Monday, February 7, 2011
Active Listening and Autism
Yes, yet another book excerpt. These two sections deal with "situational" communication and active listening. These are short excerpts, with signifiant content already in the full book chapter. I want to thank my cousin Jeanne and several other experts for helping with these sections. Jeanne has a master's degree in speech pathology and education. It's great to have so many people helping me with this project.
Situational Greetings and Partings
A student told me that his “great date” never returned his call. He did everything right. I asked how the date ended. “I shook her hand and thanked Ms. Great for the opportunity to share an afternoon with her.” Even I knew the problem: situational greetings and partings. I asked the student, who complained that several great dates hadn’t progressed to a second or third, if he always shook hands and used formal surname addresses upon parting. “Yes. I want to be polite, don’t I?”
The logic is sound, but out of place. I wasn’t about to suggest always ending a date with a kiss or even a hug, but I suggested using first names and waiting to see if the young ladies wants to hug, kiss, or shake hands. We don’t live in Jane Austen’s English countryside in which calling cards and parting bows are the norm.
Learning the rituals and norms for basic situations is challenging; I realize memorizing rules for additional situations can be taxing, but it is useful for relationships. I’ll never master some uncommon situations, and the unpredictable ones are definitely beyond my abilities. Knowing when it is okay to switch from formal to informal is something I learn by observing others. Basically, I mimic what I have seen and heard others do.
Basic listening presents enough challenges for many autistic individuals that “active listening” is nearly impossible. Active listening is much more than hearing words and politely allowing someone to speak. When you listen actively, you are noting and sometimes acknowledging interesting points made my the speaker.
When relationship experts mention “communication,” they are referring to active listening. Romantic relationships and close friendships depend on active listening to help the individuals learn about each other. It is by listening carefully that we learn what a companion likes and dislikes, without asking him or her to complete a questionnaire. Some people have a natural ability to notice and remember what others reveal about themselves during a conversation. Most autistic individuals have to make a conscious effort to listen actively (and accurately).
I want to clarify that “listening” is a generic term, since our conversations can take place as e-mail, text messages, on paper, via gestures, and in numerous other forms. What matters is how well we notice the details that are expressed and what is not expressed.
A professor told me that passive listening is what most students do during a lecture: memorize the words enough to repeat the main points later. Active listening is taking notes so you can challenge and explore the facts and opinions presented. Active listening doesn’t require interrupting the speaker, but it does require being skeptical of any claims made by a speaker. Skepticism is not easy for many autistic individuals, either, so active listening presents additional comprehension barriers that passive listening might not pose.
Experts in speech and auditory processing tell me that most autistic children they assist struggle with active listening and many will never be capable of the processing required. Central Audio Processing Disorder seems co-morbid with autism disorders in some instances. Individuals with CAPD have no physical hearing loss, but a neurological impairments cause spoken words to either be jumbled or not interpreted as meaningful at all.
One of my cousins is a speech therapist for a school district. She has had students diagnosed with CAPD and autism. These students can interpret simple sentences, but complex discussions are beyond their abilities. Unfortunately, little is known about CAPD and it can be misdiagnosed as an ASD or ADHD in some cases. Some people with minimal CAPD compare it to the auditory version of dyslexia. Other adults with CAPD have described it as hearing white noise with random chunks of speech.
The experts tell me there are ways to help autistic individuals, including those with CAPD, engage in active listening:
• Speaking slowly and deliberately,
• Alternating speakers in ways that prevent “over-talk” in discussions,
• Using written language, such as subtitles, to “circumvent” auditory processing,
• Reducing other sources of sound, to limit distractions, and
• Employing sign language if audio processing proves impossible.