Deconstructing ASL “Hearing (culturally)”

Recently, I realized that both my husband and I might benefit greatly if we added a few signs to our shared vocabulary – specifically, the words and phrases I’d be likely to need most while out in public.  Not only do stress-induced meltdowns/shutdowns occasionally leave me unable to speak, but my voice is pitched in a register that utterly disappears in ambient crowd-noise; even if I can speak in these settings, I often cannot be heard.

I’m having a royally hard time finding sign-language resources geared to autistic adults, so I’ve decided to compile my own list and post it here, with feedback, when I’m done.  This post is not actually about that.  

This post is about an interesting linguistic point in the context of my research: the fact that the ASL sign for “hearing” (as in “person who can hear”/”the culture of hearing people”) mimics the image of words tumbling from a speaker’s mouth.  That’s right: the sign for “hearing (culture)” is a representation of speaking.

This has to do, I’m sure, with the fact that ASL is a language shaped (and still being shaped) by d/Deaf communicators; from that perspective the hearing world surely is a place that rattles its gums a lot. From an autistic perspective, I’d say the same of the neurotypical world.  This hearing/neurotypical world is very much a noisemaker – in fact, its relentless noise is a significant part of the reason I’m exploring communication by sign in the first place.  But here I am, again, hanging out in a liminal space: print-literate but hand-signing, hearing but not (always) making mouth-sounds.

I have had conversations about whether the ASL sign for “autism” ought to be changed, since the current sign implies withdrawal or seclusion in a potentially problematic way.  (So does the word, for that matter.)  Perhaps an autistic-created sign for “autism” should imply non-d/Deaf, non-verbal Autists’ link to the “hearing” world not through tumblemouthed speech, but through an adaptation of the current sign for “listening.”  Dawn Prince calls listening “the superior side of speaking,” and non-verbal Autists in particular do a lot of it.  Hearing Autists can hear; we do not always verbalize, and if our alternate means of communication are not yet a part of Autistic culture the way ASL is part of Deaf culture, it is because we are only just reaching a cultural critical mass, not because our language(s) will not grow, change, and change us, just as ASL does in the Deaf community.


About Verity Reynolds

Verity Reynolds is the author of NANTAIS, a study of (mis)communication packaged as a space opera. Buy her a coffee:
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4 Responses to Deconstructing ASL “Hearing (culturally)”

  1. RachellieBellie says:

    I’m newer to the ASD community, my 12 year old was just formally diagnosed this year. When he has a meltdown he totally freezes himself inside his head: do you think ASL might help him communicate?

  2. Dani Alexis says:

    Perhaps. Autistic people can vary greatly in how well they communicate and by what means; what works for one of us might not work for another. Maybe run it by your son in one of his calm moments and see whether it’s something he wants to try?

    I started making a list of “core words/phrases” last night. It’s by no means complete, but it’s one place to start: .

  3. Pingback: Why “Sorry” Isn’t on the List, Sorry | Autobiography of an Autistic Academic

  4. RachellieBellie says:

    That is amazing! Thank you!!!

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