Active Listening Reimagined | Organization for Autism Research

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Listening looks different for every child, but for children with autism, it is important to remember that our eyes are not our ears. Guest blogger Jessica explains the process of active listening and how it looks for a child with autism. This post originally appeared on Jessica’s blog Changed For Good

What does listening look like for a child in school?active listening

Is it “criss-cross applesauce, hands in your lap?”

Is it “one two three, eyes on me?”

In school there is little debate about how listening should look.

We teach children to practice “whole body listening” and ask them to listen with “your eyes, ears, and heart.”

We explain that when we listen, our bodies should be facing the person speaking and we should be looking with our eyes.

When a child fails to comply with this request, we tell the child that we will wait until they give us their full attention.  We insist they “look into our eyes.”

We think that these are the behaviors we should expect from our learners.

And yet….for some listening looks very different.

Ben’s OT once said something that has stuck with me.

She said that this idea of eye contact is a social construct.

She taught me that our eyes are not our ears.

She explained that for some children, like my son, struggling to maintain eye contact takes so much energy and attention that focusing on the directions or the task at hand becomes nearly impossible.

I learned that the kid who falls out of the chair in class was most likely listening because he couldn’t focus on listening and sitting in the chair at the same time.

I have learned that for some children, movement actually enhances listening and learning, and forcing stillness actually causes learning to diminish.

I have heard autistic adults explain that looking into someone eye’s feels roughly the same as being pricked in the eyes with hot needles.

Philip, a young boy with sensory needs and autism, explains it this way.  Philip is nonverbal, and communicates through typing.  “I am letting you know about eye contact. My eyes see very well, but each day I see too many little petty details. I look away to not get overwhelmed by a lot of little bits of information. I watch things that a teacher or person I listen to tells me to watch. This helps me concentrate on what I should be focusing on. I can search for a teacher’s voice to try to focus on. I am academically learning best when I sit side-by-side with a teacher. A seat on the side keeps me focused on your voice and not on visual distractions. I am assessing many sounds too. I have to erase some stimuli to access my answers to people’s questions and meet their demands. That is why I don’t make eye contact. I am always listening. I listen a lot to voices. I so love when people talk to me and are not talking like I am not there. I am active because I am unable to feel my body well. People think I am being rude but I can’t help it. I need to move to feel my body.”  You can read more of Philip’s words here.

And yet, so many of us insist on eye contact because we believe it helps the child listen.

We believe that eye contact is an essential life skill.  After all, in our western culture, those with shifty eyes are viewed as untrustworthy.

My ultimate goal is for my son to be an independent, capable adult who makes a worthwhile and satisfying contribution to this world.

And so I grapple with things like eye contact.

Is it important to insist on eye contact from my son so that he can better “fit in”, even if it is distracting to his ability to listen at best and painful to him at worst?

Forcing a child’s body to comply, even if that body part is the eyes, just doesn’t seem right to me.

And so, what does listening look like for my son?

Every year I explain to his teacher that Ben probably won’t look like he’s listening when he is sitting on the carpet for a read aloud, or when he’s seated at the table at small group time.  He may not always make eye contact or sit perfectly straight in the style of criss-cross applesauce.  Even though he appears to be disengaged, I ask them not to assume that he is not paying attention.  Ask him a question and see if he can answer.  Most likely he can.

Ben is a sensory kid.  The environment around him can often be over-stimulating and, at times, overwhelming.  It’s hard for his brain to filter out the extraneous sights, sounds, and smells.  Sometimes the only way he can focus on the teacher’s voice is to look down so as not to see all the extra distractions around him.

Please don’t be fooled because listening looks different for my child and those like them.

I am blessed that Ben has had teachers and therapists in his life who get it.

Ben sits on a wiggle seat in class.  He uses a white board during turn and talk to visually record his thinking and his conversations.  He has the opportunity to sit on a T stool or a regular chair during group time.  In short, he is allowed to learn in the ways that fit him best.

The other day, Ben’s teacher told me that he is a great self-advocate.

I can think of no higher praise.

I am grateful that my son is finding appropriate ways to ask for what he needs as a learner.

There are many ways to listen and to learn.

Our eyes are not our ears.

About The Author

My name is Jessica and I am the mom of an amazing six year old on the Autism Spectrum named Ben.  I have changed both my name and his to protect his privacy. I have been a Literacy Specialist in our school district for the past several years, and, prior to that, was a classroom teacher.  This past year I started a blog called Changed for Good  in order to offer support to families who are on a similar journey and to help my own family grow in their understanding of autism and its unique impact on our family.  I believe that while Ben’s autism brings challenges to his life, he has also been given certain strengths, which we seek to build upon in order to help him to be the best version of himself that he can be.


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