Chances are if you have heard anything about Autism, you have heard something to do with the lack of eye contact. It is fairly common for those of us on the spectrum to have difficulty with making or keeping eye contact. There may be different reasons for it, but it definitely effects the relationships between neurotypicals and those with Autism since eye contact is more that just looking into someone else’s eyes.
Eye contact is one of the quintessential non-verbal cues. It can mean respect from one person to another, a signal for attention such as if a customer is trying to get the attention of a waitress or cashier, it can mean intimacy between two people as they share personal stories, or it can indicate that both parties in a conversation are actively participating in both speaking and listening. If someone on the spectrum has trouble making eye contact or keeping eye contact they can face a host of problems such as being viewed as rude, inconsiderate of someone else’s feelings, aloof, distracted, or otherwise disinterested in the other people around them. Eye contact can also be used as a signal of judgement such as when one person is staring at another because of physical differences. Eye contact is almost essential to being able to function within a neurotypical society. Anyone can practice maintaining eye contact at an appropriate level, but there are other internal processes going on inside the brains of those on the spectrum that make eye contact not just difficult but also unnatural.
I struggle with eye contact because of my other senses, my goldfish-like attention span, and the discomfort of social anxiety. The anxiety and being easily distracted are things I am sure most people can relate to. If I avoid eye contact it isn’t because I necessarily am not listening or because I don’t respect the person speaking. The eye is a very complex part of the body. The iris is made up of bursts of color, specks of dark and light, and the pupil will respond to the level of brightness changing. All these things I can see when I am looking in someone’s eyes. Sometimes it is very distracting to see all the colors swirling together to give off one uniform shade. Other times the eyes aren’t as interesting, but their personality is strong and overwhelming, and eye contact with that type of person is like looking into a painfully bright flashlight in a dark room. My intuition makes up for my naivete most of the time when I meet new people, and there are some people who light up on my radar as being dangerous and therefore make eye contact extremely difficult. It is like covering your head with a blanket to hide from the monster in the closet. Is it still there? Yes and it can see me, but I feel much safer if I can’t see it. (No one said it was logical.)
The main cause for my lack of eye contact is all my other senses battling for control. My sight usually is dominant and therefore when I am looking at something it usually has most of my focus. My hearing is secondary to sight. I struggle to comprehend the person talking to me because I can’t filter through what I am hearing and seeing at any given time. I know they are speaking, and I can hear words but understanding the words is the problem. If I watch someone’s lips moving when they speak it is easier to see the words being spoken that I miss processing by hearing them. If I am making eye contact then I lose the extra help in seeing the different mouth movements and then I have to try and fill in the gaps in the sentences with what I think I heard between birds tweeting, cars passing outside, or a fan whirling in the next room. It is not easy to balance hearing everything around me and seeing things that distract me or having to force myself to look at someone who I might not be comfortable looking at. Too much of either and the sensory input gets caught in a traffic jam all trying to be processed through my brain at once. I try to make eye contact when I can, but I find that people generally would rather I hear what they say and not look at them rather than stare blankly and not hear a word.
It gets easier with practice, and there will be times when directly speaking to someone can be avoided by using text messaging, email, or written letters, but it is important to work on improving eye contact skills for when situations arise that demand this important social skill. It might be helpful to disclose your Autism or Asperger’s diagnosis or to explain that you have a hard time with making eye contact, but you are listening and will answer any questions they may have. Actors and actresses practice speaking their lines in the mirror, and it isn’t going to hurt to try and practice a job interview, an important conversation, or a speech in front of the mirror while trying to maintain your own eye contact. Practice with people who are close to you who can offer advice about if you are making too much or too little eye contact. My rule is for every five seconds of eye contact I make I can take a break and look away for five seconds. That way I am remembering to make eye contact , but I can also have those precious seconds to process and really concentrate on what I am hearing. It takes time, but it isn’t impossible to make eye contact seem more natural even for those on the spectrum. It will be worth it in the end to have this invaluable resource to navigating the neurotypical world.