Do you ever get the feeling that your autistic child just isn’t listening to you? It can seem like they’re completely ignoring your voice and no matter how many times you say something, you just get no reaction. In reality, ‘listening’ isn’t quite the right word. The truth is that they might not be processing what you say. You see, the act of listening can be broken down into several steps and it is at the very end that people with autism tend to have the most difficulty.
1) Speaking – your voice makes sound.
2) Listening – the sound is received by your child’s ear and sent to the brain.
3) Processing – the sound is dealt with in the brain, converted from noise into words. Then the brain can decode the words and understand what has been said to them.
This is a very rough step-by-step and the process can be broken down much further but this surface view is enough to understand what is occurring in the brain. Deaf people have differences at the listening stage but autistic people tend to have differences at the processing stage. When an autistic person appears to have switched off, ignoring the world around them or apparently obvious instructions, it can be because the sound isn’t being converted and decoded.
This is an incredibly difficult thing to deal with and it’s often frustrating for the speaker because it mimics bad behaviour. The important thing to remember is that it is frustrating for the autistic person too! They aren’t doing it on purpose and have no control over their brain’s activity. They have to ride it out as much as you do. However, there are some steps you can take to help them process the information.
- Use a visual aid. When the auditory processing system stops working, you can take advantage of what is generally much more powerful for autistic people. We tend to be visual learners and because of this, the visual system is much more efficient in our brains. You can use symbols, sign language or objects to reinforce what you are saying. If you want someone to get changed, show them their new clothes while you say it. If you want a child to choose between snacks, show both options to the child.
- Speak more simply and slowly. Slow down. The world moves incredibly fast and sometimes our processing systems just can’t keep up. This doesn’t mean speaking like we are stupid but rather simplifying the instruction and not talking too fast so that we more time to decode fewer words. Instead of saying, ‘Please, can you pick up your bag and take it to your bedroom’, you can just say ‘please, put your bag in your room’.
- Be specific. Abstract language is very difficult to decode. Some words symbolise large categories that make it difficult to understand what is being asked. If someone doesn’t react to ‘what would you like for lunch?’ then they may be struggling with understanding what the word ‘lunch’ means. Asking if they want a sandwich or soup might yield a better response.
- Get in their eye line. Use this step with caution, as your child might need more personal space than others. However, some children respond well to having the person they are speaking to in their line of sight (don’t expect eye contact) and linking the person’s body to their voice. Getting down on their level also shows sensitivity and respect, implying that you are trying to talk to them, rather than at them. Sometimes, when I can’t process language I feel like voices are just flying at me and this makes me feel very attacked, so displays of respect and kindness go a long way.
- Wait and repeat. It can take a long time for processing to occur and repeating the same thing over and over again won’t help. However, sometimes talking, then waiting for a moment (or even five minutes) and then asking again can help jumpstart the brain. I find with Noah, I have to say something, wait about ten seconds and then say it again before he will be able to respond.
- Check the environment. If there is a lot of other sensory input in the environment, then an autistic person might not have enough space in their mind to process your words. Try asking again when the environment is quieter or blocking out other input. Bear in mind that the senses do not function independently. So, if a person is distracted by the sight of something moving, they may not be able to process sound.
- Check that they can respond. Speaking is a different issue to listening but sometimes, it looks like autistic people are ignoring when we actually can’t speak. Verbal and non-verbal aren’t constant states and sometimes people who are usually verbal, are not able to speak due to their brain’s inability to process their own thoughts. Try to spot when your child can’t speak, so that you don’t get frustrated at them for not being able to communicate.
- Ask yourself if it is important. Sometimes, we just talk for the sake of it. If someone is having difficulty processing auditory information, then it might be better to just drop the subject and let them rest. Then they can rebalance their systems and communicate later. Filtering through all the world’s superfluous information takes autistic people a lot of time and energy; sometimes we just run out.
Above all, be patient. We get incredibly frustrated with ourselves and when people get annoyed with us for difficulties outside our control, it has a huge impact on our self-esteem. By being patient, compassionate and waiting for the autistic person to be ready, you can make a big difference.