Content warning: Abusive ‘therapies’
When I was 17 I got a job at a fast food restaurant. Everyone who worked there was young. It was quite a scary job as the age demographic of employees was similar to that of the people who bullied me in school. I was constantly terrified that the ‘nerd’ persona I had very recently known at school would come out when I was at work and I would be bullied in the workplace. This actually didn’t happen, much to my relief. However an incident occurred which I didn’t understand at the time as I wasn’t yet diagnosed with autism. The incident was that an attractive female coworker complained to another colleague that I had stared at her legs in the change room and that I was a pervert – a gay pervert at that, which was not something this employee viewed very sympathetically. The colleague she complained about me to was actually gay himself and covered for me by saying we were dating to get me off the hook. In fact I was not being a pervert. I didn’t ever consciously look at any part of this woman’s anatomy. What happened was that my eyes were pointing in her direction while I thought about something else! This happens to me a lot. Neurotypical folks have very different thoughts about eye contact and looking to autistic people and this was one of those occurrences.
I have never found meaning in eyes. I learned that meaning was conveyed through eyes from reading books as a child and teen and it puzzled me. I don’t know what colour my parents’ or bothers’ eyes are after knowing them for over 47 years. On the very rare occasions that I make eye contact with someone (always accidentally) I find the experience invasive and frightening. It is like I can see directly into the other person’s soul and they into mine. Quite horrible. Like many other autistics I have developed strategies for eye contact. I worked out a long time ago that non-autistic people tend to want me to look at them in the eyes. Doing this is very unpleasant but I don’t like to be ostracised so I look in the general direction of the other person’s face – usually the bridge of their nose. However I often completely forget to look at their face and they can get quite put out.
Autistic kids sometimes get sent to really damaging ‘therapy’ which punishes them for basically demonstrating that they are autistic. These so-called ‘therapies’ work on sanctions and rewards and they are based in the concept that autistic traits and looking ‘different’ are bad and appearing to be ‘normal’ is good. Needless to say this sort of thing causes trauma and is not OK but it still happens a lot. Eye contact tends to be a mainstay of these kinds of ‘therapies’ and they feel they have achieved a successful outcome if a kid makes – or pretends to make – eye contact. This is not ever OK. In fact eye contact isn’t even an essential part of communication. In many cultures around the world eye contact is not expected and is even considered rude. Also if we needed to look others in the eyes in order to communicate then phone calls wouldn’t work!
Another issue with eye contact is around diagnosis. Many diagnosticians think that if a person can make eye contact then they are not autistic. This is problematic for a number of reasons, the first being that some autistic people make genuine eye contact. It is not a problem for all autistic folks. Another issue is that may autistic people are adept at masking in order to fit in, meaning they may be ‘faking’ eye contact as I sometimes do. There are lots of unhelpful stereotypes and assumptions around autism and this is one of them.
I think the lesson the world needs to learn in this area is that eye contact is not the pinnacle of communication, people can appear to be making eye contact even if they aren’t, many cultures find eye contact as distasteful as many Western autistic people do and that while most autistic people struggle with eye contact, not all of us do. People need educating in this space as there is often an assumption that everyone needs to make eye contact in order to be understood. If someone is looking at the ground while you are speaking with them it doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t paying attention. In fact for many autistic people looking away from the person they are conversing with actually means that they will be communicating better then if they were looking at them! There are many different ways to communicate.