When I looked into the Zoom screen, I saw a beautiful woman sitting in front of me. We were meeting for the first time for a psychotherapy appointment arranged a few weeks earlier. From her intake forms, I knew she wanted help with her Neuro-Divergent relationship, but other than that, I knew very little about her.
“Good morning, Shirleen. How can I help you?” I said.
Shirleen smiled shyly and looked into the camera as if to let me know she was “seeing” me. She took a long pause and said, “Thank you for using my name.” This comment told me a lot about Shirleen right away.
Addressing someone by name, especially their first name is a social skill that most of us take for granted. Yet, I want you to consider the impact of recognizing the person behind the name. “Shirleen,” is a woman, a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a friend, a neighbor. But more than all of those roles she manages to juggle, she is a human being — a soul. When I greeted her by her “given” name, I honored the unique individual in front of me. In that moment, she became more than a role. Shirleen is.
If you are Neuro-Typical in a Neuro-Divergent relationship, you may be tearing up, as you realize how seldom — if ever — your Neuro-Diverse family member uses your name. My autistic mother never used my name. She called me “daughter,” my role. My former husband, also autistic, did not use my name either. He just started talking at me. Even my autistic daughter, Bianca, never called me “Mom.” Instead, she spelled it out, “M.O.M.”
Think about it. Failing to use your name is just another example of the Empathy Dysfunction so common among our Neuro-Diverse loved ones. Autists can recognize your significant role in their lives, such as daughter, mother, and spouse, or someone to talk to. But without empathy, they don’t recognize who you are. They don’t know how to honor and respect and lovingly connect with the special person who is right there in front of them.
Years ago, when my autistic daughter Bianca was participating in Portland Symphonic Girl Choir, I had a stark comparison between my own child and another mother’s daughter. Bianca forgot part of her uniform for a performance, so I dashed out of the concert hall to buy her a pair of pantyhose. As I raced back from Fred Meyer, I found the girls all lined up, ready to go on stage, with only a few minutes for Bianca to wriggle into her pantyhose and get back in line.
As Bianca jumped back in line, she said rather loudly, “Thank you M.O.M.” Then she turned to face her group.
Out of the sea of girls, I heard a delightful voice saying, “Oh my goodness. My Mom spells her name the same way!” Then there was a burst of laughter from several of the girls, as they started walking on stage.
I felt oddly special but I couldn’t put my finger on it way back then. Now I realize that this other mother’s daughter recognized me and recognized Bianca in one short amusing quip. (Plus she connected with the energy of all of the girls at the performance). Whereas, my own daughter treated me according to the function I served: M.O.M. brings pantyhose to the rescue. The other daughter recognized the Mom who cared.
The simple act of empathically connecting with another person by using their name is important, isn’t it? Shirleen was so hungry for this connection, that she felt overwhelmed with gratitude when I started our conversation with her name. If you spend years being nothing more than a role in the lives of your Neuro-Diverse family members, you may come to feel invisible. You may even forget who you are.
Human beings need each other. We come to know who we are in relation to others. Without these almost imperceptible acknowledgments (such as using your name), we can come to feel unimportant, inadequate, and depressed. After all, empathy between people is love — and without love we are alone.