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  • Writer's pictureJackson McMahan

How Autistic Individuals Can Improve Active Listening Skills

Updated: May 15

By guest writer Jackson McMahan


Communication challenges are often synonymous with autism. Among these, active listening stands out as an important skill many autistic individuals struggle with.


Active listening isn't just about hearing words. It's about understanding and interpreting them in real-time, and making the person you are listening to feel heard.


It’s a critical skill for effective communication and building meaningful relationships, and challenges with this skill can negatively impact an individual's quality of life.

two people having a conversation with good active listening

There are a number of reasons active listening is particularly challenging for autistic individuals. They may be overwhelmed by background noises, misinterpret nonverbal cues, take things too literally, or spend so much time worrying about their social "performance," they can't focus on what the other person is saying.


While active listening challenges can be daunting, they are fortunately not insurmountable. Like any struggle autistic individuals face, problems with active listening can be overcome by using the right strategies for them.


Understanding Active Listening

Active listening is about more than just the act of hearing words spoken to us. It's a holistic approach to communication that covers not only auditory processing but also comprehension, empathy, and response.


At its core, active listening is about fully concentrating, understanding, responding, and remembering what the speaker is saying. It’s about focusing on the speaker’s words, showing appropriate body language, and staying engaged in the wider conversation.


The Components of Active Listening:

Concentration: Focusing solely on the speaker, avoiding distractions both external (like noises) and internal (like our own thoughts).


Comprehension: Understanding the message, both verbal and nonverbal, that the speaker is trying to convey.


Response: Providing feedback to the speaker, whether it's a nod, a question, or a verbal acknowledgment.


Memory: Retaining the information for future reference, which might involve summarizing or taking notes.


Common Challenges in Active Listening for Autistic Individuals

two people conversing at a coffee shop amidst distractions

For many, active listening comes naturally; however, for some autistic individuals, this process isn’t as easy to grasp. The reasons for this are complex. Some might find it hard to concentrate on the conversation while others might struggle to interpret the conversation’s emotional undertones.


Regardless of the reasons, the end result is that active listening is another communication skill individuals on the spectrum cannot always effortlessly master. Although the experience of autism varies among individuals on the spectrum, several shared obstacles tend to arise when attempting to actively listen, including the following:


Sensory Sensitivities

Many autistic individuals have heightened sensory sensitivities. Sometimes these sensitivities can cause background noises like the hum of an air conditioner, multiple overlapping conversations, or even the ticking of a clock to become overpowering.


Other sensory sensitivities that can be distracting include bright lights, itchy clothing, and strong smells. These sensitivities make focusing on a single conversation more difficult by becoming so overpowering that they distract the autistic individual trying to listen to the other speaker.


Difficulty in Interpreting Nonverbal Cues

Nonverbal communication, such as facial expressions, gestures, and posture, often conveys as much information as words, if not more. Some autistic individuals might struggle to interpret these cues, which causes them to miss the emotional context or underlying messages.


Tone of voice can also be an issue because autistic individuals may not always understand a comment's tone. For example, some autistic individuals may take a sarcastic comment literally despite the sarcasm not being meant to be taken seriously.


Literal Thinking

Speaking of literal thinking, idioms, metaphors, and other figurative expressions can be confusing for some autistic individuals. They may take phrases like "break a leg" or "it's raining cats and dogs'' at face value. This results in misunderstandings that could cause an autistic individual to be confused about what the speaker is saying.


Cognitive Processing Speed

Some autistic individuals might process verbal information at a different pace. They might need a few extra moments to understand and formulate a response, which can be mistaken for inattentiveness or disinterest.


Strategies to Improve Active Listening Skills

two people doing active listening in a quiet environment

Overcoming active listening challenges requires a combination of self-awareness, practice, and the right tools and techniques. Here are some strategies to address the specific challenges mentioned above.


Choose a Quieter Setting

If possible, opt for quieter settings for important conversations. This could mean moving to a less crowded room, closing doors, or even meeting during quieter times of the day.


Use Techniques to Stay Focused

Mindfulness exercises, such as deep breathing or grounding techniques, can help autistic individuals stay present during conversations, reducing the likelihood of getting lost in their own thoughts.


You can also try creating a picture in your mind of the words you hear. For example, if someone is talking about a trip they took to the grocery store and how crowded the parking lot was, you can visualize in your head what they were experiencing. This not only helps you focus because you have to listen carefully to the words to understand well enough to create a picture, but the image can also actually help you create meaning from the words and better understand what the speaker is saying.


Seek Clarification

If something is unclear, it's okay to ask the speaker to rephrase or provide more context. This not only ensures you understand what they’re saying but also shows the speaker that you're genuinely engaged or at least want to understand the topic at hand. Open-ended questions can also help you gain a deeper understanding of the topic and can guide the conversation in a more structured manner.


Work on Improving Your Nonverbal Skills

There are many resources, from books to online courses to autism life coaches, that you can leverage to better understand the basics of body language. Familiarizing oneself with common gestures, postures, facial expressions, and tone of voice can help you better comprehend nonverbal cues.


Use Assistive Technology on Zoom Meetings

For those who benefit from visual aids, transcription apps can convert spoken words into text, allowing for easier processing. Certain apps can enhance voice clarity and reduce background noise during calls or meetings so conversations are clearer.


Use Positive Body Language

Although eye contact can be daunting for autistic individuals, it is an important part of active listening when speaking with someone more neurotypical. When you are looking at the speaker, you are sending the message you are interested in what they are saying because you are making them the center of your focus.


Looking at the speaker’s eyes and overall facial expressions is also useful because you can collect information that gives you important clues to how they are feeling about the topic they are talking about. Other examples of positive body language include nodding your head, smiling, saying "uh huh" occasionally, and leaning forward slightly toward the person who is speaking.


Sometimes though, autistic people spend so much cognitive bandwidth trying to meet these expectations through their "social performance," they literally have nothing left to actually listen and comprehend what the person is saying, which completely defeats the purpose. If this describes you, it's best if at all possible to explain something like, "I know it looks like I'm not listening, but I can actually comprehend what you are saying better this way."

three females arm in arm facing a flower garden and providing each other support

Seeking Support and Skills Training

While personal strategies and leveraging inherent strengths are important, external support can also play a key role in enhancing an autistic individual’s active listening skills. Here are some ways one can seek assistance and training for active listening skills:


Speech and Language Therapists

These professionals, if they work with adults, can often provide tailored training sessions, focusing on the specific challenges faced by the individual. This can include exercises to improve verbal comprehension, nonverbal cue interpretation, and response formulation. Regular sessions can help track progress, adjust strategies, and provide constructive feedback, ensuring continuous improvement.


Autism Life Coaches

Some of the coaches at Thrive Autism Coaching are skilled at teaching clients how to improve their active listening skills. We offer a complimentary consultation to explore whether we might be the right fit for you! You can schedule your consultation here.


Supportive Friends and Family

Practicing active listening in a safe and understanding environment can boost confidence. Friends and family can provide this space, offering patience, feedback, and encouragement. Engaging in mock conversations with loved ones can help practice and refine active listening skills. It's a low-pressure setting where mistakes are opportunities for learning.

supportive friends sitting in a hammock together

Encouraging open communication about challenges and needs can ensure that both parties are on the same page. For instance, if an autistic individual needs a moment to process information, self-advocating by expressing this need can prevent misinterpretations.


Conclusion

Active listening is a cornerstone of effective communication. It helps with creating meaningful connections, understanding others, and being understood. For autistic individuals, although mastering this skill may present unique challenges, it's important to remember that these challenges are not insurmountable roadblocks. Instead, they are hurdles that can be overcome with persistence, self-awareness, the right strategies, and a supportive environment.


The key to becoming a skilled active listener is persistence, self-awareness, and a willingness to seek support when needed. It’s addressing challenges head-on so active listening isn’t a constant annoyance during social interactions. By using these methods, autistic individuals can not only enhance their active listening skills but also enrich their interpersonal encounters.


In a world where genuine connections can be rare, the ability to actively listen and engage can be an important skill. Whether you're an autistic individual aiming to improve your communication or someone supporting a loved one, embrace the process, and remember that every effort is a step toward one day being able to more deeply understand and connect with others.

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