So many times, especially as parents to autistic children, we hear the words “eye contact” in a way that suggests they were written on the tablets brought down by Moses himself.
Looking people in the eyes while having a conversation is great, but if you continuously demand that of someone who is predisposed to feel uncomfortable in doing so, it can on occasion result in the truly gruesome side effect of AWKWARD STARING. Or, far worse, it can set up an individual for failure and lead to negative feelings of self-worth. There should be no form of correction or reprimand regarding eye contact when an autistic person is boldly making the attempt to communicate with another person in the first place. And in no other disability population do we literally demand eye contact and hail such as the benchmark of progress.
Not only are Autistics expected to purposefully stress their already overwhelmed sensory systems by making eye contact, it is done with the expectation that it will somehow make autistic people better at listening and communicating. That is simply absurd.
I am DAMN GOOD at eye contact. I am so damn good that I can win a staring contest. With myself. And I am fortunate that no one harped on me all throughout my life to make eye contact. It just so happens that I developed this awesomesauce skill all on my own without even knowing it. Because I AM AWESOME. Really, because I was observing. Everything. I knew I had no earthly idea what was going on most of the time, though I didn’t know it had a name, so I observed intently. And I mimicked what I thought was acceptable and popular through watching others while they talked.
So after 38 years and counting, I don’t just make eye contact like an amateur. Oh no. I stare. I will stare at your eyes, your mouth, your teeth, your hairline, your earrings, that big honking zit one centimeter to the left of the five freckles just due south of your right eye. (Sorry. But no worries, seriously. Because I am the LAST person to judge, I am merely studying you so that I can be better at being me. Take it as a compliment!) So I am a champion at staring. You will think I am making eye contact the entire time and you will feel good that I am listening intently to what you have to say. And I am. Honest to God, I am listening. I am listening with my ears, eyes, nose, and I am listening with every scratch or pick of the skin on my left ear and every crackle of my toes inside my shoe. DEAR GOD. I am listening with the distraction of my own heartbeat pounding in my neck. I do all of this so that I can listen.
For me, making eye contact, or at least staring intently somewhere in the vicinity of your eyeballs, is a lot of work. There are times I physically CANNOT make eye contact during situations when I feel extremely stressed, uncomfortable, or threatened. (Sometimes I cannot speak either, but that is for another post.) It truly concerns me when I hear this commandment that autistic individuals are simply not functional if they are not making “the effort” to make eye contact when someone is speaking to them. I wholeheartedly DISAGREE. For some, not making eye contact is the only way they can listen to what another person has to say. It is different for everyone.
I do, however, support a gentle approach to assisting autistics to improve their ability to make eye contact only if an individual has the desire to try, to connect using the eyes, as a means of reciprocal communication skills.
Eye contact is important in society because non-autistic interactive human beings have evolved into complex communicators. But that doesn’t mean we make eye contact the Gold Standard of success for autistics. It certainly cannot be assumed to be a benchmark of intelligence, or listening skills.
Some people will look you in the eye. Some will stare. Some will stare with an awkward flair.
Just remember, there are so many more ways we listen and take in information – with our ears and our hearts, with taste, touch and smell. Most importantly of all, we listen with open minds.
Dave Matthews Band “So Much to Say”