Can Autistic People Make Eye Contact?
A couple of years ago I was reading a book, and it suggested that you make eye contact with people as you walk down the street, I thought I’d give it a go. There’s this misconception that autistic people cannot make eye contact, and whilst this can be true it isn’t true for every autistic person. What I found when I walked down these English streets, was that every single person looks away, they look down, they don’t look at all, they even looked scared when they see a stranger looking at them, are they all autistic? Of course they’re not. What I’m saying is people in this country (I can’t speak for other countries) are socially conditioned to not look at people, so why is it that autistic people are made to feel different due to lack of eye contact, different because they may not feel comfortable looking someone in the eye when communicating, does it detract from the conversation, I don’t think so.
Another example could be my son and I, we have had some of the most authentic conversations whilst driving, neither of us needs to look at each other, yet we can have a powerful conversation. I have learnt that I do not need his eyes to meet mine whilst we communicate, as long as there is a focus and willingness to engage, then eye contact is irrelevant.
When I was a kid I was taught to speak with my eyes, I didn’t know about my autism till I was 34 years old, so this wasn’t something that was being forced upon me, and in many ways I am grateful that I was given this lesson at a young age. It doesn’t stop me feeling incredibly uncomfortable with eye contact and wondering if I’m getting it right or wrong. Thoughts like, am I looking to intently? Am I not looking enough? Is the right amount of eye contact? Flash through my head causing me to miss parts of the conversation. Do you ask the person to repeat themselves when you miss bits? Or does that make you even ruder for getting the eye contact wrong in the first place? Judgement is an accepted part of our culture and divergent people are very often judged for their differences.
In a recent interview I conducted I asked my contact about her autism diagnosis, during this section of our conversation she said that Eye contact is something she finds difficult, but she learnt she needed to look a person in the eye when she was talking to them as this shows you’re interested and engaged in the conversation. However, this seemingly simple act caused her so much pain and difficulty, that it led her to literally shutting down and at that period in her life she couldn’t look anyone in the eye. She couldn’t even look in the mirror as even her own reflection was too much.
Eye contact can be painful, it can cause anxiety, it can cause massive feelings of unease yet we still do it. This can also be part of masking, autistic masking is where an autistic person acts like a typical person (non autistic person) in order to fit into social settings in an ‘acceptable’ way. I’ll do a post on masking in the New Year, but for now I’d just like to highlight that people, regardless of neuro type learn and absorb differently, through visual aids, verbal or listening etc… So if someone doesn’t feel the need to look at you when listening, this doesn’t automatically make them rude or obnoxious, it just makes them different to you and that’s OK, differences are a good thing, if you’re in doubt you can politely ask, but only if you’re coming from a place where you want to genuinely learn, rather than from a place of ridicule or judgement.