I came across this blog post today: On Failing Kindergarten. The author, an autistic adult, explains why she would fail special ed kindergarten based on their “Whole Body Listening” requirements as depicted on this poster, which is apparently popular in those classrooms:
Take a look at all the requirements for listening correctly. It’s not enough to just listen, as in: hear what the other person is saying and process it. You also have to make eye contact, keep silent, keep your hands still and in one of three acceptable places, keep your feet on the floor, turn your body in the right direction, make your brain think about the words, and CARE.
Are neurotypical students held to these standards? I don’t remember all these rules for listening in kindergarten. I know that if I had been told I HAD to CARE about what my teacher was saying, I would have been in trouble a lot.
This poster sets up autistic kids for failure in many ways. Not only is it a lot to remember every time someone talks to you, but 1) it asks the impossible, 2) it sets up the child for ridicule by NT peers, and 3) it completely disregards the legitimate ways in which autistic kids DO listen and seems to be unaware that these requirements are contrary to their goal. More on each of those:
1) It asks the impossible. You can’t force yourself to care about what someone is saying to you. Remembering that autistic kids tend to be very literal, think about what they may feel at being told they MUST care, while knowing that sometimes they don’t care. Right away they have failed.
Thinking about what is being said while listening to it is often impossible too. Not all brains process at the same speed. If I told my son that he had to think about my words WHILE he was listening to me, he’d think I was crazy. First he takes in the words, then he processes/makes sense of them, THEN (if he’s at all interested in what I said) he thinks about them.
2) It sets up the child for ridicule. Again, remember that autistic kids tend to be literal. Now imagine an autistic kid among NT peers, trying to show that he is listening correctly by always turning his body to the speaker, looking him in the eye, and not moving. Is that how kids listen to each other? In kindergarten or at any age? What about adults? Pay attention the next time you are listening to someone. Are your hands and feet still? Are you making constant eye contact? Do you remain completely silent (or do you maybe throw in an “uh huh” or “I see” once in a while)? While these rules for listening may, theoretically, result in cooperative little students in a classroom setting, they give the child nothing practical to apply elsewhere.
3) It disregards the ways in which autistic kids DO listen. My son looks at me when he is talking to me, and looks away when he is listening. He listens best when he is pacing and/or rubbing his hands together. He would never be able to follow all these rules AND listen at the same time, and he’s way past kindergarten.
This concept actually falls into the first category as well: asking the impossible. Many autistic kids simply can’t listen and make eye contact at the same time. Some can’t listen unless they are moving. Some may appear to be doing everything “right” with their feet on the floor, their hands at their sides, their bodies turned toward the speaker… but they’ve used up all their tokens on managing all that and have none left for actual listening.
I consider my son lucky that he was not subjected to that poster and others like it. My visit to the junior high classroom for ASD kids when Nick was in 7th grade led me to insist that he not be part of that class. The walls were covered with posters listing all the rules and requirements the kids must remember in order to appear as neurotypical as possible. It left Karla, who was with me, feeling like they were telling her she was lesser, even subhuman, if she did not do things their way or think like they do. She talked about it here and here.
If a secure adult feels this way after one hour in an autism classroom, imagine what kids feel like after years of this sort of training. They hear constantly that their way is wrong, but they know that they literally can’t do it the “right” way. If they manage to give the appearance of following these rules, they are likely to be laughed at outside of the classroom.
I’ve heard from many, many autistic adults that this kind of social skills training left them feeling hopeless, disrespected, and down on themselves. Many did their best to follow the rules they were taught only to burn out in adulthood. Teaching autistic kids to act like they’re not autistic, to “pass” as neurotypical, seems to be the goal of this kind of training, but it comes at a tremendous cost to these children.
I choose to teach advocacy instead, and to lobby for acceptance. Nick has access to the special ed teachers at his school and can go to them if he wants their advice, but he is never forced to be in the autism classroom with all of its “your way is wrong” messages. The primary goal of his IEP is advocacy, so every time he asks a teacher for support or accommodation, they can claim measurable progress. He learns from autistic mentors how to advocate for his own legitimate way of being, and spends time with autistic peers in their own unique culture. He demonstrates fine social skills naturally while hanging out with people who share his special interests.
I don’t want Nick to learn to stand still while listening. I want him to learn to say, “I need to pace so I can listen to you.” I want the people in his life to accept that, and we are working on it, one person at a time.