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The Case for Continuing to Be Curious

We live in an era where knowledge is at our fingertips—we can use our phones to search all kinds of information and educate ourselves on all sorts of topics whenever we want, wherever we are. Expanding our minds in this way has brought a greater amount of knowledge to all kinds of topics, including the human condition. Many people in the speech and language community have led great efforts to educate the public on conditions such as autism, stuttering, what can happen to a person following a stroke, and so forth. The more knowledge people have, the better, as this leads to greater understanding and often compassion. For those who are not directly tied to someone in the speech and language community, however, it is important to consider that it is hard to truly understand what their life is like.

Generally speaking, gaining more knowledge on a subject often does two things: either a person is content with their knowledge base and does not continue to learn more about it, or a person uses their knowledge to create an open dialogue and opportunity to continue learning. The latter is important because even experts in their field are always learning new information about conditions. The essence of their work is to research and conduct clinical studies to further their understanding. Continuing to be curious, even after learning about a certain topic, can only aid in understanding and further the knowledge base.

Human Nature Versus Education

To relate this to the speech-language community, when a person says to another, my son has autism, my daughter stutters, my nephew goes to a speech-language pathologist, or my granddaughter has Down Syndrome, there is a collective understanding among many of what this means. On the other hand, this understanding can only go so far, as there is a lifetime of experience behind each of these statements. For many with these disorders, a great amount of time and effort is needed to develop the skills that are needed to communicate with others. Even for those who have seemed to master these skills, there are often unseen strategies being used and great concentration being put into communicating as they would like to.

Upon first meeting a person with a noticeable speech and language disorder, it is human nature to try and pinpoint what makes the person’s communication style different from the average Joe. This is where the education piece comes in—the more people know about a disorder, the more they apply it to the people they meet. It happens without much conscious thought. Picture this; you meet a person at a party, or job interview, or on a date, and think, oh, I have heard of autism, I know these things about it, I think this person has it because of they exhibit these characteristics.

Being Open or Being Dismissive

While there is nothing inherently wrong with this, it all depends on what you do with this wondering. Some people use this knowledge to help bolster a conversation by being patient, open, and maintain neutral thoughts about the person, while others can use it as a way to dismiss the other person because they are not quite sure how to best communicate with them. A sense of dismissal or closed-mindedness often happens in a job interview, where a person’s social skills and communication style are being assessed to a higher degree than a casual gathering. Greater education on the part of hiring managers and company employees has the potential to bolster their ability to keep an open mind during an interview and hire people based on their ability to perform a job’s requirements rather than hiring the person who is the most socially adept.

Don’t Lose Your Sense of Curiosity

For those who want to continue their education related to certain disorders, there are a number of ways to do this. Many books have come out surrounding all kinds of disorders, and many are even written from the perspective of someone who has the disorders. This is a great way to gain some perspective on people’s individual experiences. You can also ask questions of therapists, researchers, and people who have the condition themselves to gain more knowledge. However, this comes with a disclaimer. When asking questions of people themselves, or their family and friends, it often makes a big difference in how your questions is phrased. Sometimes, people who ask questions and have a knowledge base around a certain disorder use declarative statements or ask questions in a way that are more closed off or portray a fixed opinion on the subject (ex: I know a lot about autism, so I understand what you are going though/talking about, or “does your friend have autism, because he did not look at me while we were talking).

In this moment, the person has lost their sense of curiosity and can seem to be more nosy rather than trying to learn about the person’s individual and unique experience. It is important to remember that asking questions is totally appropriate, but it is how it is phrased that makes the difference. Some say this is all just semantics, but really it comes down to how you are perceived by others. The questions you are asking are about someone’s personal life, which is not something to take lightly, but also not something to necessarily shy away from.

Natural Curiosity and Open Dialogue

It is natural to be curious about others, and having an open dialogue can create a space where people feel free to tell you about their own experience. Before you start asking questions, there is one thing to keep in mind; this may be the first time you are asking someone about a disorder, but this is not the first time they have ever been asked. Because of this, there is a big difference between asking about a disorder because you just want to know, which can seem more beneficial to yourself and not as much about others, as opposed to asking because you want to know about someone’s personality, determination, hard work, and how to best make them feel comfortable in a social setting. The opener “tell me about ________ (insert person here—yourself, your friend, your son, ect.)” is often a great way to start, because you are giving the person space to share anything about the person. With this opening, the person could tell you anything from what they study in school, what hobbies they have, where they live, and also they can bring up any disorder they may have or difference in their communication. If you are having a conversation and then ask them “hey, does he/she have __________ (insert disorder here)?” this puts a person on the spot right away, and does not give them the chance to ease into a conversation about something that is often difficult to talk about. They also do not have much time to decide if they want to talk about the disorder at the present moment, or even to decide if they feel comfortable telling you about it. When asked, some people will tell you because they do not mind, or they feel they should because they want to be truthful, but this tactic does not often lead to an open conversation about the person as a whole, and really limits in gaining an understanding about the person.

Here’s where you can find books written by those with a disability:

Photo credit: 藍川芥 aikawake Curious Eye via photopin (license).

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Amelia Willcox

Amelia Willcox

Amelia Willcox is a Speech Language Pathologist, Board Member, Northwestern University. She is a recent graduate of the Northwestern University Speech, Language, and Learning (SLP) program. Through her studies at Northwestern University, she found a passion for working with children and young adults, making gains towards communicating effectively with others, expressing themselves fully, telling stories, and having the communication skills they need to live the successful lives they want. Additionally, she studied psychology at Clark University for her undergraduate degree and became immersed in the idea of how to think about a person as a whole. This concept entails taking into account their personality, goals, desires, and attitude towards life and therapy. Working with The Speech Factor to help young adults succeed in college and obtaining meaningful work and supporting employers who hire individuals with speech and language disorders is something she is passionate about. “I have seen firsthand how helping a candidate gain the skills they need to have a successful interview with an open-minded employer can change the candidate for the better, in addition to the company itself.”

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