eyes are ears and other myths

Last night, I posted the following on Diary’s Facebook page:

Oh, Brooke. I’m so sorry. I saw that worksheet that came home in your backpack. The one on which you’d so diligently parroted back the lessons about what’s necessary to convince people that you’re listening to them, writing in “eye contact” so neatly, right there on the line.

I promise I’ll talk to your teachers, kiddo. We’ll make sure that they all know what it means to “respect your autistic identity,” just like it says in your IEP.

You see some people – a lot of people – have, well .. I guess a kind of disability. For some reason, they perceive eyes as ears. I know that sounds bizarre, baby, but it’s a very real challenge for a lot of us. Even for your mama.

You see, we don’t have the same innate ability that you do to understand that there are as many ways to listen as there are to communicate. That there are as many equally valid and effective ways to engage with and show interest in and pay attention to the world around us as there are people in it.

We’ll keep working on it, honey. With your lead, we’ll start earlier and we’ll give people like your teachers and me the tools we need to compensate for what we don’t intuitively understand.

We will need your help. We’ll need your compassion and empathy and, heaven knows, your patience as we learn. You accommodate us every day, making allowances for our challenges. And for that I’m so grateful.

Keep the faith, my love. Just keep leading the way. We’ll get there.

Love,

Mama

I’m talking to Brooke’s team leader today. Because this matters. It matters in so many ways that we’ve read and talked about ad nauseam. But there’s one in particular that I just can’t stop thinking about.

Aside from all of the usual ways that teaching autistic kids that if they don’t make eye contact (something we’ve learned time and time and yes, time again is often not just uncomfortable but distracting, overwhelming, and even painful for autistic people) they will be perceived as rude, disinterested, poor listeners are problematic, it’s also teaching our kids that their autistic friends aren’t listening to them. And that’s not okay.

My daughter has been blessed with an incredible autistic community. In school, she is in a program with six other autistic kids with a class of seven more behind them in the next grade. About half of the people in her inner circle are autistic.

I’ve written before about how magical friendship can be with people who share this fundamental connection. It’s an incredible thing to see, and I consider myself blessed simply to bear it witness.

These friendships tend to be chock full of the things that doctors told us autism would eliminate or at the very least severely limit from Brooke’s life: meaningful connection, engagement, joint attention, shared enjoyment, empathy, compassion, communal concern for one another’s well being and comfort.

These kids listen to each other in ways that neurotypical folks often don’t. They listen beyond the words that they know well are often unreliable and hear the language of behavior. They sense emotion in prosody and tone. They recognize distress, fear, discomfort in the pattern of one another’s scripts and when they do, they help each other find safety.

And wonder of wonders, they do it all without making eye contact.

Perhaps that’s why they see and hear so much that the rest of us miss. Because while we’re staring at each other’s pupils to prove that our ears work, while we are formulating responses rather than actually, truly listening to each other, while we are convincing ourselves that it must be right because it’s what we’ve always known, they are absorbing it all.

And despite all of that, we’re teaching them – the autistic kids – and just the autistic kids, that if they’re not looking at us with their eyes, they’re not hearing us with their ears. Forget for a minute just how lacking is the logic in that concept. Let’s just think about the effort we’re choosing to make.

Why not just teach everyone else that eyes aren’t ears and that one has nothing to do with the other? How about teaching every kid in kindergarten that there is simply more than one way to take in information and all of them are equally valid if not effective? That some people need to move to process information because keeping their bodies still takes up the energy they need to listen. That some people are overwhelmed by the onslaught of emotion in eyes – that it’s just too much to take in while trying to also hear and decipher words. That some people are just really, really good at reading patterns and understanding different kinds of language and maybe, just maybe, they’ve got something to teach us.

But instead of learning from them, we’re teaching them that they aren’t listening to each other. That because they’re not doing it OUR way, they’re not being good friends to each other. That because they’re not listening in the ways that are intuitive to US they’re not showing care and concern and interest in each other. There is so much wrong with that I don’t even know where to begin. Delegitimizing these beautiful, authentic friendships does all of us such a grave disservice.

All because some of us lack the ability to understand what they know intuitively – that eyes are not ears and there are as many ways to listen as there are to communicate.

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Brooke and Becky hugging after Brooke’s concert. 

17 thoughts on “eyes are ears and other myths

  1. “Delegitimizing these beautiful, authentic friendships does all of us such a grave disservice.”
    Exactly. And what are we doing to the neurotypical kids around our kids when they see an adult scold or redirect their classmate to look them in the eye or “eyes on me”? We are perpetuating the stereotype and pointing out how different our kids are from them.
    Thank you for writing this today.

  2. Am so with you on this. Have made sure the words eye contact are not on our paperwork anywhere. People listen in different ways, and no way is better than another. Listening is important; eye contact isn’t! It’s one of those phrases that is trotted out as an indicator but not really thought about. Hope your meet goes well.

  3. Funny, when my son was young and in an ABA program he got a lot of “look at me”….but now that he is doing RPM and writing with a therapist, he just stares at her while they work. They have such a connection and it’s because of respect.

  4. We did a lot of work on eye contact with Baguette, and I paid a lot of attention to whether it was causing her distress. I really don’t think it was–and she is very good at letting me know when she is in distress.

    BUT.

    When it’s clear that she does’t want to make eye contact, I also tell her she can just look at my face, not at my eyes, or that I want to make sure she’s listening, but it’s okay not to look me in the eye. And I tell her teachers that it may not look like she’s listening in the way they’re used to–but the odds are pretty high that she’s hearing everything.

    I want her to have the skills and confidence in those skills to convey her meaning in the way she wants to. I also want the people around her to know that just because those skills don’t look like everyone else’s doesn’t mean she lacks them.

  5. There are many other cultures where it is considered rude or disrespectful, or a sign if aggression to look others directly
    In the eye. When will we learn to embrace diversity? I, for one, do not wish to live in a bland generic world.

  6. I love this post so much! Thank you for writing it.

    I am not autistic but I have suffered from anxiety and depression since I was 8. Making eye contact is very uncomfortable and unnerving for me. I find that I “hear” a lot more than the person who is making eye contact because I am interpreting what is happening on so many different levels.

    I love how strongly you advocate for Brooke and other people with autism.

  7. A wonderful way to discuss this with your daughter. Hopefully, she will learn to make eye contact with so many of us who find it important, until the world, handles it the way those with autism, blindness, and other characteristics do. The lack of eye contact too often restricts those who don’t use it from jobs and opportunities the way things are right now.

    • “Hopefully, she will learn to make eye contact with so many of us who find it important…”

      Why? Why are your desires more important than her needs when it comes to her own mind and body?

      “The lack of eye contact too often restricts those who don’t use it from jobs and opportunities the way things are right now.”

      Yes, and that is actually *wrong.*

  8. damn jess, hard to hear we still need to teach this. looks like i better touch out another supporting newsletter and blog asap so folk can get a better taste for neurodiversity and wake up and smell the coffee. love brewing with you b

  9. Reblogged this on The Laughing Shadow and commented:
    This article is lovely, especially in regards to my own conversations on expanding the dominant paradigm versus forcing autistic individuals to conform to one that is unnatural and quite frankly unhealthy for us.

  10. Pingback: Eyes are ears and other myths | a diary of a mom | Special Learning House

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