Active Listening

The term “active listening” wasn’t used during my grandmother’s time. It would be coined by a later generation. However, she was far better at it than I doubt I’ll ever be.

I am living on the autism spectrum. I was first awakened to the possibility on my job as a substitute teacher’s assistant where I often spend time with children who live on the spectrum. Upon learning I was on the spectrum, too, I have been going down memory lane, replaying moments in my life and how they relate to my diagnosis.

One of those memories is one of the few I have of my grandmother who was “Ma” to me, my siblings and cousins. The memory is of a visit with Ma at her farm in Oklahoma. It was just the two of us in her living room. She was in her rocking chair and I was on the couch. For a change, I was the one doing most of the talking. My talking a mile a minute was a seldom occurrence.

Replaying this memory with the knowledge of my diagnosis, I understand why this moment with Ma was etched in my memory. As someone on the spectrum, I do not crave being amidst a group. Instead I thrive on time alone or one-on-one with someone I feel at home with. On that afternoon decades ago, I had a grown-up’s undivided attention. I didn’t have to raise my hand or do anything else to grab her attention. I treasure that brief encounter when I had Ma all to myself. Perhaps on that day we met for the first time.

Ma received a rundown on my life as a first grader. She got the details of my survival with measles followed by chicken pox. I probably showed off my chicken pox scars. When I claimed to have had eight boyfriends, she took me at my word. Well, maybe it was only five, I’m not sure. I had a wild imagination as a kid and still do.

Ma had a certain way of listening that made me feel as if I was on equal footing with her. She didn’t talk down or above me. With all her years of life experience, I couldn’t have told her anything she didn’t know. But she acted as if I was the first person who ever told her what it is like to be broken out all over with the measles.

Active listening is not high on my list of strengths. It is more near the bottom. Even with talking to just one person, I am often thinking of what I want to say whenever I can get a word in edgewise. In a group of three or more, I’m even worse. The discussion, especially if the topic is of no interest to me, sounds like static noise on a radio. Half of me is in the real world pretending to listen while the other half is in daydream land. I step in and out of both worlds. Sometimes I do catch myself rocking back and forth as if I was sitting in a rocking chair like Ma’s.

Ma gifted me that afternoon with “active listening”. I suppose it is one of the nicest gifts you can give someone, including those of us who live on the spectrum. A time-out from having to fight for attention which I seldom put up a fight for. A time, instead, to be heard by someone who cared enough to perhaps even pretend that what I was saying was absolutely fascinating!


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