Saturday, October 1, 2011

Different Perspectives: Eye Contact

On this Different Perspectives I'd like to talk a little bit about eye contact and what it might mean to NTs and autistics.  As always, I am only me, so I may or may not be in sync with your experience, or the autistic person in your life.  We're all a little different, but I like to do these Perspective posts about my experiences as well as based on some of the common things I've heard from others on and off the spectrum.  I'm always a little more than worried that I am going to get a hoard of comments saying that what I write doesn't fit their experiences, ect, ect... So,,, with that dislcaimer out of the way, let's talk about eye contact.

Eye Contact for Neurotypicals:
Eye contact for a typical person is a way of communicating.  They can cue into emotions, thoughts, and other nonverbal cues just by looking at each other's eyes.  It's a show of respect and attentiveness to make eye contact with someone as you converse.  No eye contact, or broken/poor eye contact also holds meaning to typical people in the way of nonverbal communication.  It can mean the other person is bored, or finds you unimportant.  It can mean they're shy, or anxious. Poor eye contact can also be indicative of dishonesty, as one doesn't want others to read that they may be lying in their eyes they may look away while fibbing, or ashamed.  To people not on the spectrum eye contact is just as important as the words we use to speak.  So much meaning is attributed to eye gaze!

Eye contact for People on the Autism Spectrum:
I've heard some autistic people describe looking into other people's eyes painful, like looking into the sun.  For me, it's an emotional pain. It feels overwhelming, like a switch gets flipped inside my head and I hear, nor feel anything else. My adrenaline goes up, and I feel like running away. I will look away as a way to ease this and to pay attention to the other person.  I can't hear and look at another person at the same time.  It feel to me like a gross invasion of my space, of my being.  It feels like someone is taking something from me which is so personal and part of me.  Something that I am not willingly giving, but is being taken by force. It feels so personally invasive, as if someone is reading my thoughts without my permission.  I obviously know that no one can, or is, but it feels like they are.  If I am having to feign eye contact for something important, say a job interview or something similar, I am too busy counting seconds and trying to be appropriate with the amount of eye contact that I'm avoiding staring or looking inattentive, yet I am being very [preoccupied with all of this to the point that the very thing NTs  do to show attention is the opposite of what I am doing.  There is no point to doing it, as it doesn't indicate my level of attention, nor will I ever get any kind of communication from it.  It is purely for show, and is quite painful for most on the autism spectrum.

I would urge parents to think about this before making eye contact a big deal with their ASD kids, or a part of their therapy plan.  I know it is common for speech paths in particular to bring a desired or requested item up to their eyes making the child fix eye gaze before receiving the item.  I will not allow such methods to be used with my boys.  To me, it is disrespecting who they are and their rights to feel safe, and have their personal space.  I'd never allow anyone to do anything to them repetitively that makes them feel antagonized, or fearful, yet this is exactly how eye contact makes most on the spectrum feel.

With that being said, there are some situations where an adult on the spectrum may need help learning how to feign eye contact.  I mentioned job interviews, earlier.  That one is a biggie, becasue as unfair as it seems, that few minutes of nonverbal communication is crucial to whether or not a company is going to consider hiring you or not, even if you have a killer resume.  Unfortunately, I do feel that this is much more of a stigma for males than females, who might come off as passive, shy, and maybe a bit submissive if they don't make as much eye contact.  Males might look the same (which unfair as it is, will be held against them) as well as other more devious characteristics might also be wrongly assumed by an interviewer.

I'd love to hear your thoughts about eye contact and what it means to you.


  1. I asked the boys before if they could explain why they have a hard time looking in other's eyes because I wanted to know what I could do to explain to other people. You know what they told me? They said "but mom, you have a hard time too. Your eyes bounce away". Well that made me think hard. I never realized that before. The next conversation I had, I paid attention to myself - and they were right. My geniuses were right.

    But to ask the 'whys' on why I do that, and I can't answer - I haven't the words. But you - my brilliant friend - have. :)

    I feel like when we hold eye contact, that they can 'see' into me. My privacy is invaded. I can't concentrate on what is said because I'm too focused on the eyes. It does hurt my mind a bit. And I tend to inch away. Without realizing what I was doing, I would gravitate to the person's mouth and watch the words. Somehow it was easier.

    Anyway, because we never forced eye contact with the boys, they've naturally came about it on their own. They will look my in the eye sometimes and not others. And that's ok.

    But I think I'll shot them the 'look at the mouth' trick in case it might come in handy in the future.

    Thank you, Quiet Comtemplation, for putting into words what I'm been trying to understand. You always have a way of making it possible for us to get it - even a little bit. :)

  2. Another brilliant Post!

    I have a few thoughts as well. Think I'll perhaps write me up a little post and link it back to yours:)

    Once again, I find your insights valuable in measuring my own perspective! Thank you for sharing your experience!


  3. Hi Angel, I think you might be a little more on the spectrum then you think! ;)

    Yes, it feels like someone is looking into me, and I feel vulnerable and so totally exposed. Some people are avid eye contact searchers. I call them Aggressive eye contact people, because they will bee bop their head all about trying desperately to get in your line of vision to obtain eye contact. These ladies are difficult to talk to. The more they do that, the less eye contact they get, because I get more and more nervous.

    I, too look at the mouth, but I was told that NTs can tell you are looking at their mouth and not their eyes, so this won't work with important situations. It's very common for people on the spectrum to look at mouths, because after all that IS what is doing the communicating to us. I have heard that looking at the bridge of the nose, or eyebrows works well, though.

    You also bring an important point of why we shouldn't force eye contact with ASD people. With trust, it will develop naturally. It may not ever be good eye contact, but some people on the spectrum will make decent eye contact with those they trust, and trust can't be forced, but is borne out of respect and love.

    Thanks for sharing your opinion and experiences!

    Leah, thanks for the feedback! I'd love to read your thoughts on it. Can't wait for your post!

  4. I can't speak for others on the spectrum, obviously, but you're spot on the money for me. I dislike eye contact, i can do it for a few seconds, but then i just have to look away, it's too painful. Like you and Angel, i find it invasive too. Especially with some people, who stare at me like they're trying to bore a hole in the back of my head with their gaze.
    I find the 'looking at the eyebrows/bridge of nose/glasses frame/eyelashes/etc' thing works well. People can't tell you're not really looking them in the eyes, especially if you do little 'flicks' of glances at their eyes every now and again.

  5. Babies can't hold eye contact for very long either. It's too intense. They look, then look away. I'm neurotypical. For me, it's easy, but then I view it as knowing someone is paying attention to me. If they don't look at you directly, you don't know if they are paying attention or not. However, I think it's becoming more known that this is an issue for people on the spectrum. My husband told me the other day he met someone and was introduced to their kid and the kid didn't make eye contact. Instead of thinking the boy was shy, he wondered if the kid was on the spectrum. Which I think is a good sign that it's easier to be compassionate and not discriminate against people for whom it's really uncomfortable.

  6. It's a great sign! Thanks for sharing!

  7. Well, you spoke my reasons for avoiding eye contact. Kudos! You did a fantastic job writing this.

  8. "Eye Contact for Neurotypicals:
    "Eye contact for a typical person is a way of communicating. They can cue into emotions, thoughts, and other nonverbal cues just by looking at each other's eyes. It's a show of respect and attentiveness to make eye contact with someone as you converse. No eye contact, or broken/poor eye contact also holds meaning to typical people in the way of nonverbal communication. It can mean the other person is bored, or finds you unimportant. It can mean they're shy, or anxious. Poor eye contact can also be indicative of dishonesty, as one doesn't want others to read that they may be lying in their eyes they may look away while fibbing, or ashamed. To people not on the spectrum eye contact is just as important as the words we use to speak. So much meaning is attributed to eye gaze!"

    That's eye contact for neurotypicals *in one culture*. Not every culture with a lot of neurotypical people in it assigns the same meanings to the same kinds of eye contact.

    For example, suppose an NT adult in Haiti asks an NT Haitian child a question and the child doesn't make eye contact with the adult when answering the adult's question. It's most likely that this child grew up being taught that it's disrespectful, not dishonest, to look an adult back in the eye.

    For another example, suppose an NT man in Algeria is walking down the street and an NT woman whom he doesn't already know is walking up that same street and looks away from him instead of making eye contact with him. It's likely that this woman grew up being taught that it's expressing modesty and desirability, not expressing disinterest, to not look a man back in the eye.

    BTW, anyone know if kids on the spectrum who grow up in Haiti don't make eye contact with adults (and are accepted a little more for it) or *do* make eye contact with adults (having a problem with that Haitian social norm, the way kids on the spectrum who grow up in America have a problem with the American social norm telling them they should make eye contact with adults)?

    1. Interestingly enough, this is also why there is likely a deficit in the diagnosing of "Asian-Americans" who are on the spectrum; in their native culture, to avoid eye contact is indicative of respect. (Sorry, can't remember the article I found that in, but it was online....) Just throwing another point into the ring! ;)

      ;) tagAught

  9. Another interesting post.

    It turns out that I avoid eye contact too. My mother mentioned 1-1/2 years ago that it seemed to be the only "common symptom" of Asperger's that I didn't have; but in that last year or so, I've discovered that I *do* avoid eye contact. Not always - I *will* meet some people's eyes, at least to start with - but quite frequently even if I do meet their eyes at the beginning of the conversation, my eyes will move away as the conversation progresses. I haven't analyzed the whys of that yet; I'm not even sure if I've only started doing that because I'm relaxing some of the self-control I've kept in an attempt to appear "normal", or whether I always did it and Mom just didn't notice, because I generally do meet her eyes.

    One of my best friends, who is ASD, definitely, even if she hasn't been officially diagnosed, says that she avoids eye contact because it feels like a threat. A lot like cats or dogs (in terms of expression of instinct and feeling), to her eye contact is a challenge, and it makes her feel as though she's going to be attacked, or as though she is *going to* attack.


    ;) tagAught

    1. The longer a conversation is, the less eye contact I make, because it takes more energy to keep it all going.

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