I had a colleague in a former workplace who used to be a teacher. I told her about my (then) new book, the Wonderful World of Work, which is a guide to employment for autistic teens. My colleague got quite excited and went on to tell me how she knew heaps about autism because she had taught some autistic kids. ‘Oh dear’ I thought. My oh dear was justified. The colleague told me how she had an eleven year-old autistic student who didn’t look at her face when he spoke. She told me that she would put her finger under this kid’s chin and lift up his face so he was looking at her. She demonstrated by doing it to me. Horrified I asked if she would like someone in authority to do the same to her but she simply didn’t get it. I felt for all her autistic students and was very relieved that she was no longer teaching.
This example illustrates a problem a lot of autistic people face – the need that many allistic folks have for eye contact. To me, eye contact is invasive and painful. If I look someone in the eye I can see into their soul and feel like they can see into mine. It is horrible. People tell me that eye contact is an important part of communication, but for me, if I am looking someone in the eye I am unable two communicate in any meaningful way because I am so overwhelmed. Other autistic people have similar experiences.
In most of the societies where readers of this blog live, eye contact (for allistics at least) is viewed as a key to communication. People believe this to be a universal thing but it isn’t. In many cultures making eye contact is viewed as disrespectful. In autistic society eye contact is definitely not essential and usually not wanted. It is another place where allistic and autistic intersect and where autistic experience is often viewed as bering ‘wrong’.
When I tell allistic people about my issues with eye contact they say ‘but you make eye contact.’ This is a bit shameful for a proud autistic person and advocate to admit but I have learned to mask eye contact. I look in the general vicinity of the person’s face but not in their eyes. In fact I do not know the eye colour of 99.9 per cent of the people I have met. I don’t know my mum or dad’s eye colour. I learned to mask because it is easier to do so than have people complain about me doing things ‘wrong’ but I am just as happy to carry on a conversation with someone without looking anywhere near their eyes. I do try to educate people but the need for eye contact seems pretty ingrained.
Eye contact is very confusing. On the rare occasions I have tried to do it I have come across a lot of hurdles. How long is one supposed to look at the eyes? Does one look continuously or look away every few seconds? Are there conversation topics which require more eye contact than others? It is very strange and alien to me.
I wish people understood about differences around eye contact. There are myths around people who don’t do eye contact, The most prevalent seems to be the one that states that not making eye contact demonstrates that a person is untrustworthy or a liar. But maybe the person is just autistic and finds eye contact invasive and painful? There meeds to be a shift in thinking around this.
I will never look someone in the eye but I am trustworthy and I can communicate very well. We need to challenge that pervasive view that making eye contact is a key part of communication for everyone. It isn’t and it is perfectly feasible to have meaningful conversations without all that invasive and overwhelming eyes meeting stuff. I want a world where I am not expected to make eye contact with people and where differences in the need for eye contact are known, understood and respected.