“The orifice of learning  is the ear, not the mouth, kid. If you want to actually start learning, shut the $%#@ up and listen.”

– Jimmy C

I’d love to tell you all about him, but time is short this morning.

It will have to suffice to say that Jimmy was my mentor.

The words were gruff, but that was him. He wasn’t one to bother with style when substance was the point. And, with him, substance was always the point. I was twenty-four years old and convinced that I knew it all. He was sixty-something and pretty much did. And God bless him, he was willing to teach me what he knew. “I’ve seen this movie before, kid,” he would say. And we’d talk. Well, he’d talk.

Nearly twenty years later, his words come back to me often. None more than the ones at the top of the page.

“The orifice of learning  is the ear, not the mouth, kid. If you want to actually start learning, shut the $%#@ up and listen.”

Talking is easy. Shouting is, sometimes, even easier.

It’s stopping to listen that’s hard.

And being willing to hear that’s even harder.

Lowering the barricades of self-defense that we’ve spent years building is terrifying. It makes us vulnerable. And vulnerability is uncomfortable. But without discomfort, without opening ourselves up to the daunting possibility that we don’t know everything that we think we do, that our perspective isn’t the only one that’s valid or useful, we will be talking without listening and living — and parenting — without learning.

The other day, I wrote THIS.

Later in the day, I wrote this:

Ever since I posted my tribute to Mikaela, Owen and Drew this morning, I’ve felt like something was off. I felt conflicted, but in a way that I couldn’t discern, no less name. And then it hit me – what felt wrong.

So many of our community’s collective posts today are written from — and laser focused on — our perspective as parents. It’s human nature, this. To talk about what terrifies US, how WE feel, what WE believe WE must do to keep our children safe. There is an urgency, a desperation to ensure that our baby is not the next to wander, the next to be found once it’s too late.

But — big, huge, vital BUT — I think we need to be cognizant of how we go about talking about — and, more importantly, *doing* that.

From blog to blog, I’m reading about deadbolts, fences, buckles, alarms and industrial strength locks. I’m getting stuck on words like ‘escape.’I know the need – the desperate, aching need – to keep my child from danger. But I also know HER need and her RIGHT – just as desperate, just as aching – to dignity and self-determination and a life not lived being viewed as a prisoner who might, at any time, try to escape.

So that was it — that’s what felt ‘off’. I don’t know how to reconcile the conflict. But I know that naming it and saying it out loud is a good place to start.

And then, because I was feeling particularly defensive, I wrote this:

All, I wrote the following comment in the thread below my last update. I thought it worth highlighting / reiterating here. – J

[W]e have locks (including slide-locks out of reach) on our doors. We have chimes on every door and window. We have a fence.

You all might recall that it wasn’t long ago that my child was, by the grace of God, happened upon heart-stoppingly close to a major thoroughfare after walking out of her therapy session. I am one of the US that I’m questioning.

I am not standing in judgement of anyone else – I am questioning OUR – mine included – approach to how we talk about and execute safety plans because I realized that I really hadn’t looked at it from my daughter’s perspective; only my own – and if I’m going to be honest [as a writer and an advocate], I’ve got to be willing to call myself out when I do that.

I’m NOT saying that anything should trump safety. I’m not saying that we don’t need locks and gates. I’m just expressing my internal discomfort with an approach that might very well make my kid feel trapped in her cocoon of safety. Or not. But [it’s a question] that I think necessary to ask and examine.

On that thread, a friend suggested that I watch a video that another friend had made on the topic a couple of years ago.

I didn’t get around to it that day. Or that night. Or the next morning. Life got in the way.

But then I had a conversation with that same friend, and discovered that he had a very different perspective from my own. One that, at first, I could not fathom. One that forced me to stop talking and listen. One that left me needing to understand WHY he viewed this so differently than I did. One that left me, most importantly, wondering how my daughter would view it.

So I watched the video.

And then I took a deep breath and watched it again.

And I listened.

And I learned something.

Something big.

Something important.

There is another perspective on this. And it matters.

It matters that I understand it and it matters that I trust that it is just as valid as my own.

I ask you to watch it. Then, take a deep breath and watch it again.

It matters.

Thank you, Landon.

I said it to you yesterday, but I want to say it here too:

You make me a better mother, a far, far better advocate and a better person.

I am grateful for the opportunity that you’ve given me to listen.

And thank you to Jimmy, for teaching me to value substance over style and to know (mostly) when to stop talking.

22 thoughts on “listening

  1. Beautiful video explanation about how ALL behavior (including wandering) is communication (wandering could mean = I want to see, I’m curious, I don’t like, I need some space, I have an idea I want to try, what is going on is not ok with me….) . We can “listen” to all people when we “listen” to what people say AND do.

  2. Landon’s perspective is invaluable! I’ve been reading thautcast since I found it your likes, so thank you for that,Jess. But mostly thank you to all the adults on the spectrum that make your voices heard and offer your perspective. It will be through your efforts that the world becomes a better, more accepting place for all of our children.

  3. Hmm. “A diagnosis is usually the end of asking questions.” Wow.

    I will say I never thought about wandering as a means of getting “away” from something bothersome. Thanks to you and Landon for giving me that new perspective. It’s always seemed that with my son and with most of the parents whose stories I’ve heard, the child wandered because something attracted them so they just went “towards” it.

    But I can certainly see now how it can be dangerous to ignore the possibility that the child is trying to remove themselves from a situation that feels uncomfortable to them.

  4. If all behavior is communication, then we have to accept that he is right – although there are other possibilities as to what they are trying to communicate as well. A child may very well wander because they are trying to get away from something – which definitely needs explored and dealt with. But they also could be trying to get TO something – which just like with our NT kids, sometimes it is our responsibility to prevent them from doing. Do you allow your NT kids to run into the street when they are 2?

    The idea that a diagnosis is the end of asking questions is disturbing to me as a school psych. I will definitely have to be on the watch for this to make sure I am not making that mistake.

    • This ..

      A child may very well wander because they are trying to get away from something – which definitely needs explored and dealt with. But they also could be trying to get TO something ..

      I agree completely and it’s such an important distinction to make (please see my respose to Flannery below for more on that).

      But this ..

      The idea that a diagnosis is the end of asking questions is disturbing to me as a school psych. I will definitely have to be on the watch for this to make sure I am not making that mistake.

      Well, all I’ve got is .. THANK YOU.

  5. The bottom line for me is in answering the question of how do we keep our children safe and prevent them from leaving the house, yard, school and getting hurt. The wandering code doesn’t provide an adequate answer to how best to keep them safe.

    • Agreed. As I said in the post, nothing can (or should) trump safety — ever.

      I find Landon’s video instructive in that it urges me to focus not just on the physical accoutrements of safety (the locks and gates etc) which I won’t stop using, but which, as we all know, are terrifyingly fallible, but also on my daughter’s motivation for leaving the situation that she’s in in the first place. (Apologies that was barely English; I trust you to translate ;))

      It may be, as Landon discusses, that she’s trying to escape something that is difficult in the environment that I don’t see – bright lights, loud noises, general sensory overload – or – it might be that she is seeking something that she doesn’t have the ability to communicate to us that she wants / needs. In Brooke’s case in particular, it might also simply be a lack of understanding that she can’t just head on her merry way without talking to an adult, as happened when she was found walking hand in hand with an autistic friend toward a highway a couple of months ago because, well, they were ready to go (we’re still working on that.)

      Last night we were at Brooke’s elementary school art show. A baby cried in the gym. She simultaneously screamed “I’m all done now!” and bolted out the door. I struggled to keep up with her and then to follow her tiny, bobbing head working its way through the crowded hallway. That one was a gimme. Other times, not so much.

      BUT, as you say, it’s all about answering the question of how to keep our children safe. And I think buried within that question is another — What is at the root of WHY our kids are wandering when they do? The answer(s) will, of course, be different from kid to kid and then again, different for each of them situationally depending on context. And sometimes it will be damn near impossible for us to figure out.

      But if we do, and we can then either help them find a way to communicate what they need — or — figure out how to make their environment more accommodating so that they don’t feel the need to run away from it, it might just help lessen their need to bolt in the first place. (Just to be clear, by no means do I want to imply that we don’t do this all day every day anyway, but simply to put it in the context of this conversation.)

      Because, to come full circle to both your sentiment and mine, it all comes down to figuring out how to keep our babies safe. And I am grateful to Landon for showing me a different lens from which to look as I go about doing that.

  6. Jess, once again – thank you. Thank you for sharing this perspective. I didn’t think of wandering in that way. I just thought it was something else but it makes more sense. Now if we can only educate others in the fact that wandering is likely a form of communication that something is troubling the child or that they are seeking something then we can get some action going…finding what keeps them safe is good but when we see our children approach the door or hear the alarms and we find them, we need to try and see what they were wandering from or to…see it from their perspective.

    Again, thank you!

  7. I have always looked at wandering as getting away from something. However, I did not think of a diagnosis as the “end of asking questions” I would think it would be the beginning of looking for ways to “treat” the issue. IE: why is the child wandering?–what environmental issues are there that we can eliminate, etc. But I do see that this is and has been the case even without the “diagnosis” I thought of it as a way of requiring more training of educators and others. But, it seems to just be another way of justifying not providing training. WOW. The helpless approach by educators–he is just that way–not that I am causing this by my perfume, having the walls covered in visually distracting and stimulating stuff, having the room crowded with non essentials, etc., etc.

  8. That video was eye-opening. In many cases, I have thought my son’s “wandering” has been to get to something he likes…water, a spinning object, swings, etc. However, I agree that it could be that while it appears that he’s running to those items (which he uses to self-soothe), he may also be trying to get away from sensory situations that are overwhelming him.

    So much of my son’s behavior is communication, so why not this?

  9. This is similar to a “behavior” my daughter has. She is nonverbal for her age and if placed in a situation that she finds disturbing or threatening, she will throw up. This always happens after she has said No as best she can, signed all done, and tried to move away physically from whatever is the perceived threat (things like drs, activities beyond her current ability at therapies, certain sounds, animals she is afraid of – even their pictures, etc). As a result some therapists have labeled this as “behavioral” while I view it as an extreme and rather effective form of communication. I have fought tooth and nail to have the label of “behavioral” removed from her charts with moderate success for the very reasons stated in this video. “Oh, that’s a behavioral issue” is entirely too easy to say vs. “what is making her behave this way”. If she could speak and actually say the words “I am afraid” I believe people would consider her feelings valid and honor that fear and treat her more gently than many professionals have in the past.

  10. Wow. Thanks to Landon for so clearly framing this challenge and concern. I too worry about the diagnosis being “the end” of exploration, especially in the traditional school setting which emphasizes answers instead of questions. But to be perfectly honest, we do the same at home–often blaming his ADHD for things he does that aren’t what we’d prefer (or what we’ve specifically asked for) at the moment.

    The reason I was glad to see “wandering” as a new criterion is because it affirmed the experiences of our family and so many others who spent years thinking that the wandering (or, more importantly, the scary results of a young child wandering) was just another example of what we had done wrong as parents–just as we were such ineffective parents that we couldn’t get our autistic children to “sit still” or “follow instructions,” we also weren’t even moderately effective enough as parents to keep them from running off! It really is a struggle to figure out how to parse this out–how do we include wandering as an _example_ of how a child might communicate “atypically” without it becoming the end of the questions?

    This really gives me something to ponder.

  11. Diagnosis as the end of exploration — thought-provoking, chilling.

    Scenario of abused child with autism who cannot speak and can only “wander” — downright terrifying.

    New scenario for potential parent-blaming — “your child has autism and keeps running off, you must be abusing him/her!” — let’s just say that I am just as happy that I didn’t have to prove myself innocent of child abuse in order to qualify my mostly-nonspeaking daughter for a CareTrak band.

    And I can only imagine the grieving parents who are already getting pummeled with “why didn’t you watch your child?” having that even-more-devastating layer of suspicion laid upon them…

    I’m going to have to think my way through this some more.

    • This is what scares me as well…. and I don’t have a good answer. But I have seen too many families destroyed due to untrue accusations of child abuse (from outsiders). While in concept I get the idea of erring on the side of caution to protect the child, the reality is that if you are wrong, you have destroyed the family and also hurt the child.

  12. Yes. We must always interpret behaviors as a sign that all is not right in our children’s worlds. Even if we’re wrong, that’s where we should start. ALWAYS.

  13. An interesting perspective on a very complex topic. As the mother of a teen who wandered both before and after he became able to speak, I was able to learn from him that he didn’t wander to get away from anything, but to get to something that interested him. Despite my vigilance, he has been lost several times because of that. Of course there are all sorts of reasons, and Landon’s points are certainly valid.

  14. Pingback: The First Amendment – Part II (really? I really had to write this?) | Run Luau Run

  15. Another good one! I wandered for both reasons. Now, I can tell you. Some verbal kids can’t tell you in a way that make sense to you because of alexithymia. Theatre training was priceless here. Also now I try to bring everyone with me hehe, solves the scaring people who love you problem.

  16. I love love love this video, and appreciate Landon so much for giving his perspective! We had a problem with our son leaving church and going to the parking lot alone (we attend an inner city ministry and as the weather warms, there are different people crossing through the parking lot, creating a recipe for disaster). Then I realized that when I made his schedule for church, at the end I put “go to the car”, not explaining that we would all go to the car together, once we had agreed it was time to leave. A simple edit and conversation, although someone always stands near the door to keep an eye out because safety is of course our biggest concern. But its not about me, and what do I see and think, its about him, and what is causing it. Great points made.

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