Autistic Listening: you cannot tell if I am paying attention

Most of the time, you cannot tell if I am paying attention.

That’s not to say that I am always paying attention. There’s a very solid chance that I am not, but if I am, it might not be outwardly obvious.

I might be looking the wrong way (I’m certainly not making eye contact), I might appear to be focused on something else (especially if there’s some form of movement, like a tree swaying in the wind), I might even be playing a game on my iPad.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not listening; in fact, most of the above things help me listen.

You see, sometimes, English doesn’t sound like English. The syllables make their way into my ears, but by the time they get to my brain (or once they’re in my brain), they turn into a jumbled mess. I’m sure that some might have this as an additional diagnosis of Central Auditory Processing Disorder – but I personally don’t, and just consider it as part of my sensory processing relating to Autism.

But regardless, I can hear the words, and words should make sense to me, but they simply don’t. This isn’t constant, and I’m sure a lot of you can relate to me when I say it depends on a lot of factors.

Say, if I am trying to make eye contact, words go out the window. They make no sense. Ditto if there’s a lot of background noise, or if I’m busily trying to type out a response on my AAC.

But it’s easier for me to understand you when I’m doing something that takes a small amount of my concentration – say, for example, doing an easy Sudoku (most are easy now, I’m very good), or fidgeting, or stimming in some other form.

So often, it doesn’t look like I’m listening, but I am listening.

And this means I get left out of so many conversations.

I get spoken for in so many conversations.

I am made to feel like my voice doesn’t matter.

Just because I am listening in a way that is not acceptable to neurotypical listening.

Yet, I am listening. I’m listening, trying to figure out if I can join the conversation (do I have something clever to say? Something relevant? A fact, maybe?), and then people are surprised when I suddenly interject. They shouldn’t be. I’m sitting right here.

It seems as though, just because I’m not looking you in the eye, or even at your face, or at the object you happen to be discussing, that I am automatically dismissed. That I do not want to be in the conversation. But more often than not – I do. I do still want to be a part of it, I just need my communication needs met where they are.

Will you meet me?

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9 Responses

  1. This is completely me. But I am in my 50s and no one has ever diagnosed me with autism, just anxiety and depression. I have the exact problem with my eyes. People don’t seem to understand that I have trouble with eye contact and I just can’t listen good when I try.

    1. Yep, with the neuronormative being the majority they by definition rule & if your neurodivergence needs something other, then they hold that your neurodivergence is wrong and frankly your very existence as a person is wrong.

  2. I used to knit, through my classes in University. In a group session, a classmate called me on my knitting: “not paying attention”. In shock, I explained that the only thing holding my mind in that room was my knitting! Otherwise my brain had a strong tendency to take off and would miss everything. Her husband would get annoyed because she did not hear him when she was knitting: the difference, I think, was that I was in the classroom to be in the classroom and the knitting was a tool to keep me there; She was knitting to knit and intrusive words were not necessarily heard; might even have been unwelcome? That was before I became seriously APD after being poisoned by toxins in carpeting and/or the glue. The time it took to walk up one flight of stairs caused brain differences that plague me to this day, some of which are common to those who are ND.

  3. Thanks for writing this! For me, watching leaves in the wind or any type of flicker of sunlight is the best way to process and understand those jumbled saxophone sounds that are actually people talking!

  4. You know what’s really ridiculous about this? This sort of “conversation out of nowhere” shows up all the time in movies, and yet NTs are unprepared for that happening in real life. It’s like they don’t even realize that’s a real thing. But people can get used to that and learn to respond to that – if they realize it’s a real thing. And let people know if they’d rather not have someone interject from an adjoining room (or a different desk) unless it’s an emergency.

  5. This spoke to me in so many ways. And it breaks my heart it has to be this way for others. Why others can’t understand even when I try to explain and describe it.
    Im a nursing studing and Im struggling with the teachers and it’s tearing me apart lately. It’s gotten to a point where they are making me feel like im dumb or even a psych patient myself due to my communication skills . Or lack of them when Im under pressure… It makes me so sad. Ive been hurt and uderestimated sooo many times. Bullied by them.
    They say It’s an excuse. (And my seizures too.)
    They always say to “put yourself in the shoes of others” but they themselves cannot do it.

  6. Thank you for writing this, my son of 13 is autistic and all this make me understand so much better, I hope that one day he will also find his way in this world where being different is still being frowned upon.

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