Perkins School for the Blind Transition Center

Autistic Lived Experience: Unable to Be There for a Friend in Need

In hindsight, I view my sophomore year of college as being the most challenging year of my life. Up until then, I was living in the sweet bliss of unawareness. I had no concept of how compromised my self-esteem was or what self-esteem even meant, and I had a flawed sense of how my words and actions shaped what others thought of me and how their opinions influenced how I felt about myself. I had no idea how inflated my expectations were of myself and those I knew. I was essentially too self-absorbed to be self-aware, much less aware of the wants and needs of the people around me.

Sam Farmer

Sam Farmer

I was a not-yet-identified autistic on a college campus with a student body that was significantly more complex, diversified, and sizable than that of the private high school I had attended. As such, socialization became considerably more challenging, resulting in emotional hardship for which I was unable to find a remedy. I chose to hang out with a group of people who lived in my dormitory with whom I had hoped to form meaningful friendships, only to eventually realize that I felt more like an outsider looking in. My two love interests’ not feeling the same for me as I felt for them didn’t help matters. Perhaps because of the impact my social struggles had on my emotional state, I lost interest in my primary passion in life, jazz piano. Unthinkably, I decided not to enroll in private lessons for the second semester despite how much I liked my professor and how integral my piano playing was to my sense of self.

My social struggles and the emotional fallout that resulted helped contribute to the gradual dismantling of what I think of today as my “sphere of unawareness and self-absorption,” the psychological safety net on which I had always depended for relative peace and tranquility during my formative years. I became aware of the aforementioned realities about myself, which hit me quite hard. Consequently, I started to feel melancholy, lost, and relatively alone.

Then, an incident occurred which I will never forget. An esteemed dorm mate of mine was given unimaginably horrifying news. When Vishal found out that he had suddenly lost both of his parents in a plane crash, the tight-knit community that was our section of the dormitory appropriately rushed to his side to comfort him. All of us, except me. Understandably, a friend called me out for keeping my distance, not just from Vishal in his time of need but from our community in general.

It was truly heartening to see how the community came together for him, shared in his anguish, and genuinely empathized with him. And yet, I continued to shy away. In retrospect, I feel as though the weight of the burden I was shouldering that year had something to do with why I was unable to be there for him. But there’s more to it than that.

I remember trying to imagine how much pain Vishal was having to endure, and I thought about what might lie ahead for him in the wake of this tragedy. I worried about whether he would ultimately be okay and find a way to move forward, given all he had lost at too young an age. What he had been through remained fresh on my mind for some time, and it was easy to recall 33 years later when it dawned on me that this was a lived experience worth writing about.

I empathized with Vishal, though I was doing so differently than my dorm mates: in private and at a distance, though very deeply. I was empathizing in a way that many autistics do and which, regrettably, is all too often misconstrued by others as a lack of empathy on our part.

This is not at all true and is a false and extremely hurtful stereotype that the neurodiversity advocacy community has been trying to bury for some time. We feel empathy toward others, though it often does not manifest the same in autistics as it typically does in non-autistic individuals. For this reason, we are misunderstood and stigmatized.

The fact that there is more than one way to exercise empathy did not occur to me back then. Because of this, and because I did not yet know I was autistic, much less understand the distinction between how autistic and neurotypical individuals typically show empathy, I wondered what was wrong with me. Why was I the only one not bonding with Vishal and the folks in our corner of the dormitory in the way they were bonding with each other after word surfaced of this horrific disaster? I felt separated, alone, and confused. An outsider wanting in but not knowing how to open the door and walk through.

All the adversity I was up against that year prompted me to turn to my mother that spring and tell her I needed help and that I wanted to work with a talk therapist upon returning home for the summer to chart a way forward. This was one of the best decisions I have ever made. Since she was a talk therapist herself, I intuitively knew that she could work her professional connections and find the right person for me to see, and she did just that.

Positive, productive clinical experiences can be transformative. My post-sophomore year therapy sessions in June of 1990 certainly were, as was the neuropsychological evaluation in the Summer of 2009, what led to my autistic identity. Accordingly, I do not look at many of my experiences in the same light as I did all those years ago. I can now imagine how differently I would have responded to Vishal in his time of grieving had I known then what I know now about myself.

If I could do it all over again, I would have extended myself to him, told him that I shared in his pain, and that the memory of his parents would be a blessing to him and to all the lives they touched. I would have promised to be there for him and support him as best I could.

Not that my unique approach to empathy back then was wrong with respect to Vishal’s loss. It reflected what I knew and did not know at the time, as well as the challenging circumstances with which I was contending. As I grew older, worked on myself, sought help for what I wanted to address, and learned, among other things, that I am autistic, my outlook on life changed rather dramatically. The core of who I am as a person, one who cares about others, who works toward making a positive difference, and who sees the value of empathy, has never changed, and will not change going forward.

Sam Farmer is a neurodiversity community self-advocate, writer, author, and public speaker. Diagnosed later in life as autistic, Sam shares stories of lived experiences as well as ideas and insights as to how one can achieve greater happiness and success in the face of challenge and adversity. A Long Walk Down a Winding Road – Small Steps, Challenges, & Triumphs Through an Autistic Lens is his first book. Visit to learn more.

2 Responses

  1. Laura says:

    Please tell me more- the way you originally felt empathy, what was different? Did you not hug him or go to the funeral?

    • Sam Farmer says:

      Hi, Laura. Thanks for reaching out.

      I empathized with Vishal purely in private. No hugs, no outreach in any form, no funeral. Most people would consider this scenario to not be indicative at all of empathy, though my feelings of empathy and concern were nonetheless very real.

      Over the course of my 54-year life, I have empathized with others in various ways, including reaching out to some of them directly with words of comfort, funerals, etc., but not in this instance. How I have empathized with others has depended upon many factors including external circumstances, the nature of my relationship with the individual, etc.

      Clearly, there is more than one way to experience empathy. In my view, how we empathize with others is grounded in who we are and our lived experiences.

      Thank you!

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