Autism and Eye Contact

If my teacher demanded eye contact I obediently did so, but at a price. I would float out of my body, hover up near the ceiling and look down, watching the little girl of me. Judy Endow.Painted Words: Aspects of Autism Translated on Ollibean

A challenge I am continually faced with as an autistic adult is the misinformed presumption and resulting behavior of neurotypical people when I do not look at them the in way they expect, want or demand of me. It is challenging because society has put the onus on me to change. Often it does not matter to others why I am different. They just want me to stop being different. Recently I was told directly, “If you want to be treated like a real person then act like one!”

Eye contact can be hard for autistics for a variety of reasons. When I was a youngster I received too much bright, bold, painful sensory information from making eye contact. To guard against the intense physical pain I did not engage in eye contact. If my teacher demanded eye contact I obediently did so, but at a price. I would float out of my body, hover up near the ceiling and look down, watching the little girl of me (Endow, 2013).

Donna Williams says, “Dissociation is the ability to cut off from what is happening around you or to you. In its simplest form it is daydreaming. It is a skill all children have and which children with autism tend to overdevelop in managing a world they find overwhelming for a whole range of reasons” (Williams, 2013).

Today, 50+ years later, I am able to use eye contact in a manner that can appear typical most of the time. My sensory system has changed over time and eye contact does not produce as much pain as it once did. When I am well regulated I can manage the moderate pain I do experience from eye contact in my day-to-day life. However, avoiding eye contact is something I automatically do to minimize the amount of incoming sensory information and thus cut down on pain. I have to remain on high alert so as to catch when I am automatically moving into this eye contact shut down mode or I will not even know when it is happening.

I think it is unfair in our society that even though something like eye contact can be physically painful for autistics and that even when we endure the pain we are not able to pick up social information from eye contact. We do not choose this, but it is one of the ways our autistic neurology can operate. Yet, even when people know eye contact can be painful and that we will not pick up much social information, we are STILL expected to perform the feat for the social comfort of others. Each time we don’t perform the socially expected eye contact people assign negative character attributes to us such as shifty, sneaky, untruthful, disinterested and hiding something.

Because of the inflexibility of society I find, as an autistic, I need to make accommodations for the neuromajority who get stuck in these erroneous assumptions. If I fail to accommodate them I wind up not only being thought of poorly, but I am given less opportunities, less job promotions, and less social and business invitations to events. In turn, this affects not only my quality of daily life, but also my ability to support myself with sufficient income.

I think it is wrong of society to negatively judge me by my lack of eye contact, but because they do and because I want access the onus has been on me to accommodate them. If you are autistic and need to outsmart the incorrect assumptions people make about you around your ability to employ conventional eye contact here are some things I have found helpful:

black circle  Fake Them Out – In this strategy I look at some place on another person’s face that is close to the eyes, but not directly into the eyes. This can be a person’s eyebrows or hairline. Practice with a friend by having your friend tell you when you are looking at him and when you are not as you employ looking at different spots on his face rather than his eyes.

black circle  Secretly Spy on Them – In this strategy I watch TV programs or video clips of scenes from TV shows where people are making eye contact so I can see what it is that people expect. With video you can stop, pause and replay as much as you like. This is much more helpful than to try to learn from the fleeting glances of eye contact that take place in real time which are often gone before my autistic brain can even start to process them. It is a good idea to have someone you trust help you find video clips that are considered typical eye contact because this strategy can backfire if you learn some eye contact that would be inappropriate for general everyday use.

black circle  Give Them an Experience – This strategy provides a simulated experience that allows other people to understand how they might feel if they needed to abide by a social rule that did not come naturally to them. You can simply tell this story and invite people to imagine it or you might invite them to actually try it for a few minutes. Here is the script:

New Rule: No Looking at People

Imagine how you might feel if you were asked to stop looking at people – to cease all eye contact. Now imagine how much more difficult that would be if each time you did manage not to engage in eye contact you felt physical pain and the only way to relieve that pain was to look at the person even though you knew it would make others unhappy. This is often what we put autistics through when we insist they go against the way their brain does business by forcing them to use typical eye contact”  (Endow, 2013).

black circle  Self-Advocacy Script – If eye contact is at times so physically painful as to be impossible it can be helpful to explain why you are avoiding eye contact quickly and effectively to people so they will not assume negative character traits and consequently afford you less opportunities in life.

In conclusion, I think it totally unfair that the burden of accommodation falls on the autistic when it comes to eye contact. In my estimation it would be better if society could come to embrace neurodiversity, but because I cannot control society’s acceptance of my neurology I have figured out some ways to get where I want to go in this world, outsmarting John Q. Public’s limited and narrow beliefs, lack of Theory of (autistic) Mind and faulty attribution towards this autistic!

REFERENCES

Endow, J. (2013). Painted Words: Aspects of Autism Translated. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press.

Williams, D. quotation viewed 2014 on web site page http://www.donnawilliams.net/333.0.html?&no_cache=1&sword_list

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Image description black and white photograph of woman with long brown hair and glasses smiling.JUDY ENDOW, MSW

Judy Endow, MSW is an autistic author, artist and international speaker on a variety of autism related topics. Read more from Judy on Ollibean here and on her website www.judyendow.com.

About the Author:

Judy Endow, MSW is an author, artist, and international speaker on a variety of autism-related topics. The award winning Paper Words, Discovering and Living with My Autism ,  Learning the Hidden Curriculum: The Odyssey of One Autistic AdultPaper Words, and many other wonderful books can be found on her website JudyEndow.com.

10 Comments

  1. […] teaching autistic kids that if they don’t make eye contact (something we’ve learned time and time and yes, time again is often not just uncomfortable but distracting, overwhelming, and […]

  2. […] children looking at people speaking to them is problematic. Many autistic people will tell you eye contact is painful. Even when it is not downright painful, eye contact can be a problem for many autistics in that the […]

  3. […] My autistic neurology means that I am not good at picking up typical social cues, understanding complex social situations, automatically picking up meanings of idioms, or understanding the hidden curriculum that most others automatically pick up (Endow 2012). This means I often look naïve and gullible. The fact is I AM naïve and gullible when I try to use the social constructs of neuromajority folks to navigate the world around me. […]

  4. […] Since Autism often involves special sensory sensitivities, it makes complete sense that Autistic people react to the world differently than neurotypicals. In fact, many Autistic people have already explained that there is a reason for their stim and other repetitive behaviors that might seem strange to neurotypical people – for example, it is a natural expression of feelings and helps regulate overwhelming sensory input, as Amythest explains in her first video about stimming. Things that a neurotypical person would hardly notice, like fluorescent lights or soft background music, can be overwhelming to someone with more heightened sensory systems. This means that refusing to allow a child to engage in stim – which often involves interrupting or preventing their stim by physically forcing their hands down to their sides or on to a table – could be physically painful for them. Julia Bascom writes about how horrible that experience is here. Eye contact is similar; many Autistic people have also talked about direct eye contact as being a very overwhelming sensory experience, such as Judy Endow’s post here. […]

  5. […] expected to perform the feat for the social comfort of others.” – Also quoted earlier. http://ollibean.com/2014/10/28/autism-and-eye-contact/#sthash.iSXIsfKU.dpuf” – “The case I want to make against “quiet hands” is that in addition to being […]

  6. […] Endow explains the physical pain many autistic people experience from eye contact, and lists some suggestions that autistic people could use when they do want/need to engage in eye […]

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