A Sensitive Ear

They say he is autistic. When his parents first told me that this was what the specialists had determined, I was skeptical. I knew what autism was, and had even been around autistic children before, particularly during a time when I was relief teaching, and spent a period of time in the special education class when one of the teachers had to take extended leave.

I was not resistant to the specialists’ determination because of a rejection of autistic people in general, but because I felt that the term did not fit. Of course, when that is the case, one cannot help but worry that the term will define him in the future, perhaps even limiting his options.

His mother told me that it was not quite accurate, though, to say “he is autistic,” but that the correct way of looking at it was that “he tests on the autistic spectrum.” In fact, autism isn’t a monolithic, generic condition, but a broad term used to indicate that an individual has certain challenges that are specific to her or him.

Even hearing this, I could not help but think of what I knew about autism and note the ways in which he did not fit the definition as I understood it. For instance, the first thing most people will think of when they hear “autistic” is a person who cannot communicate, perhaps not even talk, and who does not form relationships well. But this boy was not at all like that. In fact, he is (and was) extremely affectionate, often hugging and kissing those he is close to and saying sweetly, “I love you.” And he speaks well – and a lot! That, to me, did not at all seem to fit the definition of autism.

His mother explained that the specialists had pointed to two areas of challenges that typified his autism, a tendency toward repetitive speech and actions, and a hypersensitivity in some of his five senses, while being under-sensitive in other senses. These things rang true for this boy. He loves to read the same books over and over, and his favourite book when he was small was a picture dictionary with about 1000 words. He would go through cover to cover, asking “What is this?” then naming each picture in turn. While all children do this to some degree, it was particularly pronounced in him. He had a very long attention span, sometimes even “reading” the same picture dictionary for an hour at a time.

While his repetitive behaviours were most obvious, the other indicator, the heightening of some senses and dampening of others, was more telling for me. I realised that he seems to have no sense of smell, but that his hearing is especially good. In fact, he can get quite irritated with sounds that others don’t even notice. Like the time we were having lunch and he asked, getting rather upset, “Why is that man talking with a microphone?” I had not noticed it until he asked, but it was true that there was a single voice that was slightly louder than the general sounds of conversation rumbling about the restaurant. The slightly louder than average voice was making the boy quite agitated, even though the rest of us had not even noticed it until he pointed it out.

As I reflected on this particular exchange, I recalled an earlier conversation I had had with him when he was younger. He had asked me to “read his cards” with him, handing me a set of flashcards, each of which had a picture in the centre, then the name of the object written in both English and Chinese across the top. When he showed me the first, a picture of a hat, his mother asked, “Do you know how to say it in Chinese?” He said, “帽子 (maozi).”

He showed me the next card and said,”This is a cat.”

“How do you say it in Chinese?” I asked.

He said, “猫 (mao).”

With the next card, he said, “Car.”

“How do you say it in Chinese?”

“车 (che).”

“Flower.”

“How do you say it in Chinese?”

“花 (hua).”

“Boat.”

“How do you say it in Chinese?”

His mother said, “He doesn’t know that one.”

His expression immediately changed. It was evident he was hurt and angry. He glared at his mother and said, “船 (chuan).”

His mother and I praised him, and he quickly cheered up. His mother asked him, “Where did you learn that? I didn’t teach you.”

He replied, “I heard it.”

Thinking about it, I realise he often learned things this way, just hearing them and absorbing them, without ever needing to be taught formally. While there were many things he might not be able to pick up quickly – such as tying his shoes, writing by hand, and other similar things relying on his motor skills – he was able to learn many things just because his hearing was exceptionally good.

I am very grateful for what I have learned from this boy. He is not defined by autism, but has redefined for me what autism really means. It is simply a condition in which there are some things he does not do as quickly or naturally as others generally do. On the other hand, he has many skills, and some things come much more easily to him than they do to others because of his heightened awareness of some things most people overlook, particularly sounds. This enables him to absorb certain things almost instinctively. It also means the world looks slightly different to him than it does to me, since his perception of the world is more weighted toward his heightened senses, and less weighted toward others.

But then, isn’t everyone’s view of the world uniquely his or her own? For this boy, his autism makes his uniqueness a little more obvious than usual, but he is really just like everyone else, taking in the world through his own unique perspectives. Sometimes, it gives him a real advantage over the rest of us, because he hears things we miss, giving him a chance not only to learn things more easily by ear, but also to see beauty we might overlook altogether. Through him, I have learned that autism is not so much a disability as it is a special view of the world that comes with a unique set of gifts and challenges for the individual. I am glad that he has redefined the term for me, and that he has allowed me to hear the world through his exceptionally sensitive ears, from time to time.

This is a reprint of work originally published in 联合早报.

Shelly Bryant divides her year between Shanghai and Singapore, working as a poet, writer, and translator. She is the author of eight volumes of poetry (Alban Lake and Math Paper Press), a pair of travel guides for the cities of Suzhou and Shanghai (Urbanatomy), and a book on classical Chinese gardens (Hong Kong University Press). She has translated work from the Chinese for Penguin Books, Epigram Books, the National Library Board in Singapore, Giramondo Books, and Rinchen Books. Shelly’s poetry has appeared in journals, magazines, and websites around the world, as well as in several art exhibitions. Her translation of Sheng Keyi’s Northern Girls was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2012, and her translation of You Jin’s In Time, Out of Place was shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize in 2016. You can visit her website at https://shellybryant.com.

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