Persons, places and things: Listening with ears, eyes and heart


By Barb Arland-Fye
Colin’s trips to the bookcase in our living room every five to 10 minutes to select and return books evolved into a compulsive habit that distracted him and the rest of his family. I decided to initiate a “contract” with my son — one book per hour from the bookcase. Our contracts, usually spoken, help our son with autism to negotiate change in his life.

The first Saturday evening of our contract was challenging. Colin kept me on my toes monitoring the clock to make sure he didn’t sneak in books from the living room before the allotted period. “I like to read all the books in your bookcase,” he told me with a pleading look on his face. “But you can’t read multiple books in five minutes,” I explained. “Now you can take time enjoying one book.” Still, I wondered whether the contract might seem like a punishment to him. My husband Steve agreed the contract was necessary for our son’s sake and our sanity.

The concept of synodality that Pope Francis inspired the Catholic Church to embrace entered my mind. How can I listen more effectively to my son, with the “ears of my heart?” What is he trying to tell us about his need to have multiple books in his possession for just five to 10 minutes at a time?

I’ve prayed for a key to unlock the door to Colin’s mind. Last Sunday, as I walked through the hallway, I heard Colin call out to his brother in a panicked voice, “Patrick, I don’t know which book to pick.” I asked Colin, “Why don’t you know which book to choose?” He didn’t know the answer but said he usually chooses political or military books. I helped him choose one.


As he sat down in his chair with his book for the allotted hour, I said, “Colin, the books in our library won’t change. They will always be there for you to read.” “People change,” he said. It seemed like a moment of God’s grace, the opening of a door to understanding. Change frightens Colin. Could he be worried that if he doesn’t “hold on” to as many books as possible during each visit with us, they might go away?

He grows close to people easily, including staff from the agency that provides living skills support, and misses them when they leave. Patrick, the person Colin loves most, now spends time with our family on Sundays but no longer on Saturdays so that he has time for other pursuits. The change saddens Colin. We have tried to help Colin focus on the joy of getting together as a family on Sundays.

God always provides but sometimes we don’t recognize the gift immediately. When some of his favorite staff have moved on in their own journeys, new staff arrive who grow to care about Colin deeply. I view that blessing with awe.

“We all have ears, but many times even those with perfect hearing are unable to hear another person,” Pope Francis said in his World Day of Social Communications this past January. Listening, the Holy Father said, “concerns the whole person, not just the sense of hearing.”

Pope Francis seemed to be speaking to me, providing a reminder to listen with my ears, eyes and heart. The book contract with Colin is one way to help him trust that it is OK to let go of something while still holding on to what is precious to us.

(Contact Barb Arland-Fye at

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