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Podcast Episode 087: How to effectively listen to autism spectrum

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Today I’m really lucky. I’m joined by two people, Jennie and Chris and today we’re going to explore the topic of listening and autism.

This is a topic I have no knowledge in, and today I’m really excited to learn and listen to Jennie and Chris.

It’s a unique opportunity because they have generously provided a talk at public conventions on this very topic. I feel really privileged to explore a world I know nothing about.

Yet in my last three weeks of researching on this topic, it’s opened up a wonderful perspective for me about listening for similarities, listening for differences, and being conscious of your own listening and how that influences others.

Transcript

Podcast Episode 087 – How to effectively listen to autism spectrum

Oscar Trimboli:

I received an email from Martin. I sensed frustration in the email, and Martin sent me a very short and simple message: “Oscar, I’m really enjoying podcast interview with Dr. Michael Boyce, and it got me reflecting on why I’m frustrated. I’m not making as much progress in my listening to my 24-year-old adult son. I struggle with him when it comes to listening because of his autism. Can you help?”

Oscar Trimboli:

My reply to Martin was I didn’t know how to help. I did know some people who might know how to help, and that started a journey where I sent an email to Avi in Israel, who forwarded it to Corine in the Netherlands, who sent it to Jennie in the United States. And today, I’m really lucky. I’m joined by two people. Jennie and Chris. And today, we’re going to explore the topic of listening and autism. A topic I have no knowledge in. And today, I’m really excited to learn and listen to Jennie and Chris. It’s a unique opportunity because they have generously provided a talk at public conventions on this very topic, and I feel really privileged to explore a world I know nothing about. And yet, in my last three weeks of researching on this topic, it’s opened up a wonderful perspective for me about listening for similarities, listening for differences, and being conscious of your own listening and how that influences others.

Oscar Trimboli:

Deep Listening: Impact Beyond Words. Good day, I’m Oscar Trimboli, and this is the Apple award-winning podcast. Deep Listening, designed to move you from a distracted listener to a deep and impactful leader. Did you know you spend 55% of your day listening? Yet, only 2% of people have ever been taught how. In each episode, we explore the five levels of listening. Communication is 50% speaking and 50% listening. Yet as a leader, you’re taught only the importance of communication from the perspective of how to speak. It’s critical you start to build some muscles for the next phase in how to listen. The cost of not listening, it’s confusion. It’s conflict. It’s projects running over schedule. It’s lost customers. It’s great employees that leave before they want to.

Oscar Trimboli:

When you implement the strategies, the tips, and tactics that you’ll hear, you’ll get four hours a week back in your schedule. I wonder what you could do with an extra four hours a week. Jennie, you and Chris have had the opportunity to speak about this topic publicly. And I’d love to start with a simple question. When it comes to you and listening to Chris, when did you first discover autism for him? Where did this story commence?

Jennifer Grau:

As a young toddler, he had quite a prodigious vocabulary. He had some interesting first words like up and more and clock. I don’t remember when mom and dad came into the picture, but it was really late. He had an amazing capacity to build things. He had some interesting sensory issues. And in retrospect, all of those things compile to make sense with autism spectrum diagnosis. But wait, I think he was seven or eight before it was formally diagnosed. And it was only diagnosed because teachers suggested that maybe there was something going on for him in the classroom when he was having some challenges with sound issues and activity levels in the room. We pursued a diagnosis at that time.

Oscar Trimboli:

I often say labels are really useful, but only when they’re on jars, not necessarily people. You have a slightly different perspective. Sometimes labels can be useful.

Jennie Grau:

Labels that constrain are not very helpful labels that help us understand the world, and move things around like jigsaw puzzle pieces can be very enlightening. Nothing about Christopher changed when we got a diagnosis or a label. No, he was still the same kid, and he was still wonderful and remarkable. What did change for us was two things. We had access to support services through the school system, like a beacon of light on areas to read in and research. To be the best parents that we knew how to be for Chris. And so the label for us was more like a guidepost, not so much a box.

Christopher:

I tend to see labels in two categories, descriptive and prescriptive. Descriptive labels tell you about a thing or a person or an anything. To me, autism is a descriptive label. It tells you more about how I interact with the world and how it might be easier or harder to interact with me in certain ways. As opposed to prescriptive labels, which say, “Because you are this thing that means this about you.” Which might not always be the case.

Oscar Trimboli:

At school, Chris, when did you start noticing people using those labels either productively or unproductively for you?

Christopher:

It was probably around second grade with a wonderful teacher that let me have a space in the classroom that was just my moving space. So if I wanted to just get out of my chair, and I do know, do some jumping jacks. I had a spot to be able to do that.

Oscar Trimboli:

What do you think that teacher was listening for that others may not have?

Christopher:

She saw a need that I had to expend energy, and she came up with a way that let me expend the energy that wasn’t disruptive to the rest of the class. I’m not sure that other teachers weren’t listening to the need, but they just didn’t come up with that as a possible solution.

Oscar Trimboli:

What changes from under 10 to teenage years for you?

Christopher:

We started to have a lot more conversations about how I was interacting with other people, and “Okay, some of the things that you’ve been doing have been okay because you haven’t known that they’re not socially acceptable or you appear in this way when you do these things.” And so our conversations were bringing these things more to the foreground and bring them to my attention. So I’d realise, “Hey, if I just run up to somebody random and poke them, that’s not something that is seen as socially acceptable.”

Oscar Trimboli:

And Jen, for you in these teenage years, what changed for you in the way you had to communicate?

Jennie Grau:

Well, let me just start by saying Chris is our oldest child and our firstborn child. My assumption through all of this is we’re parenting a kid, and no one gave us a rule book for that. And no one gave us an autism rule book for that. But I’d be actually curious to hear what Chris thinks about this. But I don’t think I was especially conscious of raising an autistic kid. I was raising this kid. I don’t think the word autism kept coming up throughout your childhood, or at least in my impression. It wasn’t a big part of our specific conversations. But helping develop greeting social skills and helping Christopher as an Eagle Scout. So he did a lot of Boys Scouts stuff. And sometimes the conversations were in the context of teaming and leading and friendships.

Oscar Trimboli:

When you’re invited to speak on the topic at a public conference, I’m curious about what you discussed as much as the kinds of questions you are asked when the two of you had a very simple conversation. I guess [inaudible 00:09:50] might’ve been standing on a stage or sitting on a stage, just take us to that place. And how did you guys structure a conversation to help educate people who don’t necessarily have firsthand experience that you have?

Jennie Grau:

The International Listening Association has a call for papers every year. And we chose to offer a proposal to have a candid conversation with each other that involved us interviewing each other about the subject of listening and autism. And we did it because I’ve been a long-time member of the International Listening Association. Although this isn’t his area of expertise that is listening is an application for him, not a study for him. He had a lot to say about the subject through are very unique lens and perspective. And I didn’t know if he’d be willing or interested. But I offered the invitation, and he accepted. The conference got cancelled because of COVID. And instead of presenting it together in a live setting, we were invited to have this dialogue, this conversation with each other as an interview online.

Oscar Trimboli:

For those who haven’t had the chance to listen in. What would you say were the major themes of the interview?

Christopher:

Opening more efficient communications channels between neurotypical people and people on the autism spectrum.

Jennie Grau:

I do a lot of work in the field of listening. I would not call myself an autism expert. And so what we did was share experiences about how Chris grew up and things that it taught me about listening. And we’ve talked about things that he learned as he grew up at different stages of his life. We talked about how his autism shaped my deeper appreciation for an understanding of listening. We talked about how people who are parenting children on the spectrum might get a better sense of how they listen and what might be different about that, and how parents can modify some of their speaking and listening to be better able to connect with their kids. We talked about things teachers might find helpful to know. Things that kids themselves and young adults themselves, and frankly, anyone can do to be a better listener. The lens was autism.

Christopher:

We both interviewed each other. And I guess the interesting thing to me was how interested my mom and the sort of ILA community was in how I thought of listening and communication in general. That came from me, perceiving listening as just the audio information. But communication as the full visual vocal, and voice aspect. I think that’s the third [inaudible 00:13:08].

Oscar Trimboli:

If I was in the audience, what would be the three insights I might’ve picked up from the conversations, the interviews that you were having with each other?

Christopher:

The biggest one is just meta-communicate, communicate about your communications. If you’re heading into a roadblock, and you don’t think the conversation’s going anywhere, and you’re not getting anything out of the communication, say as much. It really helps when someone tells me I’m not getting through to them or something I’m saying doesn’t make sense. And I often stop a conversation and express the same thing. The second thing would be [inaudible 00:13:58] standard just because I’m different doesn’t make me lesser or any really less smart. My methods of communication might be slightly different, but in the end, if you’re willing to work with me and you make it easy for me to work with you, then we can work together and create something. Do something. And I think the third thing that we try to stress is that this is just our story. We’re not saying this is the only way that you can do this. This is what done a controlled scientific test on. This might just be the scientist in me saying this. But take it for what it is. The life experience of a family growing up with autism.

Jennie Grau:

One insight would be that meaning is incredibly personal and that we really do not understand well how frequently we do not understand each other and get close, but there’s so much closer we could probably get if we tried harder. And so, listening for each person’s unique and individual meaning is work, but it’s work worth doing.

Jennie Grau:

Second. That the world is really not easily set up to tap everybody’s talents. Particularly folks on the autism often have sensory challenges that create a sense of being overwhelmed, which causes people to shut down or need to withdraw or to respond. Whether it’s getting out extra energy in a little square in second grade or whether it’s going off and hiding so that you can get some silence or putting on headphones, so you have some noise cancellation. People who are neurotypical frequently underestimate the challenge that people experience to participate in their reality the way they expect. And the nice thing is that when we start to understand the demand that we place, we also begin to offer ourselves those same kinds of allowances.

Jennie Grau:

I am far more aware of when I’m overwhelmed and overloaded and what I can do to take care of me better because of my awareness of, “Oh, is that going to set Chris off as a five-year-old in a grocery store? Huh, maybe we shouldn’t go to the grocery store right now. You know what? I’m not even ready to go to the grocery store right now.” And in our listening in the same kind of way [inaudible 00:16:55], the kind of taking care of yourself so you can really open up to the experience is not something that we talk about a lot. So for me, that was perhaps one of the takeaways. I’m not sure if there’s a third that Chris hasn’t covered. This idea that this is our slice of life.

Jennie Grau:

And people have a great deal of variance in their experience of autism. From people that pass in the society and you would never perhaps know. To people who really have limited oral communication skills. We have known people on all parts of the spectrum, and it’s such a wide band of abilities that it’s taken a long time for people to recognise that there’s some themes and commonalities across. Our story is just that. It’s our story.

Oscar Trimboli:

As a global communication expert, Chris made this beautiful reflection about meta-communication, have a conversation about how you communicate. What insights would you provide there about what you’ve developed as something in your toolkit about communicating about communication in these situations? Are there a couple of ways that either you think about it or you’ve developed in this journey?

Jennie Grau:

We talk about becoming more aware of what we’re assuming and trying to become more explicit about articulating our assumptions and asking people, “What are you assuming about this? Or what’s true for you about this?” Just cross-culturally, that can be fascinating, right. It’s lots of fun to find out. “Oh, you were thinking that. I had no idea.” Otherwise, maybe being aware that the meaning-making process it involves using words and that we may use the same words differently, or we may use different words the same way. And so, one of my clients was having some challenges with intimate language, with meaning very different things for different people and coming up with how can I have an intimate experience and still participate and not be offended and still be romantic. And just the auditory combination of sound is associative.

Jennie Grau:

So for me, those associations may be entirely wonderful and romantic. And for you, they may be offensive and off-putting. And I mean, it doesn’t get more basic than that. Our sound meaning mechanisms are incredibly complex. And so getting people to be comfortable saying, “Huh, when I hear that sound pattern, this is what it means for me. And I’m wondering, what does it mean for you? Are there ways that we can find that it’ll mean the same thing for us? Or can we create new sound patterns that will mean the same thing for us.” This has less to do with autism and more to do with having been born and bred in New York City and now living in the Midwest of the United States or actually the great lakes region in the United States, right, because we’re talking about language and meaning. Michiganders are folks from the great lakes area, and our speech patterns here are slower.

Jennie Grau:

There’s less overlapping language. There’s much longer pauses between turn-taking. So not only speech rate, but the speech latency between turns is slower. I have to remind myself sometimes to take off my Brooklyn hat and put on my Lansing hat. And sometimes, when I feel like I’ve abused my Brooklyn voice, I have to go back and say, “Oh, I’m so sorry. I don’t think I did that very well.” And Chris has really taught me how to step back and say, “I’m sorry. I don’t think I really said that the way or you may…” What do you say, Chris? You have a great phrase.

Christopher:

“That didn’t come out as I intended it, or I don’t think that came out right.”

Oscar Trimboli:

Chris has taught you how to become a better listener.

Jennie Grau:

Chris has taught me a million things about becoming a better listener. When he was three, he came home from school all excited about something, and he sat down, and he told me, “Mommy three is half of eight.” And I was so distressed, but I put on my mother hat, and I said, “Hmm, let’s explore that.” And I took out the M&Ms, and I put them on the table, and I put eight M&Ms on the table. And I said, “Chris, show me how three is half of eight?” And he looked up at me with the most loving eyes. And he said, “Oh, mommy, you will never see it that way.”

Jennie Grau:

And he proceeded to go grab a sheet of paper and a pen. And he created an eight, and he did a vertical bisection of the number eight. And he showed me the right-hand half. And he said, “You see, mommy, three is half of eight.” With this giant grin on his face. And I realised that the whole world was about to change for me because this kid was going to open my eyes to all kinds of things that I had not seen, had not noticed, and were going to become important [inaudible 00:22:36].

Oscar Trimboli:

Chris, were there any other three is half of eight moments that were memorable where you know you’ve taught your mom something that’s completely expanded the possibilities of the world for her?

Christopher:

The exact meanings of words. There was another time where I was in my room, and I drew on the walls. And I drew a picture and then I wanted to show my mom. I was excited, and obviously, she was not excited to see that I had been drawing on the walls. So she told me, “Don’t draw on the walls.” And then I don’t remember if it was a couple of months or a couple of years later, but I’ve learned to write. And so I wrote on the walls, and I told my mom, “Mom, mom, I can write.” I showed her, and she was again very distraught because she told me don’t draw on the walls. But I was confused because I hadn’t drawn on the walls. I’d written on the walls.

Christopher:

And so we came to this understanding, and “Don’t mark on the walls.” And that continued on. And I didn’t draw on the walls. I didn’t mark on the walls. And then I came home with a poster, and I wanted to put up the poster. So how do I put up a poster without marking on the walls? “Mom, mom, I’ve got this poster, but I don’t want to mark on the walls. So how do I put a poster without marking on the walls?” And she went and got a roll of masking tape and said that this is special tape that doesn’t work on the walls. And that’s how I hung a poster in my room when I was eight or nine years old.

Oscar Trimboli:

What’s the question I should’ve asked today that would be helpful for those listening?

Jennie Grau:

Well, I’m guessing that most of your listeners are neurotypical. And so, this might be an interesting piece for them to listen to. But maybe they’re asking, “How does this relate to me, or what is the relevance for me?” And I guess, can I answer it and ask it at the same time? Okay. So in the legal field, it’s called, asked, and answered. So let’s see, I would say that first of all, people probably know a lot more folks with autism than they realise, right. There’s a lot of people in the world out there who are busy living their lives. So maybe after this, they’ll notice something and wonder, “Does this person have an autism spectrum diagnosis?” And again, I’m not big on labels, so I wouldn’t encourage them to go up and ask. But it may give them some perspective on how to intervene or interact.

Jennie Grau:

And so, if you have someone in your life who uses language very precisely, you might think about your word choice when you’re interacting with them. I am a much better instructor and trainer, and consultant because I am more aware of my word choice, as a result of growing up with Chris as my child. The other thing they might find, what your broader listeners might find interesting is that by paying attention to the context that they’re listening in, they may become aware of how ambiguous language is and how much we assume people know about the rules of engagement, of interaction, of communication. That is not necessarily shared knowledge, and that when it’s made explicit can become much easier for everyone or anyone. It’s kind of like going to a foreign country and not knowing what the rules at the dinner table are. And just sort of having a look around and make guesses about what are you allowed to do, say, eat, how much.

Jennie Grau:

Do you have to say no to this three times before it’s okay. And so I think what people might want to think about is how do I listen in a way that makes space for other people to contribute to the world with their full set of gifts and talents. And are there some things that I can do socially to ease the way for people who may not know how to introduce themselves other than poking initially, right. How to join a conversation. How to balance turn-taking within a conversation. How to invite a comment from someone who might be more quiet. How to amplify someone’s comment if you think it didn’t get noticed because of either who said it or how it was said. There are a lot of things people can do with their communication that can shape the world to be an amazing place for everyone. And that’s around the board table or around the dinner table, or the civic space.

Christopher:

How to broach the conversation and say, “Hey, I know that I am helping people are fairly blunt.” Just coming out and saying, “Hey, I don’t think we’re communicating effectively. Is there something that I can do to more effectively communicate with you?” And then here’s the crucial part. Here’s the thing that you can do that helps or will help you more effectively communicate with me because communication isn’t a one-way street. If there’s a blockage on one path, it’s going to manifest a blockage at the other path too. I was working at my university’s summer camp, and I was a returning staff member, and they were repeatedly inviting their returning staff members. “If you’ve got insights on something if you’ve got experience with something,” this is during our training week. “Speak up, share your experience. We really value our returning staff members.”

Christopher:

And so I would contribute and started probably the second day of our training. One of my student supervisors [inaudible 00:29:40], “Hey, I really valued your input. Could you phrase these things a little differently? Or could you come at it from a different angle?” And this kept happening, and okay, this is a little confusing. So eventually, I took that person aside afterwards [inaudible 00:30:02], “Hey, I don’t think you’re communicating this as effectively with me as you think you are. I think something is not getting through. Can you just be a little bit more blunt? Chris, you’ve got great insights, but you’re taking up too much time. Great. Thank you. In the future, please be blunt with me.” And didn’t have to have another conversation after that.

 

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