Sunday, October 7, 2007

Aspergers and Eye Contact

There's a lot in the literature about gaze-avoidance or lack of eye contact in Asperger's kids (and adults) but not really a lot from an Asperger's point of view.

What Practitioners and Parents Think
Frequently, it's left up to the reader's imagination to think of reasons - perhaps the child has just not learned that making eye contact is an essential part of spoken communication? Of course, this theory assumes that the condition is eventually treatable by training. It's consistent with the notion that eye contact does improve as the subject gets older but it's from a medical or educational point of view instead of coming from an Aspie.

[btw: apologies for my use of the term aspie - I'll use it through this blog in a familiar sense because it's difficult to keep writing Asperger's Syndrome. It is not intended to be derogatory in any way.]

An Aspie Point of View
Eye contact hurts.. no, not in the painful sense but it's quite uncomfortable. I always feel that I'm revealing more than I want to with eye contact and that I'm receiving more information than I want to know. Of course, I know that eye contact is critical to spoken communication, so often I'll compromise by either of two methods;

Method 1: Making brief eye contact every few seconds.
This is the "roving eye" technique whereby you make eye contact at the very start of each sentence and then drift away as soon as the person you're talking to is reassured that you're listening. There are a few problems with this method.

First of all, people often assume that your concentration is wandering. I'll often get told, "well, I know you're quite busy..." or "I'm probably boring you..." or "I can tell you're not interested..." as a response to using this technique when I really am interested in the conversation. When that happens, I usually have to switch to the other technique.

Method 2: Making eye contact for half of the Conversation
A two-way conversation is made up of two halves. Person 1 speaking while Person 2 listens and vice versa. As a general rule, people like to know that they're being listened to but aren't as worried if you don't make a lot of eye contact while you're talking. The plan with this method is to make reasonably constant eye contact (though you'll probably need to "flit" your eyes away several times during longer diatribes to ease the tension) while they talk to you and rest your eyes while you talk back.

As a partially deaf person I was encouraged to look at lips and I've become quite good at lip-reading. Unfortunately, as an adult, the lips are just too close to breasts and I often find that my female subjects will try to cover themselves during conversations. This is as embarrassing for me as it is for them.

I guess the best rule is to either stare at the face or (cheeks are a good idea) or slightly above and/or to the left or right of their head - never downwards or they'll assume the worst.

Overall, this is a more effective method than the "roving-eye" method but it doesn't work with everybody. In particular, you need to watch out for people who start turning around mid-conversation to see what you're staring at. If this happens, you need to either make more regular eye contact or switch to the other method.

One way of overcoming uncomfortable situations is to be seated at a desk and work during the conversation. I know that this is rude, but if you're doing related work or even turning to take the occasional note on a computer, it can give you a welcome break.

My background is in computers, so I use this to great advantage, often changing screens or adjusting code as the changes are discussed. This gives the impression that I'm just "raring to go" or that I'm prototyping systems (providing examples) to help the conversation, rather than just being rude.

What can parents do to help their children with Aspergers?

  • Place less emphasis on eye contact and more on "participation in conversation".

  • Explain how some people need to see you looking in their direction before they think you're listening.

  • Give your children a few options for controlling gaze avoidance (suggest looking at cheeks) or higher.

  • Encourage "looking at my face" but don't push it - it's really uncomfortable for us.

  • Be understanding when we don't feel like looking - we're not being rude, just feeling insecure.

52 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is a really great post. I've been unwittingly pushing "look at me" with my son without realizing how hard it is for him. I'll probably stick with just trying to have a real conversation for now :)

Erin said...

For me, eye contact is overwhelming. I feel like a deer in headlights.

Anonymous said...

i dont reall know much about asperger but my brother has high functioning autism i think my mom said to him one to look at the bridge of the nose to get the apearance of eye contact...

Ignace said...

Thanks for this very nice post. To be frank, I had never heard of Asperger's syndrome before, I was just lucky to found your post while searching for tips about people who encounter like me difficulties at making eye contact.
Although I have a normal social life, enjoy talking with friends and family, eye contact has been painful -to say the least- for the past 15 years or so. It hurts every time I look into the eyes of the person I'm talking with, and have to make up with a lot of weird faces / grins if I want to maintain the eye contact. Which, as a result, makes my interlocutor feel uncomfortable.
I've tried several self-improvement and meditation techniques, hoping I could get to the root of this problem and eradicate it, but have been unsuccessfull so far.
Do you think this might be Asperger's syndrome? Is there... any way out? Thanks for your help.

Gavin Bollard said...

There are ways of reducing the eye contact problems - as seen by other people but there's not really any easy way to make it more comfortable for you.

As for aspergers, there's no cure and no way out. You just have to make the best of what you have.

There are a lot of positives to aspergers too.

Ratexla Kettleburn aka Yoze said...

Yeah... Eye contact feels like standing before an approaching train or something. :p It seems like it would be easier for NTs to just FIND OUT that eye contact avoidance is not necessarily a sign of rudeness. :/

Ms Therapeutic said...

Hi! Im an OT. I find your blog helpful in understanding the AS condition. I have this patient kid who has it. Please help me to understand more about the condition especially what an individual feels exactly from your point of view.I've been teaching a 5-year old kid with AS social skills like demonstrating an eye contact whenever he converses. I think from what I've read in this blog, I'll just try to get him have a real conversation with people. Thanks man!

Gavin Bollard said...

I've got a couple more adult/conversation posts to do and then I'll get back to a child's point of view ... I promise.

Ignace said...

Dear all, sorry for my post may not relate to Asperger syndrome directly, but rather to eye-contact phobia itself.

Having lived in Japan for several years, I can read and write the language. I decided to search for information on the Japanese net about jikoshisen-kyofu (which translates in "aversion of eye-to-eye contact") and was astonished by the quantity of detailed/concrete information available!

The Japanese webpages I read through give a very pragmatic description of the eye contact phobia, classifying it as one of the four known anthropophibias, with phobia of blushing, of one's body odor, and of deformed body.

The recommended treatment in Japan is called Morita therapy. It is zen-based, and says that one should not try to "fight" the uncomfortable feeling during eye-to-eye contact (this only results in a quicksand effect, which I know too well!), but rather accepts the feeling and try to develop the sunao mind, which is a natural, frank state of mind. The bottomline is to observe and accept reality, while being less self-centered.

There are tons of webpages about the Morita technique in Japanese, some of them in English as well (I suggest you google "morita" "eye contact"). What really impressed me is the testimonies of people who said they no longer suffer from eye-contact phobia thanks to Morita therapy.

In the book "Morita Therapy and the True Nature of Anxiety-Based Disorders", you can find a lot of information on the treament (which takes 1 to 2 months in a specialized institute).

It's been 16 years since I started to fear eye contact (am 31 now). It's only been 1 day since I found out about this information! It just feels good to be able to give "it" a name, and to know that there seems to be an adequate treatment. Hope this post helps. Best wishes.

Anonymous said...

I find that it's relatively easy to keep eye contact if the conversation is balanced, and I'm talking as much as the other person. It's only when the other person constantly talks that I feel uncomfortable with eye contact.

Damo said...

I'll keep mine short.
I've just finished reading another body language book. apparently all you need to do is maintain eye contact for 1/3 of the conversation. The darting/roving/wandering eye makes you look squirrelly and from the NT perspective uninterested/distrustful. If you go longer than 1/3 then you are getting into the creeping out phase or the stare down phase. Apparently if you look up and away you are "thinking/recalling" and partaking in the conversation. I'm yet to try this but logic dictates the up and away "thought (your turn)" and then come to rest on their eyes/face (their turn)and then think again.
Glazing over or looking through someone is not a good look. Ground staring is a sign of submission/weakness to the NT.
This'll be a hard one to break but I am tackling it in terms of just a little more contact than yesterday or waht colour are their eyes and how does their pupil dilate.

CoolGuy said...

wow this was v interesting - I'm 31 and finally decided to do something about my eye-contact aversion. Being a mild aspie, people don't know any different. Its come to a point however that its now affecting my career. My aversion is putting me in a subliminal subordinate role and hindering my career prospects within the company I work.

Bracken said...

One compromise I do is to look through them or at their forehead or something instead of actually looking "at" them.

Anonymous said...

I always thought that something was wrong with me until a doctor suggested i might have "highly functioning autism" how weird is that, im 31 and always just thought i was unique.

All the things that make me unique...that make me me... are Aspergers traits. I swear im the poster child.. err adult for Aspergers.

Anyway. Thanks for the blog, going to bookmark this.

Zach Lassiter said...

There is a great video out there on Aspergers and Eye Contact.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I Use the partial look trick.
Also im trained to look at someone eye when he/she is talking to me, but is imposible for me to talk to someone and look him/her in the eyes.

Greg Carey said...

wow, I'm identifying with much of what you talk about in your blogs... I find eye contact difficult, the concept is reasonable enough, but if you actually look into another's eyes for too long, they just get creeped-out. Usually, the person I am talking to looks away first, often at the moment our eyes meet. I've adjusted by looking at the top of the nose, between the eyes, though often they still look away. This happens more with men, and I've heard that looking into another man's eyes can be construed as an aggressive act.

Anonymous said...

I always get so worried people will think I'm being dishonest if I don't look at them when I talk. I do try but its so hard. I also talk too much when I'm nervous or do the opposite and shut down. Wish I could over come it. I feel very unsafe unless I'm looking at the ground. When I do try I only last a few secounds. I want to stop feeling this way but can't.

WPM said...

I know someone that I believe may have Aspergers. I really enjoy spending time with him and would like to be better friends. Yet, when we are in public it seems pays attention to me when I am not talking to him and ignores me when I am. Today I saw him at a community event. I worked up the courage to talk to him, because I myself can be somewhat shy. When I finally went to talk to him he hardly said anything and kept looking around at people and his cell phone. I ended up saying "nice talking to you" and walked away. I wanted to cry. If he really was blowing me off I should give up. But, I really do want to devolop a closer friendship. Besides feeling at times he is not paying attention to me, he is a very kind man and I think he has a big heart.

Gavin Bollard said...

WPM,

Since you feel that talking may be unsettling for this person, maybe you should write/email.

Just ask directly and see how you go.

Then you'll know whether or not to put more effort in.

Gavin.

Andreas said...

I find this topic very interesting. More researchers are starting to find that there is a second category. I fall into a group in which eye-contact (personally) means nothing to me. It has always been a matter of etiquette, so I have always done it, and expect it to be returned. Haha, I actually tend to feel offended when NTs look away!

I never noticed I had an issue, until a friend told me, before we went to a car show. "Make sure you don't keep looking everyone in the eyes". I just thought he was weird and dismissed it. (I was 15)

Now, I try and look away, once in a while. Although, during interviews, introductions and high level social events, other people find it Very flattering, since "All my attention is on them, and I'm so focused on them." I easily make acquaintances, and impress professionals... casual situations it can go somewhat more down hill.

Oh, a Eureka moment!
That might be why I truly enjoy and prefer large social gatherings! I make constant eye-contact; divide that amongst 5-15 people and it is a perfect amount of individual eye-contact/attention for everyone!
(Haha, I feel so clever!)

I don't often enjoy intimate occasions of 1-3 people. I have a new project to work on! : )

Anonymous said...

Thank you! This is an excellent article. I was diagnosed an Asperger as adult and I have developed quite neurosis about my "gaze" as I was never guided to good eye contact. I have had lots of misunderstandings with other people at past and I still have lots of difficulties with understanding non-verbal communication, like bodylanguage and eye contact attempts of other people. It's very frustrating and causes anxious experiences and tics.

I hope that the general public will get more knowledge about these issues.

Chaos said...

My issue with eye contact seems to be more of a dominance thing. I feel that for me to try and maintain eye contact with someone would be insulting and when someone else is trying to make me maintain eye contact with them, I take it as an attack. I don't have much problem with people I'm close to like the gf or a few members of my family, but with anyone else it becomes either them attacking me or me attacking them. In general I can eye contact for about a second before I have to look away so it doesn't become a fight. About the only time I do it with people is when I'm commanding them or when I'm inwardly daring them to swing.

Anonymous said...

I have undiagnosed aspergers and I find eye contact very distracting. I have to look off to one side when I'm talking or I lose my train of thought, and when watching other people talk, if I'm looking into their eyes I get so conscious of the fact that they're staring at me that I can't pay attention to what they're saying. I figured out before I was even old enough to recognise eye contact as being important that it was a lot easier to watch their lips instead, so far it hasn't been a problem, but I am conscious of the fact that this is something I'm going to have to work on before I meet someone who finds my "lack of attention" disconcerting.

Lexi said...

Thank you for the eye contact information. I am doing an assignment and it really helped!!

Lexi said...

I am doing a special education assignment and I more information about eye contact. I just wanted to thank you for what you wrote. It was really helpful and insightful.

Poe said...

For me its like Bracken said. I look at the mouth. First it avoids eye contact while not looking like I'm avoiding eye contact and two I can read lips so when I am being distracted by other noise I can figure out what their saying. The other problem I have is my internal clock that ticks down during a conversation till I have had enough then I am full and stop listening. "Oh, were you still talking? I am so sorry I found it boring and unimportant. Please go away." It usually happens when they go into unnecessary details or emotional baggage. Blech.

Anonymous said...

Why do we with asbergers have to try to make eye contact just because it makes the other person think we're not listening or that we don't care. Why do we have to try to change anything about ourselves it's who we are. And I think alot of so called normal people should take a page out of our book.

Tony Hoyle said...

Interesting... I've *never* made eye contact - I can remember the constant telling off from my parents 'stop staring' (when I wasn't... I just didn't have anything particularly interesting to look at) so have always considered it impolite.. even a bit creepy.

No idea if I've got AS (pretty sure my wife has - she's not just socially inept she's incapable of functioning in groups). Probably not.. I can socialise, although I only really started to learn how to do it in my 20's (they need to teach this stuff in schools! It's complex!) so was a bit late to the game.

Anonymous said...

I was very scared that I might have aspeger's syndrome too,because I act too childish for my ages(I am almost 20),and my social skills aren't as they should.But giving the fact that I have no problems with my eye contact(I don't find difficult to look someone in the eye)I think it is imposible for me to have aspegers.I havea problem that many times,I get atacked by all sort of non sens and irrelevant thoughts while speaking to someone or while doing something,so this is an attention problem.And I also have no problems if my daily rutine has changed,for example if something un preddicted happens,like I gotta go to another town over 30 minutes and I have to stay there for a week,I have no problem with that.Even though I might have things I am interested in,there's no problem if I can't do them or can't talk about them

Anonymous said...

So giving this facts,it is imposible for me to have aspeger's,right?

Anonymous said...

I'm a 38yo male and recently realized I have this same exact same problem and have had it all my life as far back as I can remember. It's only been the last couple years that it's really bothered me.

I started researching and found that someone suggested imagining that you put a vail on someone's face to cover up most of the face, but imagine that only the eyes remain. Once I started trying this, WOW!!! Major difference!!

I can now focus on someone's eyes!

So, I think it's just that the whole face is like a sensory overload! I imagine taking the vail away and instantly I start to feel uncomfortable. When I imagine the vail is back, I feel calm.

I'm a successful software engineer today and highly functional, but after reading of AS, I know I have Asperger's.

Hope this technique helps others!!!

Shannon - Dallas, TX

Anonymous said...

i was just in a group and i was trying to hear what the person was saying. its so distressing cuz i miss out in what they are saying cuz i look up then look down. i want to really get what they are saying and be involved. i just have such a hard time.

robyn said...

wow thats good shannon. i think the eyes really overload me.

quantoid said...

For me, eyes are like magnets, but the wrong way round so they repel rather than attract! It feels just like a physical force pushing my eyes away. Very uncomfortable.

I used to think this was because as a very young child I was conditioned to associate eye contact with being told off. I still have a vivid memory of a teacher's bright blue eyes staring at me as she told me off for knocking something over. Not sure if it's an AS thing but being told off for an accident really upset me!

It's reassuring to learn that aversion to eye contact is more likely to be genetic, so I can stop worrying that I must have been very naughty as a child!

Anonymous said...

Thank you everybody for sharing with me. I want to have more understanding about being around someone (in a shared house situation) who appears to find conversation and eye contact incredibly challenging/painful as some of you have described. I pick up on how uncomfortable this person feels, yet I feel incredibly uncomfortable about ignoring them, or not making a friendly comment, or trying to initiate a short conversation, as I would with people without even thinking about it normally, day to day. . It makes me feel ever so self conscious myself. Then, out of the blue, occasionally, they can be ever so chatty, give fantastic eye contact, then switch off again completely, just as quickly. My question is would it be better to do the same thing, and completely ignore them, offer no eye contact, so I don't encroach on their space? It feels very painful and rude to do this, but maybe would make them more comfortable? It feels impossible to broach the subject. I guess I'm the exact opposite of AS, needing reassurance that I'm acknowledged and appreciated, eye contact is incredibly important to me. What would you aspies recommend?

Erynn said...

I figured out when I was 14 that most people can't tell if you're looking at their nose, not their eyes. Unfortunately it still takes effort.

sophia said...

I have ADD and Asperger's, and nobody understands the eye contact issue which I've had trouble with.
Just yesterday my mother (who knows of the ADD and Asperger's!) lectured me for not looking at her while she was talking. It's so uncomfortable :'(

Anonymous said...

Eye contact is very hard and very annoying,. I can force myself to do it for a really long time, but after I have made eye contact with someone for a really long time, I actually get a little moody like, MAN I had a super bad day. It is also an unconscious thing. When my fiancé met me for the first time, he was really annoyed that I was looking around me instead of at him, and I've always done that in the 3 years I've known him....but I did not realize it because I thought that I was comfortable enough with him to make eye contact, but he says that I still don't and I didn't even realize it. So sometimes it's not just being uncomfortable but also not even realizing it, because deep down inside, I know I'm listening to the person, so I don't usually notice that there's something wrong or I look kind of goofy staring at a book instead of at the person's face when talking

katescarlett said...

I don't find eye contact difficult except with authority figures eg lecturers. or somebody who is attracted to me. Lately I have noticed that is is worst with middle aged men, so perhaps it has something do with "dominance". I am an undiagnosed aspergers woman. I find the comments here interesting, and feel that your mind state, based on my experience, must have something to do with the uncomfrotability factor.

placid_moon said...

im just trying to figure out how to have a conversation, although its limited cuz of anxiety. but it is so distressing for me mostly cuz eye contact just stresses me out. i want to find a way to have a balance or a way to communicate to where im not so overwhelmed.

Anonymous said...

I have found that it is much easier to converse standing side by side rather than across from someone, or even at an angle. Try walking and talking. No eye contact required.

Brink182 said...

I have Asperger's and I've become so focused on making eye contact that I used to do nothing but stare at the other person during the whole conversation and it kind of freaked people out, so I have remind myself to occasionally look away but sometimes I still forget to do so until the other person starts to look uncomfortable with my prolonged staring at their eyes.

Anonymous said...

This article was quite helpful. I am an undiagnosed Asperger's woman (my two oldest are diagnosed aspies and it is clear I am too).

I have the problem that I can make eye contact ok when I'm talking but I don't know how to hold eye contact when they are talking and then my eyes move, and they move down (probably because I'm short?) and then I get really paranoid b/c I think they think I'm looking at parts I shouldn't be and they put their hands in their pockets (as it's usually men) so I think that they DO see the unintended glance down, and then I get really really uncomfortable and am mortified. This mostly happens when the person is farther away from me, it's ok if they are closer.

It's starting to obsess me and I hate it. Help! I don't want my male collegues to think I am some kind of pervert.


Anonymous said...

What are peoples thoughts about telling each person, at the start of each conversation, that you- "have aspergers and cant easily make eye contact"?

Hayley said...

I am a retired special education teacher with self-diagnosed AS I can't remember ever being comfortable with eye contact, I just never knew why until about five years ago when I ended up with an aspie student and studied the disability.It was a relief to find out what caused my problem, but I am still working with how to solve it so to speak. The only person I have told is my mother. I've considered just opening up and letting people know. But a part of me just wants to overcome the eye contact problem somehow. I like the vail idea on here. Has anyone else tried it? I just saw it tonight on an old post. This is my first time on here.

Hayley said...

How do I feel about letting people know about my aspie's and eye contact struggle right upfront at the start of a conversation?That is a very interesting question. Have you tried it? I'm thinking to try it on a few strangers like maybe on an airplane or something and see how it makes both them and myself feel.

Hayley said...

Has anyone told their spouse and kids and then regretted it?

Anonymous said...

I don't see why we should make so much of an effort to be more like NTs. It's a completly natural thing and to me it doesn't make much sens to look into peoples eyes most of the time.

I do the roving eye technique just so the NTs don't think think that I am being rude they should be able to tell that I have a problem with eye contact and that I'm making an effort.

Tom Dahl said...

To me it really hurts - as if bolts of lightning is hurled right into my forehead. I know it seems odd, if not impossible to believe - but when it's painful, it is. Other people with Asperger's syndrome, have reacted slightly different... or rather told me that it's hard rather than painful to them. I'm living with highly functioning autism, just twenty years old. Might turn twenty-one this year.

Tom Dahl said...

I'll keep this short: It physically hurt to look into someones eyes, for too long. It feels like a bolt of lightning strikes right into my fore-head ... from the very inside. The frustration can only be measured by how depressed social situations have gotten me, alongside the chronic depression in itself. Um, whenever I've been requested/told to look someone into the eye (for whatever reasonable cause) ... I've just tried, but flinched not long after... I'm sick and tired of hearing the good old sentence; You can always learn how to do it! /learn how to handle it!

As in my case has been all in vain. Whenever I'm out in town my eyes seems to shift around ... so for the female of gender, it may turn uncomfortable. I've operated one eye, yet that did not help it at all.

I mean no harm at all! I swear to that... but I still seem to cause some sort of issue, as their reaction seems to show.

I'm twenty years old, I might turn twenty-one depending on the months to come. My AS diagnosis was given to me during junior-high. High functioning, with A.D.D - sigh.

Elisabeth Cole said...

My son is in 8th grade now and I've come to realize I don't need to "fix" him. I celebrate who he is but try to offer gentle suggestions when the occasion warrants, just to make his life a little easier. Every single one of us has a learning curve when it comes to interaction with others and we all know none of us had perfect social skills from day 1. We learn at our own pace and reach different finish lines based on our capabilities. I wouldn't change a thing about my son because he's smart, funny, quirky, and smart and I feel incredibly lucky to have him as my child. We need to stop trying to "figure out" how to raise kids like him and instead let them know how accepted they are!!