume what another person does, or does not, have the capacity to feel or express. But they do, and it’s not OK.

Photo credit: fizkes/Getty Images

Originally published: May 23, 2019
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