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Hearing, Listening, Pay Attention and Autism

How many of us have children that don’t listen? All of us. It’s the terrible twos and then the even worse threes that really test our limits. As they get older however, they learn to behave a little better but never do get perfect at it. What fun is listening to your parents all the time?

What I’ve found, however, is that there’s a whole other barrier when it comes to Autism, at least in the case of my son Cameron: focus.

Hearing – Lack of focus

Hearing is the ability to take in the sounds around oneself, or as the dictionary describes it: “The faculty of perceiving sounds.” In the case of many Autistics, there is a heightened ability to take in quite a lot of sounds all at once without the minds filtering system in place to muffle unimportant sounds into the background.

What this means is that it becomes very difficult to focus on one sound in particular in order to truly understand what it is. Or in the case of us parents and our children, they are unable to focus on what we’re saying in order to understand what we said.

Listening – Intent Focus

Listening as described by the dictionary: Give one’s attention to a sound: “sit and listen to the radio”. You can see how this relates to one’s focus. When a person focuses their attention on something, they listen intently. They absorb the sounds or what is being said and all else is dismissed.

Listening is the important portion of your instruction giving. Without it, there’s really no point in talking.

Paying Attention and Autism

When I read articles around the web about Autism, I find that they tend to discuss the lack of focus or the intent focus and very seldom do they discuss both. The truth is that for most children in general, far more to the extreme for those with Autism, you are almost always dealing with both.

I feel that one of the biggest hurdles facing those with Autism is focus. I like to think of Autistics as being digital while everyone else is analog.

Those with Autism have 0 and 1. On and off. Meaning that either all sounds are getting in and they hear it all but listen to nothing or they listen to one thing and hear nothing else. There’s not much room for anything else. This is why your child listening to a song, a toy, a tv show, etc will likely not hear you even though you’ve called their name several times. It’s also why your child will not listen to you in a crowd of talking people when you call their name. They likely can’t listen to you.

The rest of us are analog because our minds have the ability to scale the dial back and forth such that we can tune out the crowds to hear those that talk to us and conversely, can break our attention and stop listening when we hear something else of importance.

Conclusion

We all know that there’s a big difference between hearing us and listening to us… but what we might not know, or may sometimes forget, is that it’s not because they’re not paying attention. Or that they’re simply ignoring us (although sometimes that may actually be the case, crafty kids).

It is one of those things that can easily anger us because being ignored is a very frustrating thing but we have to remember that sometimes it’s not intentional. Sometimes it’s not their fault.

Be aware of your environment and that of your child as well. Perhaps they’re not hearing you, perhaps they’re listening to something so intently that they can’t hear you. Try not to get mad.

Instead, try to break their attention when so directly focused or try to direct their attention when there’s just so much going on that it’s hard to listen properly. Maybe take them away from the situation entirely in either case.

If they’re listening that intently, taking them away could result in a meltdown so it’s a judgment call on your part. But there are ways to change their focus without bothering them too much. Sometimes a hand on the shoulder will do.

Just remember the circumstances at work and the entire situation can be resolved much better without anyone getting mad and making a troubled situation much worse.

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Life is the key to decyphering Autism

A “cipher (or cypher)” is essentially a scrambled up message that requires a “key” to unscramble it. For example, if you used 1-26 instead of a-z to write out a message. You’d take that long list of numbers, change the numbers back to the letters they represent and presto, you’d have a readable message.

The reason I’m explaining this is that there’s a stage in Autism where a person goes from non-verbal to being very cryptic to being a person capable of appropriate conversations. Sometimes this “stage” happens in childhood, sometimes it’s adulthood, sometimes it’s for a year and sometimes it’s for many years.

What happens is that a person with Autism will likely think very differently than most “normal” people but not really realize that there is a difference. Therefore what they imagine is happening, or their ability (or lack there of) to explain it, often ends up in something that sounds like some sort of code and often leaves us parents having to crack it.

The good news is that we have the tools to do it. The bad news is that we’re the only ones with the tools to do it because the key to cracking the cipher is that person’s life.

I’ll give you two examples of what I mean, the first happened just tonight.

Cameron has been having it particularly rough the last couple of weeks, outbursts, crying fits, general bad behavior… so finally, tonight, I sat him down and had a talk with him.

  • Me: Cameron, what is going on? We need to stop and talk… we need to find out why you are doing more bad things than good things.
  • Cameron: …
  • Me: Does your tummy hurt? Does your head hurt? Are you sad because we changed your bedroom? Are you sad because a teacher left your class?
  • Cameron: When I do bad things… when… bad stuff… I have bad things dancing around in my head.
  • Me: You have bad things dancing around in your head? What do you mean? What bad things?
  • Cameron: bad things like… hitting… and pushing… and cutting…
  • Me: Those things dance around in your head?
  • Cameron: ya… and I can’t get them out.
  • Me: Who is doing the hitting and pushing and cutting in your head?
  • Cameron: <names another child at school>… he cuts… the teachers…
  • Me: I see, he does these things in your head?
  • Cameron: Ya… and I can’t get them out.

So at bed time, while putting on his PJ’s, I talk to him about it again.

  • Me: So what do you think we should do about these bad things dancing around in your head?
  • Cameron: We have to cut them out.
  • Me: Well, we can’t just cut things out of your head.
  • Cameron: Ya.. we have to make a hole… and cut them out and put it back again.
  • Me: Sorry buddy, but it doesn’t work that way.
  • Cameron: Why?
  • Me: It’s just not that easy. We can’t cut you and take ideas out of your head. We have to find another way.
  • Me: What do you do with food that you don’t like?
  • Cameron: Throw it in the garbage.
  • Me: So what can you do if it’s bad ideas dancing in your head that you don’t like.
  • Cameron: Throw it in the garbage!!
  • Me: And what is left if you throw the bad ideas in the garbage?
  • Cameron: …. uhmm.. good ideas?
  • Me: Right. Do you think that would work?
  • Cameron: Ya!!!

Do I think that will work? Who knows. On some movie set or episode of Dr. Phil maybe… but it’s a start. At least I have a good idea now that the actions of his lower functioning class mate are starting to wear on him. This gives me, and his teachers something to work with.

And it fits because this is very very similar to the outbursts we had with him when he first started school over a year and a half ago. He didn’t feel safe. Now it’s happening again.

My second example (I didn’t forget) was when his teachers wrote in his journal that he was complaining about a strange noise in his head. Again, close to bed time, I talked to him about it. He described it as a strange noise in his head, that he couldn’t stop and couldn’t get out.

After some world class interrogation skills and deductive reasoning on my part (ya right), I was able to determine that the “noise” was mooing and it was part of a song that he liked but hadn’t heard in a while. A line or two from that song was stuck in his head, playing over and over again. He didn’t know what song and couldn’t make it stop. We’ve all had that happen before!

So again, both examples show that not many people could have figured out what exactly was going on in that marvellously complex mind of his because you need the key to unscramble the messages… and that key is his life.

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What you say and what they hear may not be the same thing

I’ve noticed for quite some time how my children often repeat what they hear in a movie or television show but what they say isn’t an exactly copy.

For example, in the Cars movie, one character says “What? did I forget to wipe my mud flaps?” to which Cameron immediately parrots “I think I wipe my butt wraps”.

Another instance is in a Mario Brothers game where Mario cries “help’a me!” and Cameron laughs and says “trampoline!”

There are many many examples I could give. This has been a common thing for him all of his speaking life but I never saw much point in blogging about until a mom on Twitter (@Calormom)¬†commented that her son never answered the question “How was school today?”

Unfortunately, I don’t talk to very many parents that get an answer to the school question. Not very many children with Autism ever answer it.

This mom said that she had asked a teacher from the school and the teacher said that it’s likely that her son doesn’t understand her, or the question or just doesn’t want to answer.

This got her thinking and rather sad that her son doesn’t understand her. Understandable… I felt the same when Cameron would never tell me about his day too.

Miscommunication

Did he say what he heard?

Keeping in mind his strange inability to say what he had just heard from the television, I got to wondering what he might be hearing when I am talking to him. If I talk at regular speed about mud flaps… is he hearing “butt wraps” ??

Here is what I did when I realized that he wasn’t properly interpreting what it was that I was saying.

  1. Consciously slow down your talking.
    In the day and age of instant messaging, texting and so forth, we have even begun to talk faster without realizing it. Many of us really aren’t that good at it either. We slur things together, we abbreviate words we shouldn’t and we mumble stuff out more often than we realize.
  2. This brings me to speaking more clearly.
    I’ve had a few family members tell me how “funny” or “strange” I sound sometimes… which is sad because I’m sounding the way that an English speaking person is supposed to sound. However, our language has become so perverted these days, in the words we use and the way we say them, that people look at you strange for speaking properly and clearly.
    So be it, let them laugh… your child will understand you better… that is what is important.
  3. Try rephrasing the question.
    Children only have a limited vocabulary as it is, so don’t expect them to understand every word you say… and certainly combinations of words might throw them off as well even if they know what the words mean individually. If you ask what they did in class, but they only know of the place they go to as school… they might not have an answer for you.
  4. Talking about school, use words/phrases that the school uses.
    My son’s class has story time, but they don’t call it story time. They call it circle time. If I ask him what they did for story time, he will have no idea what I’m talking about. If he’s feeling confident, he may tell me that he didn’t have story time… even though he did have circle time.. but most likely, especially having Autism, that confidence will not be there and he’ll just have no answer for me at all.
  5. Emotions are an easier memory to recall than facts.
    My son has come a long way so now he can recall facts much better than when we first started but consider this… he can tell me every detail about what happened in a story or movie at school, but can’t tell me what the title was or who was in it.
    The reason he can do that is that he’s mostly recalling his emotions… how exciting the story was, how sad it was, how happy he felt… and those emotions have trapped the story within them.
    When Cameron first began talking, I would ask what story his teacher read, or what movie he saw and be met with a blank look.. ¬†he didn’t feel comfortable telling me that he didn’t know. However, if I asked if they had a good story for circle time, he’d answer yes or no. From there, I could prod for more information because I had him talking.
  6. Like all things, start slow.
    “How was your day?” is far too broad and confusing. Start with something like “did you do numbers today?” or “did you eat your lunch?”
    Yes or No questions are a great place to start and as I said, use words/phrases the child already knows. The less confused they are, the more likely they’ll talk. In time they’ll become accustomed to the questions and the type of information that you’re looking for. That’s when your child will start to catch on that “how was your day?” is just another way of asking all of those questions at once… but they have to work their way up to that point.

Don’t be discouraged if your child doesn’t understand you… they haven’t understood you for their entire lives, but they’re learning. This is no different. Also, it happens with all children, just maybe not to the same extent as a child with Autism.

You just have to keep all of these things in your mind, remember not to get frustrated when you don’t get an answer and to understand what may be going through your child’s mind.

Your child loves you and does want to tell you… they just need a little help from you.

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Communication, breaking it down

One of the key characteristics of Autism is lack of communication skills but I would argue that it’s more of a communication break down. What that means is that even the most severely low functioning Autistics do have communication skills but suffer from severe communication break downs between themselves and the world around them.

What is the difference? I’m glad you asked!

failure to communicate

Communication Breakdown

A break down in communication is described as two or more individuals or groups being unable to understand each other due to differing styles or methods of communication.

Lacking communication skills implies that a person simply can not communicate at all, with anyone or anything. If you spend a day with anyone that has Autism, regardless of the severity, you know this simply isn’t true.

Let’s break this down further, because those with Autism have symptoms in a very wide range of severity and complexity, I can’t possibly cover every different variation I’ve heard of or encountered, but I hope to give you some idea of what is going on.

For many ‘low functioning’ Autistics, they are communicating with their environment in ways that we simply can not understand. The banging they do, the flapping they do, the circles they spin in… these are all ways in which they’re taking in their environment. Hitting a person, not hugging, not looking in the eye… these are forms of communication that we choose to think of as not communicating at all.

Inside, that person is trying to tell you that they need you, they love you but they can’t get it out to you in the way that you understand it. It’s a break down in communication.

Likewise, you are trying to hug them or speak to them in certain tones or you make a face at them and they don’t understand. They don’t get the sarcasm or inflection, or they don’t notice the eyes rolling that you’re doing and again, you have a break down in communication. Something you say light heartedly may be taken as very seriously, even negatively and they lash out and you are left wondering why they have these random temper tantrums.

What you need to realize is that sometimes it goes way beyond this simple break down into a whole other level of mixed signals. For example, some people with Autism may be seeing colours as you speak. Some of them may taste the sounds or even smell them. Your whispers may come across as nails on a chalk board or your yelling may come across as a fog horn inches from their ears.

Try to imagine an alien life form that comes to Earth and talks in clicks and clucks, just sounds coming from their mouths, and then when you talk they see a blinding light and their ears feel like they’re on fire.

Would you both be lacking communication skills or would there simply be a break down in communication that is very difficult to over come?

As with all things Autism, as I always say, nothing is the same for all Autistics, but this should give you a good idea of just how crazy it can be for one with Autism to try to communicate.

It’s important to remember that they can communicate. They can have the desire to tell you all the things that you want to hear. They simply are unable to get it to you in a way you’d understand. And when they freak out for what you think is a nice gesture or seems totally random, perhaps it’s not.

Unfortunately this won’t solve many problems for you, but perhaps answer some questions.

I write this today, the day of conflicting awareness events. One being Communication Shutdown and the other being Autism Shout Out (ASDay for short), because even though they may be two opposite sides of a coin, they are opposite sides of the same coin. They both have the same aim and both hope to have the same outcome.

It’s all about communication. Not the lack of it but the break down of it. Whether you stop talking or talk louder, you are communicating and that’s a very powerful thing.

Don’t take it for granted when so many can’t find a way to do it the way we do.

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