When I told Jennie’s mother that, in my opinion, autism is the most extreme form of non-listening, her response was: “but the first thing we did when we detected a problem was to get Jennie’s hearing tested, and it came out perfectly normal”. Then I asked why she had Jennie’s hearing tested in the first place. “Because”, she said, “Jennie was acting as if she was deaf: she didn’t respond to her name, she never babbled and she never started talking. Then she began to display extreme sensitivity to certain noises such as the buzz of a vacuum cleaner, and now she is disturbed by the barking of a dog so far away that I have a hard time hearing it. At the same time, she enjoys her music blasting. I don’t understand her!” Jennie’s behavior is confusing because hearing and listening are two different things. Poor listening often manifests itself as hearing too much of what one does not need and not enough of what is important. In that respect, there is some consistency in what appears contradictory at first. To have a clearer idea of what I am talking about, let’s have a closer look at what listening is.
Attuning. Listening is the ability to attune to the sound messages we need and to leave out – or protect ourselves from – unnecessary or unwanted information. The attuning function of listening plays a fundamental role in auditory processing and attention span, both essential to the acquisition of receptive language which is deficient in autism.
Protection. A critical flaw of ‘autistic listening’ is the inability of these children to “tune out” or protect themselves from unnecessary background noise. This protection issue, which has to be seen in the more general context of a sensory regulation problem, is probably the most disabling aspect of autism. Unable to defend herself, the child is constantly over-stimulated and overwhelmed by outside stimuli which keep startling and ‘aggressing’ her. Hypersensitivity to sound and tactile defensiveness, so common in autism, are two aspects of this protection issue. The only option left to the child is to build up a sensory shell and to lock herself in it. The problem is that this state of isolation creates a barrier for communication and learning.