When we were all kids, we inevitably heard quite a few bits of questionable information. We have all likely taken a few of these little factoids to heart, hence the reason why Wikipedia needs a “List of Common Misconceptions” page. I bet most of us, though, also heard something that just clearly didn’t add up or make sense.
When I was a kid, this little bit for me was the idea that you had to be looking at someone in order to listen to them. The reason this didn’t make sense was very simple. If you turn your head, your ear faces the speaker, thus enabling you to better hear what they’re saying. It made perfect sense to me, and yet over and over again I was told that you *had* to be looking at a person in order to listen to them. And, newsflash, you don’t.
There’s this whole concept called “active listening” that’s been going for, I don’t know how long, but probably for a while. To demonstrate what “active listening” is supposed to be, I’ll post a picture of a poster intended for elementary-aged kids about active listening. In fact, I think I’ve seen this exact poster before hanging in schools I’ve attended. I will warn you, however, that this is probably the most irritating thing I’ve ever seen written on a poster, and some of my readers may feel the same way. Here it is:
Oh my gosh, this poster makes me want to punch something. Seriously, it is so wrong on so many levels that I honestly don’t know if I can handle it. Like, I want to organize a national tear-down day of posters like this, where everyone tears them down, rips them to shreds, and then burns the pieces in a big bonfire where we all dance on the smoldering ashes as they consume those ridiculous googley eyes. Okay, maybe that’s a bit much, but I think you understand my feelings.
Supposedly, this is what it looks and sounds like if someone is actually “actively” listening. The terribly ironic part, though, is that for autistic people, what’s listed here looks essentially like the complete opposite of actual engaged listening. It’s total B.S. Plus, I bet it doesn’t even entirely ring true for every neurotypical person either.
Allow me to explain by going through a few of the points to point out how these don’t make sense from an autistic perspective.
Eyes on Speaker
This is the one that I mentioned my confusion with in the beginning. The eyes of many autistic people tend to wander, as a natural means of regulating visual input. It can be difficult and distracting to try and focus one’s eyes on the speaker. In fact, for me at least, if I’m looking away from you, or off to the side of you, or my eyes and head are moving about, it means I’m actually processing what you’re saying. For many autistic people, trying to keep one’s eyes on the speaker will impair listening. Not looking does not mean you are not listening! Quite the opposite! I assure you that listening is done with the ears, not with the eyes! You can listen to someone without looking at them, and if you couldn’t then blind people would be unable to talk to other people, the telephone would be useless, and so would the radio. I think the whole point of this for the neurotypical is so they can’t read the “signals” the other person is giving, but autistic people can really accurately read those signals anyway, or even recognize they’ve been given, so it seems rather pointless for the autistic person.
Still Bodies and Hands/Quiet Bodies
Oh look, it’s probably my least favorite expression of all time! “Quiet hands, quiet bodies!” This was of course instilled in my by a fourth-grade-teacher-who-shall-not-be-named who was a big fan of “quiet-handsing” me. Truth be told, stimming is also necessary for processing what’s been said in a conversation. Stimming plays several important roles, most importantly regulating sensory input, but it’s also a way of processing and showing emotion. Some autistic flap when they’re happy, jump up and down when excited, pace when thinking, or any other number of things. I personally may pace around, spin, jump, make little noises, all kinds of things when I’m having a meaningful conversation. It’s natural, and it allows me to process your words by focusing my mind and helping me to understand. It’s not a distraction, it is necessary for real, actual active listening.
Appropriate Comments and Expressions
If you want to know the reason why so many autistic people have social anxiety, it’s expectations like this. I don’t even really know what an “appropriate” expression or comment is supposed to be. For me and many autistic people, we feel like we use the expressions and make comments that come naturally to us, and people just consider them rude, for some reason. From what I’ve been told, my expressions rarely, if ever, match my feelings and neither does my body language. So, do us a favor, and when you’re talking to an autistic person don’t try to read anything into our expression, alright?
What’s an “inside voice?” Seriously, because the way my brain immediately interprets the phrase “inside voice” simply means any voice spoken inside, so why was little-me always getting reprimanded for not using my “inside voice?” I was speaking inside, after all. Of course, what I now know is that what “inside voice” actually means is “speaking at a volume that I have arbitrarily decided is low enough to be used in this particular building.” Autistic people have trouble controlling our tone of voice and our volume of voice. For many of us simply saying the right words in the right order is hard enough, let alone trying to consciously stack the right tone and volume on top of that. We may speak too loudly and not realize it, and for me and many other autistic people, it’s an “I can either listen to what you’re saying or control the volume of my voice, but not both,” scenario. Another thing on the “active listening” poster that can impair active listening.
Waiting to be Called on to Speak
As I’m all too well aware, many autistic people have trouble with the executive functioning necessary to wait to be called on. However, though I don’t have as much of a scathing critique of this one, I ask that teachers and such consider one thing about their student that talks without raising their hand: this likely means they’re engaged in the discussion or lesson. Given that student engagement is a huge goal for teachers, try to look at this as a positive thing rather than some “problem” that must be fixed at all costs.
Little to none of this will come naturally for an autistic person as well, it all must be done consciously with huge effort. For an autistic person, doing all of these things is like trying to recite from memory a Latin translation of the Gettysburg Address while balancing on a log floating in the middle of a set of fast-moving river rapids and juggling five flaming torches to the perfect beat of the song “Schism” by Tool. In other words, you definitely aren’t going to be able to actually process what the other person is saying. Not very “active,” is it?
Reading this, you’re probably thinking “well that’s all well and good, but this only applies to autistic people, so it’s not such a bad thing.” But the thing is, autistic people make up like 1.5% of the population, which may not sound big, but that’s a lot of people when you consider the size of the world, or even the school you went to. These things are useful to individually keep in mind when speaking with an autistic person, yes, but why can’t we work to change societal attitudes and standards that the above poster is always what listening looks like? Building a truly inclusive and accessible society means recognizing the communication differences that people with neurodivergences like autism may have. Perhaps we should simply recognize that the above “active listening” points don’t actually represent active listening for everybody, and accepting that as a fine difference rather than something that must be changed at all costs.
It amazes me how many parents there are out there with newly diagnosed autistic kids who are mortified that their child will never make eye contact. This honestly is among a few of the completely trivial things that people needlessly worry about. Why does it matter if your kid doesn’t make eye contact? Honestly, answer that question. It’s probably very uncomfortable for them, and as we’ve explored here, does not mean they aren’t listening to you. Instead of having the expectation that everybody, including potentially your child, will communicate in the same way, why not universally recognize that there are differences in what it looks like when people are listening.
So teachers, parents, whoever else, you may or may not decide to tear down your “active listening” posters, but I beg on behalf of myself and others that we recognize that not everybody does things in the same way, and definitely that we not force kids to “look” and communicate like everyone else based on the false assumption that “we’re teaching them how to listen.” Building an inclusive world means recognizing our differences in areas like this, and expecting the “active listening” that is shown above will be completely counter-productive. Not looking does not mean not listening, and neither does stimming, or wandering, or not giving you the signals you’re expecting. Indeed, it might be quite the opposite.
Note: The comic used just above in this post is part of the “Stimmy Kitty” comic series written and drawn by Steve Asbell, an autistic author and illustrator, via steveasbell.com