Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Listening and Autism: Why It Appears That People With Autism Do Not Hear

"I listen to everyone. In order to survive, I have to pay attention to everything that is said. I have to be prepared for anything that might happen. I am listening even when others do not know I am listening. I pretend I am not listening because it would be too harmful to me to let others know I can understand. Their expectations would be too much because they may expect me to react in a certain way. I cannot react. My body will not let me. Looking stupid is too embarrassing. I am too smart to look stupid. I cannot tolerate others' expectations because their expectations may have nothing to do with me or what my needs are. I also do not let others know I hear everything because I need to develop on my own. That is my rule and I have to live that way. If I let others know I understand than they may guess something is wrong with me and that I am trying to become a person. If they found this out, I would be devastated and embarrassed. I will continue to listen to everything and continue to learn and grow on my own. I just can't let others know this because they may stop my forward movement."

What is this autistic boy telling us? He is telling us that he can hear everything that is said, but he cannot let others know that he can hear. He is afraid that if they knew he could hear that they would have expectations that he could not meet. He is also afraid that their expectations will be more about them and their needs and not about his needs. Furthermore, he is concerned that his body will also not let him react to others. This probably goes back to his fear that he cannot use words to explain his dilemma. He also feels that he needs to develop on his own without the help of others. If he lets others close, he is afraid that he will be misunderstood and that they will stop his development and forward movement.

This autistic boy has never lost his ability to listen and hear. He cannot let others' know this because he lacks an attachment and thus cannot trust that anyone can understand his predicament. From my perspective, he does not let others know he can hear because it is too dangerous to be that vulnerable. One develops the ability to be vulnerable with others through the attachment process. This autistic boy is left with an 'Incomplete Attachment,' which does not allow him to trust enough to allow him to be seen. To let others know that he can hear is too vulnerable of a position for him.

Another way to think about his inability to demonstrate his listening ability is to explain it as an aspect of dissociation. It is not that he does not want to listen and hear what is being said, but that aspect of him has been dissociated. This means he literally does not have the ability to show this part of him. As he develops a relationship with another person and attaches, he will slowly be able to be vulnerable and show this aspect of himself.

What can we do about this as caregivers and professionals? The following are some suggestions:
1) it is important to realize that the person with autism is living in a bind that he cannot rectify on his own,
2) his hearing and ability to listen are intact,
3) let him know that you know this, but at the same time do not expect a response from him,
4) he is not in a psychological position to be able to show his emotions. If he was, he would not be autistic,
5) treat him as if he understands everything,
6) it is through one's understanding of his predicament that the child can eventually show his feelings,
7) remember that he cannot access parts of himself to tell you how he feels, and
8) finally keep the faith that through your understanding he will be able to develop an attachment and ultimately grow and develop.

Karen Savlov is a psychoanalyst and Marriage and Family Therapist with a private practice in West Los Angeles, California. My specialty is Autism Spectrum Disorders, anger, dissociation, depression, anxiety and relationships. For new and creative ways to think about autism read and follow my blog at I can also be followed on Twitter at Autism Thoughts.

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