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Autism Changed the Way I Judge Public Speaking Events

Earlier this spring, I judged FFA’s Extemporaneous Speaking regional competition. It’s not the first time I’ve judged a public speaking event, but this time, I did so with different criteria in mind when it comes to nonverbal communication. 

The first time I competed in a public speaking event was through 4-H, and I remember the judges comments on how I needed to work on looking at the audience while I was speaking. In college, my public speaking professor emphasized the importance of making eye contact with your audience. 

Several times a year, I find myself at the judges table, evaluating participants in various public speaking contests. Eye contact is one of the things I’ve always looked for, and I have to admit I was hard on the participants who didn’t maintain it with their audience. 

Until now.

It all started with a post on the Women in Agriculture Facebook group, run at the time by Successful Farming magazine. A young man had competed in his local science fair (the project had to do with eggs), and his mother was looking for advice on how her son could connect with the judges more effectively. This could describe any number of kids, but one detail about her son jumped off the screen: he had autism. 

Her post was a lightbulb moment for me. You see, my oldest son also has Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Just looking at him, you wouldn’t know he has ASD unless you know what to look for. Like many with this diagnosis, he rarely makes direct eye contact, and when he does, it’s not for long. I realized that in 10 years, I could be this mom, seeking advice for how my son could successfully communicate with judges who expect eye contact and other nonverbal communication that can be difficult for people with ASD.

After her post, I started reading more about nonverbal communication and found a great deal of research and personal accounts from people with ASD. In one story, the author explained how he takes in his surroundings in just a few seconds, and it’s overwhelming to look any longer than that.

I also read how, for people with ASD, making eye contact can be physically painful or cause anxiety.  If can be challenging to process what they are seeing and what they are saying at the same time. A quote from this article on “The Mighty,” a collection of personal experiences, captures it well:

“You can have my eye contact or you can have my attention.”

When my son talks to me, he is often looking in my direction but not directly at me. When he does make direct eye contact, he doesn’t hold it very long. This has been frustrating for me at times, especially when I am trying to talk to him. I was always taught that looking at the person speaking to you was a sign of respect and interest, but ASD has forced me to change that way of thinking. 

I have learned even though my son isn’t looking directly at me, it doesn’t mean he isn’t paying attention. One week his Sunday School teacher told me he’d sat in the corner playing while the other kids were sitting together during the lesson.  When we got to the car, I asked what they talked about that morning and he proceeded to give me a recap of the day’s lesson. It’s just one of many examples I have of how, even though he’s not behaving the way I think he should or the way other kids do, doesn’t mean he isn’t listening or learning. 

I reached out to the mother and learned her son didn’t place at his school’s science fair, but he d get third place in the junior’s division at another event. He talked with five different judges, looking at either his board or the judge’s ear.

ASD is a spectrum, so no two people are the same or will respond the same to a situation. My son may handle a similar situation differently.  

Either way, I will be judging future events more with my ears and celebrating that the contestants are competing – possibly with a challenge I may not be able to see.

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