Thursday, October 22, 2015

Looking Does Not Always Help Listening

A few mornings ago Ethan and I were chatting about his upcoming day at school, and he excitedly mentioned he had "group" that day. Ethan is really enjoying his social skills group this year. I'm not sure why, but I'm glad. Usually each week he'll have two sessions -- one in a small group setting with a few other students who have autism, and the other in the cafeteria with a few kids from his class that he chooses. There's someone new doing his group this year (let's call her Ms. T.) and for the most part, Ethan likes her. Except for one thing.

"Mama," he said. "Ms. T. says that I HAVE to look at other people when I'm talking to them, that it will make me listen better."

"Do you think it helps you listen better?"


"But is it hard sometimes?"


I knew exactly what he was talking about. It had come up a few days earlier, when we had his annual IEP meeting. The reports from around the table were good ones and not too surprising. He's doing great in math and reading; needs to work on his penmanship; sometimes has trouble speaking up when something is upsetting him; and is generally well-liked and does fairly well with the other kids.

Ms. T. mentioned that when Ethan chooses a second grade classmate he doesn't know as well, especially, that he has a really hard time looking at him when he's talking -- and if he doesn't understand what the child is saying, will bypass the student and ask her, "What does he mean?"

"I've told him," Ms. T. shared to all of us at the meeting, "that good listening means looking, and that he has to turn himself toward the person and look at them. He has a lot of trouble coordinating all of that."

Warning bells were going off in my head. Suddenly several articles came to mind, interviews I'd read with high-functioning autistic people, in which they'd talked about the extreme difficulty many people on the spectrum have with both listening and looking at someone. It's as if the two senses can't work simultaneously. They either look and don't process what the other person is saying, or they listen without looking and can actually focus on the words.

"Actually," I spoke up. "I'm not sure that's always the case. I think looking into someone's eyes can be very overwhelming for Ethan sometimes, and he actually can listen better when he's NOT looking."

I had a vision in my head of this well-meaning woman trying to teach Ethan the "typical" way to interact, and him twisting and turning his body and his eyes towards someone in the same awkward way I'd act if someone was trying to teach me complicated dance steps.

Ms. T. nodded her head, as if she was going to politely agree but continue with her aforementioned teaching plan.

And this is the conundrum. It's true, Ethan probably CAN listen better without looking at someone. But he lives in a world full of "neurotypical" people. As he grows older we hope he will be able to recognize there are times he really needs to put aside his own preferences and look at someone (a job interview comes to mind). Those of us who know, love, and are close to him would never force him to stare at us while we're speaking. But out in the rest of the world, it's not so simple.

Which brings me back to my conversation with Ethan.

"I know it's really hard sometimes," I told him. "And I know you CAN hear people even when you're not looking at them. Ethan, I don't want you to stress out too much about this. Just do your best."


"I know YOU don't care if people aren't looking when you're talking, but do you know what happens when your friends are talking to you and you aren't looking at them at all?"


"They think  you don't care about them. And I know you really are a very kind and friendly person. Your teachers said that. So sometimes you look at them just to show you care."

I'm not sure if it's exactly the right answer. It seems as if autistic people are always the ones that have to make the social sacrifices. But it's the best I have, right now.

1 comment:

Angel the Alien said...

It really is harder to listen to someone when you are concentrating on maintaining eye contact and making appropriate facial expressions. When I am listening the hardest, my face goes sort of blank and I don't look at the person, which makes them think I am daydreaming, but I am really thinking about their words so intensely that I forget about the stupid eye contact.
If you want him to keep practicing appearing to be neurotypical when he talks to people, maybe he could try looking at their forehead or nose instead of directly into their eyes. But sometimes when you're looking at people, aside from the fact that eye contact is hard, looking at their face is distracting because you start noticing the booger in their nose or the weird shape of their mouth or an odd freckle on their chin, instead of concentrating on their words.
I've realized I barely ever look at people when I'm talking with them, unless I make a conscious effort to do so, like at a job interview. The only people I really look at while I talk to them are my dogs, because they are so adorable!