I wrote a post recently on ‘What NTs get wrong about autistics and social skills’. In that, I touched briefly on the matter of eye contact. I’d like to go into that issue a bit more.
The assumption often made is that we don’t make eye contact because we, quote, “aren’t interested in other people”. Unquote. This is based on NT behaviour of course – if they don’t like someone and want to ignore or slight them, they simply don’t look at them. But we’re not NT. We have different brains, we respond and react differently, view the world differently, and so our reasons for doing things are almost always different.
So… what are the real reasons for our lack of eye contact? From my own experience, and reading lots of what other autistics have to say, they seem to fall into several categories.
1) It’s Painful. This may be news to the average NT, but yes, that’s exactly what happens. It hurts us to make eye contact, even a glancing eye contact is like having pins stuck in your eyes. Longer contact can feel like a sword run through your vitals. It just HURTS, okay?
2) It’s Invasive. This is, I think, part of why Number 1. It feels like the other person is looking right into your soul, and can see all your thoughts and feelings. We do seem to have fewer emotional defences than NTs, and I’m wondering if there is some link between that and this feeling of being invaded.
3) It’s Irrelevant. Well, to many of us it is. Because we can’t ‘read’ (or learn to do so only later in life, and then imperfectly) the little ‘tells’ of body language, eye language, facial expressions, that let us know what someone is feeling or thinking, we simply don’t get that NTs consider eye contact important. Hence we just don’t bother with it – especially if Nos 1 and 2 happen to us if we do.
4) We Really Don’t Want To Engage Today. As we get older, we learn that making even fleeting eye contact means people think you’re willing to engage with them. And so, if we just don’t have the spoons, are close to meltdown, are too scared and/or don’t know how to interact with them, and a whole host of similar reasons, we just don’t. It doesn’t mean we dislike people in general, it just means RIGHT NOW, we can’t handle interaction.
5) We Really Do Dislike People. Sadly, because of the prolonged and horrible way they’ve been treated, some autistics do actually become totally turned off the rest of the human race. Despite how often we are victims of horrendous treatment, true misanthropists are actually rare, and the ones I’ve known tend to have at least a few (a partner, children, one faithful friend), who are exempt from that dislike. But I suppose there might be some who have no-one at all, and shun all contact. There are NTs like this too of course, and I emphasise that it’s connected to the treatment we’ve received, and NOT an intrinsic part of being autistic.
6) We’re Trying To Listen. Everyone has only so many units of ‘sensory attention’, let’s say 100. NTs can somehow ‘turn down’ surrounding sensory input, so they only need maybe 20 or 30 units for it, and can use the other 70 or 80 to both listen and look at someone. We can’t. We can’t block it all out, so it takes up maybe 95 or 99 of those units, and hence we have almost none left to pay attention to someone speaking. So we have to choose – look, or listen? We can’t do both. Add to that our lack of the ‘correct’ listening expressions, and it’s not hard to see why people think we’re “not paying attention”.
There may be other reasons we don’t make eye contact, but these are the ones I know of, the ones that seem to be most common.
So I ask any NT reading this to please not make judgements about us, when we don’t meet your eye. You don’t know what might be going on for that autistic, on any given day, and unless you know us really, really well, you probably don’t know what we might feel if you tried to force eye contact. Let us interact in the way we need to, not how you think we “should”.
And my fellow autistics – know that it’s okay not to make eye contact. Don’t let anyone force you into what you’re not comfortable with, or just don’t have the spoons for. You have the right to be yourself, and interact how you want to. You have the right to say ‘no’, in whatever form you choose.