The Art of Listening
Over the course of this past school year, I have shared carefully-worded anecdotes about the trials and tribulations of the youngsters in my life who are struggling with their impending graduation. That date is less than one month away at this point, and those of us on educational teams teaching these young adults are focused almost exclusively on getting them out the door in one piece, so to speak. The challenges that come with being a high-functioning autistic adult only become more prevalent with age—or if they do not increase in number, then surely the same cannot be said for intensity. The stakes are as high as they’re likely to get.
Students in my little corner of the world have spent the better part of the first two decades of their lives in educational settings, and now, as the song says, the end is near. As such, perhaps some advice from one older but by no means wiser is in order! Based on the struggles I have borne witness to in the past nine months, I would venture to say that the art of listening is one that perhaps has not been adequately developed by many of my students. My fellow teachers and I have spent countless hours talking to certain young people—almost all seniors who are now weeks from graduation—and are left with the distinct sense that we would have been just as well off to find a brick wall and bang our heads against it. In the focus of my department—Career Education, teaching employability skills—we target communication, to be sure. But I don’t know that we have spent nearly enough time addressing the art of being an active listener. And now, with the second week in June coming up fast, time’s up. With 30 or so school days to go before my students don their caps and gowns, it may very well be too late to start seeing what can be done to fine-tune this vital skill before that walk down the aisle towards the diploma.
Listening, really listening, seems to involve shutting off the running commentary in the brain. I cannot help but wonder how much useful information and advice I have missed in my 20-something years of adulthood because I was so busy allowing my rigid, all-or-nothing mental focus push out any chance of letting new (or not-so-new) and probably very useful information and advice seep in through the cracks. In my humble experience, we on the “higher-functioning” end of the autism spectrum spend an awful lot of time shoring up our defenses. We can’t possibly be actively listening to advice when we are busy planning counter-arguments. For me, actively listening has truly come to mean shutting down that running commentary for as long as I possibly can, because I know now how much useful, probably in some cases life-altering, information I have walled out in the interest of protecting myself against the world. I believe that’s what is going on for some of my students this spring. The thoughts of what comes next are so completely overwhelming that they protect themselves by not allowing the reality to seep through the cracks. But the stakes are too high to keep shoring up those defenses. As adults, the need to listen and take to heart the wisdom of those who have gone before, the wisdom of those who care about us, and in some cases, love us, is paramount for success on any meaningful level. I wish I had understood that 20 years ago, just as I wish I had understood how not being able to listen when it came to conversations about my own well-being was only hurting myself.
So as I like to say when trying to get the attention of the group: Okay ladies and gentleman, boys and girls, time to be grown-ups! Like it or not, there is pomp and circumstance in your immediate future, and if you can take the time to figure out what we mean when we say “Listen” then life will be so much less-complicated—dare I actually say, easier?—than you could ever imagine.
Good luck, kiddos. Remember, as I wish I had, that your parents and teachers really, really do have your best interests at heart, we know how scared you are because we have all been there. Let us help when we can by listening to what we have to say before deciding if we really do know what we are talking about! The results may just surprise you.