Communicating with an autistic person can be challenging, but it holds some unique rewards, too. You have to put in the effort though to reap those rewards.
At the age of four, Master Owen could barely string two words together, so I became an expert at deciphering his efforts to communicate. Active listening builds your own communication skills as you seek to understand and be understood. I considered myself a tourist trying to learn how to survive in Master Owenland and it worked.
Time passed and MO’s communication skills grew, of course. Eventually I discovered MO struggled with “sharing” small life experiences. By sharing I mean developing a connection between himself and others when seeing or experiencing the same incident. This difficulty is common with people on the Autism Spectrum; they lack that ability to connect with others.
Not being able to connect with others doesn’t mean people with autism don’t notice or experience the same things, as often thought. It’s actually quite the opposite! MO could walk in a room and immediately notice what was changed. What he lacked was the ability to communicate those differences.
Pointing is a classic example of the struggle to relate. Master Owen, like so many others on the Spectrum, never pointed to objects and he is unable to visually follow someone pointing out something. You truly don’t realize how difficult it is to communicate when someone fails to identify the skill of jesturing. Back to Master Owenland I go, trying to find alternate ways to relate.
Now that Master Owen is ten and has developed a wide vocabulary and can communicate well with most people, I’ve noticed a little peculiarity. When we are having a conversation and MO agrees with something I say, he will say: “same” or “also” to show agreement. It’s taken me a bit of time to adjust to this response as I am expecting “me too” or “I agree”. When I hear “same” I don’t feel the enthusiasm of agreement, but there IS agreement. And, once again, I find myself in Master Owenland learning the finer points of communication in his particular language.
My point in discussing these communication hurdles is to show you that people with Autism do indeed have feelings and thoughts, and they desire to communicate them to others. They are always in the process of learning how to change themselves to meet OUR needs, and we seem to score their progress based on their ability to meet what we consider “normal”.
I often wonder if we–as a society–are so transfixed on sameness that we forget that others don’t think, live or communicate the SAME way. To use an Autism term, I’m wondering if many of us lack “theory of the mind” instead of the other way around.
It seems to me our society seeks more to be understood, to communicate our particular preferences and thoughts than to find ways to relate with others. Perhaps closing our mouths and using our ears is a truer form of practicing “freedom of speech”?
Perhaps we would be better people and a better society if we sought first to understand than to be understood.
As a wise nun once said to me: “God gave us two ears, but only one mouth”. (Or, if you are an evolutionist, we have evolved with two ears and one mouth, not the other way around, to ensure our survival.)
Maybe it’s time to notice something as plain as the features on our faces. Maybe then we would make some progress.
Let us venture into the land of the unknown with a desire to understand.