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.