The Problem(s) with "Listening" Larry
In too many special education classrooms across the U.S., you’re likely to find a poster titled “Whole Body Listening!” that features a cartoon child named Larry pointing to illustrations of different parts of the body and explaining how he wants you to use them to listen. He wants you to look at the person talking to you with your eyes, use both of your ears to hear, keep your mouth quiet (no talking, humming, or other sounds), keep your hands quiet in your lap or by your side, make sure your feet are quiet on the floor, and turn your body so you’re facing the speaker. Lastly, Larry wants your brain to be thinking about what’s being said and your heart to care about what the other person is saying.
Oof. We’re sure that this poster was created with good intentions, but it comes across as incredibly ableist. Most of us can immediately count several things on this poster that don’t come easily to our kiddos. The biggest issue, of course, is that Listening Larry doesn’t acknowledge that everyone communicates differently, especially those with autism, and that’s okay! For children with autism, making eye contact and sitting quietly with their feet on the floor and their hands in their lap can be incredibly difficult or impossible, but that doesn’t mean they're not capable of listening in a respectful way. (For more on this, see our piece on Rethinking Stimming.)
A blogger at Parenting Autistic Children With Love and Acceptance posted about the problem with Listening Larry and offers this updated version with a wonderful reframing acknowledging that not all children can listen with their whole body, and that it’s okay to listen in different ways!
Eyes: Eye contact can be physically painful for some. You don’t have to look to be good at listening!
Ears: Your ears can do their job all by themselves!
Mouth: Sometimes verbal stims help us to process and that’s okay if making sounds helps you listen and learn!
Hands: Flappy hands are happy hands! Your hands can be loud and proud and you can still listen!
Feet: You can move your feet and walk around; that won’t stop your ears from listening or learning! It can even help you to do those things!
Body: Your body is yours and you can move it however you need to. Your boundaries are just as important as everybody else’s!
Brain: Your brain is always thinking, even when others do not understand! Your brain is awesome exactly as it is!
Heart: Your heart is caring about others, and you deserve the same in return!
If you’ve seen the Listening Larry poster, how do you feel about it? Would you bring this new version to your child’s teacher to put in their classroom instead? We’d love to know your thoughts!