I study history as it helps me know what people are likely to do. The present is a sensory overload so I prepare for it by studying the past.
If you are preparing to teach or communicate with individuals with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), it is critical to study what we with ASD convey helps.
Take listening for example. Our AUT department teaches listening well:
Always to presume competence – meaning give RESPECT. Know that respect is not possible without listening. There are many ways to listen. Did you hear that? There are many ways to listen. As Jess Wilson from Diary of a Mom fame writes in a note to her daughter with ASD whose teachers keep demanding she give eye contact when listening, “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.”
Like Jess, I can relate to challenges, so I don’t need to make you wrong or me right, but you should know that for me and many of my ASD peers, making eye contact while listening is counter-productive to our hearing. We focus on one thing at a time VERY well, better than most if I may be so bold. Seeing eyes and listening with our ears are two very different specialized functions.
ASD minds are wired exquisitely for fine-detail processing performed in one highly localized area at a time. Sustaining eye contact requires intense concentration. Listening demands an equal amount of mental and physical commitment.
One cannot give what one does not have. We are happy to give you our full attention if you will please request one task at a time.
Below are some videos by my ASD peeps who are also trying to communicate this appeal:
Sarah Emerson- Autism and Eye contact
Rhonda Wolfe How Autism Affects Eye Contact
Mathew Ryan Morin, Living and Learning with Autism
Arman Kody Insights from an Autistic Eye contact
Amythest Schaber – Ask an Autistic
Remrov’s World of Autism – autistic Savant Explains why Autistics Avoid Eye Contact
In 2001 President George Bush said about Vladimir Putin, “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy. We had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul; a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.” Well, Bush got it half right. Putin is wholly committed to Russia’s interests. But trustworthy? Perhaps GW would have fared better using his full sensory resources one at a time as recommended by we ASD constituents.
Sincerely, eye contacting B OR Sincerely, listening B (But not simultaneously)
Research supports what Barb and other individuals with ASD are sharing. Neuroscientist, Dr. Manuel Casanova’s groundbreaking cell-to-cell, neuronal-connections brain research at the University of Kentucky School of Medicine identified key features that show the structural ways that neurons in the brain vary with “conditions.” For example, the microcircuitry differences between individuals with autism and dyslexia labels are profound. In fact, their cognitive styles of connectivity are on opposite tails of the curve. Individuals with Autism whose cortex cells are tightly spaced minicolumns tend to form more connections locally, while individuals with dyslexia have broadly spaced minicolumns that tend to form more connections in distant parts of the brain. Casanova puts it this way “The cognitive style for autism is dictated by shorter connections at the expense of longer connections.” They do well with one focus at a time not joint attention. Whereas dyslexic style cognition has “many long connections at the expense of short connections.” They do well at putting things all together. So it makes since that my dear Barb excels at fine-detail processing which is performed in one highly localized area at a time. In contrast, individuals like me with dyslexia excel at joining distant areas of the brain and thus drawing ideas from anywhere and everywhere (big picture thinking.)
These two brain types complement each other. Neither may be a result of purposeless breakdown in function, but rather a valuable specialization trade off.
There are three types of reading known at this time: eye, ear, and fingers (Braille). As Ben Foss writes, in The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan: A Blueprint for Renewing your Child’s Confidence and Love of Learning , “Focusing on eye reading overlooks the real goals of education, which are learning, independent thinking, and mastering the ability to make new connections in the world of ideas.” Individuals with dyslexia are often slow readers but fast thinkers who may learn more efficiently from audiobooks or videos. Educators just saying “No, the opinion of the majority is THE ONLY WAY” without considering alternative ways of thinking is US Senate level of incompetent. We can do better.
Lets not be EYE snobs. Just as print is not the only valid way to read – eye contact is not the only way to listen. There are other intellectually valid ways for information absorption and comprehension. For more information on the value of neurodiversity to the population as a whole, please consider our new book (Available for sale in audiobook, e-book, and hardback VERY soon…working on Braille version.) Neurodiversity: A Humorous and Practical Guide to Living with ADHD, Anxiety, Autism, Dyslexia, The Gays and Everyone else by Barb Rentenbach and Lois Prislovsky.