We live in the age of communication. There are many forms of communication, but paramount to the development of individual sovereignty and a true sense of agency is communication by means of language, both spoken and written. Many of us take this ability, and the right to employ it, for granted. The right to unhindered and accessible communication ensures us, as humans, the ability to direct our own lives, share our unique perspectives, express our emotions, and develop meaningful relationships. The degree to which we employ mindful communication is in direct relationship to our growth as a society. As important as verbal communication is to the development of the self and society, equally as important is the ability to listen; what use is verbal communication if there is no engaged listener to receive it? This is what we will explore today.
My son Jackson is a 16-year-old non/minimally speaking autistic teenager who communicates by typing on a keyboard or spelling on a laminate board (aka “a speller”). Jackson’s been a speller for 7+ years and is fluent in his communications through use of a letterboard and keyboard. Jackson and I have always shared a special bond and, prior to our journey into Spelling to Communicate (S2C), I always saw him as a kindhearted, intelligent, cognitive human with a larger-than-life persona. Our bond was forged through intimate communications without the use of language. For the opportunity to develop that unique, quiet relationship I am eternally grateful; but S2C was a game changer. When Jackson learned to spell he didn’t waste any time. What ensued was an explosion of thoughts and feelings which quickly uncovered the personality of a fierce, compassionate and highly gifted person with a wisdom which confounded me at every word. To listen to Jackson was my new favorite thing to do. To this day there is nothing I would rather do than listen to the thoughts of a speller, as their perspectives are so unique and thoughtful, they reveal insights into our nature as humans and our society in ways which no one else can. This is how society grows and evolves. But first, we must listen.
Over the past 7 years I have witnessed people engage Jackson in dialogue in a variety of ways; some of which are helpful to the flow of communication, and some of which hinders communication. As people communicating through this unique medium, we need to always strive to improve its efficiency and effectiveness. After years of observations in this area, now is the time to open a dialogue on the subject. So, without further ado, let us get to the meat of the article, the dos and don’ts of listening to a speller.
DO engage spellers in meaningful conversation. A speller with access to means of communication will appreciate the opportunity to enter into a conversation with you. Should they be busy, they’ll let you know.
DON’T engage in conversation with a speller if you don’t have time to listen to their response. Thoughtful conversations start with making the time and space to communicate. The number of times I’ve witnessed someone ask Jackson a question and walk away is baffling. If there is no intent to start a two-way dialogue, don’t start one.
DO give spellers time to get on their letterboards/keyboards. If a speller doesn’t immediately begin to reciprocate communication, don’t assume they do not intend to. Remember that spellers in conversational situations are limited to how much they can say. Most spellers can say more in a sentence than most of us can say in a paragraph. That is no surprise as these folks have learned how to make every word count, given the effort required to spell and the time restrictions they often face in conversational situations. This means that the speller you are talking to may be taking a moment to carefully consider their response to you before jumping on their letterboard.
DON’T assume that a speller is done after one sentence. How often are you done speaking after one sentence? Allow a speller to finish their thought and please do not interrupt.
DO stay engaged in the conversation through active listening while the speller is typing. Many times, people will acknowledge that Jackson is typing to add to a conversation but will continue speaking while he types. This also holds true when someone asks Jackson a question. They may ask him a question and then start another “side conversation” while he is typing (or sometimes walk away and come back for the answer). This is not listening. Yes, it takes spellers a minute or two to spell, but are we so focused on speaking that we cannot take a moment to sink into a conversation and truly listen? Be attentive. We talk all the time. Give spellers the floor for as long as they need and listen to them. Consider the frustration of crafting an eloquent conversational point only to realize that it is no longer relevant as the conversation has already moved on. Also consider how the speller will feel rushed to complete their thought so that it is still relevant by the time it is complete. Stop what you are doing and wait until the speller is done.
DON’T tell a fluent speller how to answer (fluent meaning that the speller has developed the ability to express themselves fluently on their chosen device). “Tell me yes or no”, “in one sentence”, “only about this…” or “without…” are completely unacceptable. These people have fought for the right to communicate and put a great deal of effort into their communications with you. Don’t tell them what to say and how to say it.
DO understand that a speller only speaks so much in one day. For every thousand words you speak, maybe they speak one. Have patience and give them the opportunity to verbalize their thoughts; you get to do that all the time.
DON’T assume a speller doesn’t understand your question if they do not directly answer it. Maybe they don’t care to answer it or have something else they wish to discuss.
DO your job. Most spellers need a Communication and Regulation Partner (CRP). Whether you are paid to perform this function or are a friend or family member of a speller, when engaged as a CRP your job is to help facilitate communication for your speller. This means that you should not be engaged in conversation or using your phone, rather you should be acting as an extension of your speller so that you can intuitively anticipate when your speller needs use of their letterboard/keyboard. I do understand that this line can become blurred when you are a friend or family member of a speller. I use a simple rule.
If I am with Jackson in a social circumstance which he is prime (where I would not be there otherwise), I do not say anything other than what Jackson is typing (as best as I can) or to communicate directly with him. I follow him around and anticipate when he needs his letterboard and make it quickly available.
If we are socializing together, such as with family and friends, while I do get involved in conversations, I ensure I am attentive to Jackson and allow opportunities for him to engage into conversations as well. I prioritize his communication over mine, but this is a personal preference.
DO help facilitate communication in public. As CRPs we need to have the courage to present our speller with their letterboard/keyboard in all circumstances. This means in situations where it may not be convenient for others. We live in a fast-paced world and sometimes it may seem rude to whip out the letterboard for your speller to order in a busy restaurant, or at the coffee shop with a line around the corner, but it’s not. Not only should you allow your speller the opportunity to spell in the real world, but you should also allow them to communicate thoughts and feelings so that they may forge bonds with people in the community. Jackson often gives tons of props to CRPs for the work that they do. As CRPs we need to be willing to evolve and grow our support to our spellers. Take a risk. I often tell Jackson that the most effective advocacy is to put himself out into the world and be himself. By sharing who he is through meaningful communications with other people, he is changing the hearts and minds of communities one person at a time. As a CRP you are part of this grassroots campaign of awareness, so have courage and take pride in your role as a CRP, your speller appreciates it!
There is a lot more to be discussed on the “protocols of S2C communication” and I hope that as a community we begin that conversation. In part 2 we will hear directly from Jackson as to his experience with using S2C and his thoughts on how we can continue to foster a clear and mutually respectful communication between spellers and speaker,
As I have found with our gifted spellers, we are again being given an opportunity to draw parallels between our communications with them and our communications with each other. How is it that we can be more attentive when listening to each other? Do we ask questions which we know people won’t have the time to answer meaningfully? Is our communication thoughtful and centered on the intention of a two-way dialogue? Perhaps by exploring ways to better our communications with our speller community, we will also discover ways in which we can better communicate with each other.
About the Author
By Ben Khabra in dedication to the development of compassionate communication