When I was younger, one of the first things that made me aware that my brain was operating with a slightly different programming system than the considered norm was my ability to maintain eye contact.
Of course, I did not immediately recognize it as being a common autistic trait until later discussions with my parents and interactions with other autistic people.
Making eye contact is one of the standard practices associated with good social etiquette. It is also, alas, one of the ways in which many people determine whether an individual is an honest, trustworthy person. This is where one of the first major problems arises. While not necessarily a hard and fast rule, it is well-known that a notable number of autistic individuals have an aversion to lying, either because they believe in always being truthful or because they are unable to tell lies convincingly; for many autistic people even telling ‘white lies’ presents a huge challenge. However, with eye contact being an immensely uncomfortable (in some cases even a painful) experience for many autistic people, it is very easy for others to perceive our lack of engaging in eye contact as an indication of dishonesty. In most cases, this is a fundamentally incorrect conclusion to reach.
Speaking from personal experience, the reason eye contact can be so difficult for me is often a result of the other social hurdles that the majority of neurotypical (non-autistic) people do not have to contend with, certainly not to the same degree. An example to prove a point: Let’s say that I have just started a new job and the employer has a task that they want me to carry out. Let’s assume that they are telling me what they want me to do in person. I’m relatively new to this work environment and am still learning how the company operates, as well as gradually getting to know all of the other employees. New things are on the whole pretty frightening for me, so it takes me longer than the expected average to get used to the place, the various elements associated with the surroundings (e.g. customers, noises, areas of work etc). It also takes me longer to adapt to the different tasks expected of me. Even when I am used to everything associated with the job, unexpected changes on a day-today basis can be a minefield for an individual like myself who thrives on established routine.
By now, you are probably beginning to understand some of the difficulties I have to contend with in any given situation, this scenario in question being the workplace. Where does eye contact fit into all this? Well, let’s add that into the equation. The employer is explaining to me the various steps of the task they would like me to complete. During this time I am looking at them in order to convey several things: firstly, that I am interested in what they are saying (whether I am or not, I am of course expected to pretend that I am). Secondly, that I am taking in all of the information they are giving me. Unfortunately, in a rather ironic state of affairs, I find that the more energy I put into trying to look as if I am taking in all that is being said, the less likely I am to actually succeed in doing so. Because of the way in which my mind operates, I respond much better to instructions and am much more likely to complete them to a satisfactory standard if they are broken down into smaller, well-explained chunks. It is very important for somebody to be specific when talking to me and explain what they want me to do in exact terms rather than general ones: Other people usually read between the lines, whereas I will likely not if any ground for potential confusion is given.
I am also very anxious by nature. Anxiety Disorders are the daily reality faced by a disproportionately large number of autistic people, an unfortunate by-product of living in a society that does not fully understand us. It is very common for me to worry about how other people are perceiving me and consequently this also detracts from my ability to concentrate.
If it were socially acceptable for me to listen to somebody without looking at them, even to have your eyes closed in order to focus purely on what was being said, I would be in a much better position to accurately carry out instructions and take in more of the information given to me.
Added to this, I seem to have developed an aversion to looking at people who make me feel ‘uncomfortable’ for whatever reason. This may be a result of their personality, which I might find intimidating, or because of a certain quality of their eyes. I find it nigh-impossible to explain this conundrum, but there is something about certain people’s eyes that immediately makes me feel comfortable, and something about other people’s eyes that makes my skin crawl, meaning no disrespect to them. This judgement has little to do with a person’s character and may be (seemingly) ludicrous, but it can also come about as a result of a difficult social encounter with a person that has led to considerable embarrassment or other negative feelings.
There are a few people who I can look at without feeling the slightest amount of discomfort, certain people who I deem to have ‘nice eyes’. I myself do not necessarily understand how I judge this- the closest I can manage in terms of a description is along the lines of me feeling welcome to look at someone. I do believe that the idea of eyes being a window into a person’s soul is no exaggeration, even if my own assessments are sometimes inaccurate. Generally if somebody smiles at me or makes an attempt at humour during our first meeting, I feel far more comfortable around them and can generally manage eye contact without much trouble.
With others, I find that eye contact to be tremendously painful. Again, I struggle to describe this feeling, but the closest I can manage is saying that some people’s gazes seem more piercing than others, which gives me a feeling that I am being judged, or that said person can see something about me that I would rather keep a secret. Such thoughts are perhaps ridiculous, but arguably this very instinct has helped us to survive as a species, whether autistic or neurotypical!
My assessment of this can work both ways. I remember an individual in my class at college, a very kind, compassionate individual who was very popular. Unfortunately I found her gaze very piercing and as a result did not speak to her much as I found eye contact with her difficult. Any fear I had in this instance, regardless of any instinctive intuition coming into play, was entirely unfounded. In another instance, at university, I had a particular tutor who, if I’m honest, actually subjected me to what might be considered borderline bullying. Usually this was in front of other people which made me even less capable of maintaining eye contact and constantly on edge when around him. From the first, before any of the bullying started, I found eye contact with him immensely difficult. On a side note, you’ll be pleased to know that this particular experience had a silver lining: I have become much more proficient at standing up for myself.
Over the years I have thought about many alternatives. If I’m feeling very uncomfortable, I won’t necessarily force myself to make eye contact these days, although I generally try my best.
I have known a number of autistic people who have used dark glasses and/or sunglasses as a way out of making contact, seeing as the lenses often hide your eyes completely, meaning that the person you’re talking to remains unaware that you are not looking at them.
Recently I tried another tactic that I long been aware of. In truth, I had never had the courage to try it before, for fear of being found out. I wasn’t sure if it would actually work. I tried it on my own dear mother who was completely unaware of what I was doing and, until later on when I asked her about it, did not realise that I had not been looking her in the eye during conversation for the best part of an hour. Instead I had been looking at her forehead, specifically at the very top of the nose just above the gap between the eyes. From the other individual’s perspective, it can appear as if you are looking directly into their eyes, whereas in fact that is far from the truth.