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A Recent Experiment with Eye Contact

As discussed a few posts back, I've been doing a lot of cub scout leader training recently. It's been very interesting because it has taught me a lot about myself. In this post I want to discuss a recent experiment with eye contact.

Overcoming the Eye Contact Behavioural Issues
I don't have a particular problem with eye contact compared to my aspie peers. This is because most people assume that I am giving good eye contact and don't hassle me about it. In truth, although I don't give good eye contact, I give great "lip contact", though probably not the kind you're thinking of.

Being deaf has taught me to stare at people's lips when they talk as an aid to lip-reading. Since most people simply assume that I'm looking at their eyes when they're talking I haven't been subject to the constant corrections that other aspies have to suffer.

Of course, it has its downsides too. Every now and then, someone will realise that I'm not looking directly into their eyes but am looking a little bit lower. Females particularly tend to become unnerved by this and will slap a hand to the top of their clothing (as if they're worried that I'm talking to their breasts).

When that happens, It's embarrassing for me and for them. Even worse, their sudden hand movements distract me so that I do end up looking there. If they could just wear sensible clothing we could concentrate on the exchange of information rather than "wardrobe malfunctions". At work, I'm always wearing a tie, so it isn't an issue for me (not that I have anything to look at anyway).

The "Test" from the Inside
Being a part-physical and part academic course, scout leadership includes a lot of bonding, team-building and psychological exercises. I groaned inwardly when we were told to select a partner for an eye-contact exercise. We had the option to refuse but I'm always keen to experiment and learn new things about myself. This seemed to be a good opportunity.

I can't remember the last time I deliberately tried to look someone in the eye but I suspect that it was when I was a child.

We stood opposite our partners and when told to start began starring into each other's eyes. I immediately felt nauseated. It was like a howling wind was screaming in my mind and I felt like I was being peeled away layer by layer. I ended up having to look away several times and although I felt calmer when I did, I still felt extremely uncomfortable knowing that those eyes were waiting for me to look back.

Finally, after what seemed an eternity, our leader told us to stop. I broke contact immediately and was surprised to find her standing right next to me.

The "Test" from the Outside
Our leadder talked generally about how our body language changed during the experiment and she mentioned mine in particular. She said that she'd sensed something was wrong with me and had moved over to me because she was worried that I might collapse. She said that I had jolted backwards and was doing things with my hands. Fisting and spreading my fingers, obviously a stim which I'd subconsciously started.

I told her that I had aspergers (I hadn't written it on the forms, so nobody knew) and I was surprised to find that I had trouble getting the words out. I was a bit out of breath. I think I'd been supressing my breathing during the experiment. Worse though, my heart was still racing and I was shaking like a leaf. It didn't seem to be getting any better.

Fortunately, our leader announced lunch immediately and I think I almost bowled people over in my haste to get out of the room. I ran down to the lunch room, quickly grabbed a plate and sat at an empty table as far away from the occupied tables as I could. It took my colleagues quite a while to fill up the tables around me and I was just beginning to stop shaking when the seats around me started to fill. There were a few people around me who obviously wanted to talk but somehow, I'm not quite sure how, I must have been giving off strange vibes because they stayed fairly silent for a few minutes longer.

Eventually I calmed down enough to be able to speak.

Things to take note of
It was an interesting test but it's not one that I'm inclined to repeat. I wasn't expecting the intensity of my own reaction and I wasn't expecting that full-fledged eye contact would be so painful. That's what happens when you go about your daily business for years not having to do it.

I'm one of the most well adjusted aspies around (IMHO). I like to think that Aspergers doesn't impact me as much as my colleagues. It's probably true but it's still scary to think that eye contact can so quickly reduce me from a competent business person to a gibbering wreak.

The most important point that I want to make here is... before you start encouraging (or forcing) your child to make eye contact, spare a thought for what it might be doing to them. Try asking them to look at mouths or chins instead.


I have become fairly proficient at faking eye contact -- it freaks me out as much as you!! I generally look at an object behind the person near their head. It works as intended most of the time. :)

Of course, where I often land myself in trouble is when someone gives me instructions. In such situations, I stare at the ground because this is the way I concentrate. Needless to say, it's not uncommon for the other person to think I'm ignoring them, daydreaming or both.

I loathe the point in which the other person says, "Would you look at me? I'm trying to tell you something important."

As I've aged, I've grown more comfortable explaining to folks that they have two choices: 1) If they insist I look in their general direction, my overall uncomfortableness will mean that I will only process 50% or less of what they are saying to me or 2) If they want me to understand what they are saying, they will have to accept the fact that I'm going to stare at the ground.

Also, I avoid eating around other people like the plague. I will go eat in a closet, if it comes to that!
Foursons said…
Eye contact doesn't concern me so much as expressing what my son's frustrations are so I can help him through the problem rather than watching it turn into a meltdown.
Chynna said…
Very interesting post. I was always told to 'make' Jaimie and our son Xander to look at us when we're talking to them. I never understood that.

Jaimie just doesn't hear us when we do that and can never get him to look you in the eye. Jaimie just can't look and listen at the same time.

I'm going to make notes of your post and try getting her to look at chins or noses.

(I've ALWAYS had trouble with eye contact. I look between the eyebrows. ;) )

Thanks, Gavin.

Lisa said…
I just can't understand the push for 'eye contact'. In my house of neurodiversity, there are so many things that cause difficulties
eye contact just doesn't rate.

I was having a rant about it just the other day...
eaucoin said…
I think one of the things about having auditory processing delay is that it forces us (like deaf people) to listen to the whole body instead of just the words (like reading lips). I get most uncomfortable when the words seem to contradict what the body is saying (I don't know which message to respond to). However, there is an exercise I found in a book that gives tips for how to use eye contact well. It suggests thinking of speech, ours and others, in written form and giving brief eye contact to the other person wherever there would be a comma or a period. This takes practice but is definitely a good strategy. I know that my sensitivity to smells and other close-up issues will always cause distraction in interpersonal contact, but I can understand men finding cleavage an issue. A friend and I were recently discussing how we frequently see clothes on mannequins that we like and then try them on to find that they are cut an inch or two below where they should be in that area. It is becoming hard to find clothing that is comfortable for people who do not want to display their "rack" and it's insidious. I laugh when I remember a suggestion by a man that he would like more cleavage in a workplace setting. He said, "you should let the air circulate around your chin more."
Corine Moore said…
That was enlightening! Thank you! I have Aspies in the house, and am learning about it. I really appreciate your blog. Thanks again. :D
Anonymous said…
I fake eye contact too-I look into people's eyes, I just don't see into them (unless I choose to). It does make for some uncomfortable situations when I maintain eye contact for a little too long, but since I've had 39 years to work on it I've gotten better at it. When I was younger, I wouldn't wear my glasses so I would just look in the general direction of a person's eyes but I couldn't really see them. I guess that's how I learned to look but not see. I also have an unusual eye colour, so people seem to feel a need to see my eyes.
Caitlin Wray said…
One of the first things I tell Simon's caregivers (day camp, sunday school, and hopefully one day his teachers if we get him into a good school) is that he is never to be forced to make eye contact. We tell them to judge whether he is listening by his actions, not by his eye contact. If he does what they are asking, it matters not whether he's looking them in the eye.

I think the eye contact issue is one of the biggest issues for people on the spectrum insofar as there is still a big part of the 'treatment sector' that believes forced eye contact is a necessary part of social integration. Just another example of where the deficit has nothing to do with autism and everything to do with a neurocentric culture.

Gavin, I feel just as you do about eye contact and I respond in just the same ways. I get nearly paralyzed. One sense at a time works best for me; if I'm listening, I need to be looking at something somewhat less complex and overwhelming than all the information that comes out of a person's eyes and face--information that comes at me in such a rush that I can't possibly parse it.

I hate the idea of autistic kids being made to do things like make eye contact, as though they're just being perverse. There are very good internal reasons that we avoid it--just as there are very good internal reasons that we stim. Take away those harmless behaviors and we're a mess. Kind of like trying to get a left handed person to be right handed, except worse by several hundred orders of magnitude.
DJ Kirkby said…
I still struggle with eye contat and think it's really overrated. I pretend by looking at people's eyebrows as much as possible in the hope that they'll be fooled into thinking I'm making eye contact.
Stephanie said…
I "fake" eye contact, though it wasn't until the boys began therapy that I realized this. I always look at people's faces, but look a little off to the side and unfocus my eyes.

Don't really know why, other than direct eye contact feels uncomfortable.

Regarding "wardrobe malfunctions": Women react that way because, despite social progress, we're still frequently objectified. Often, it doesn't require any kind of exposure for this to occur, either. I don't insist on eye contact (obviously), but I do strongly prefer guys look at my face when they're talking to me. Rough estimate: 40% of the random guys I talk to don't.

That being said, there's a considerable difference in trajectory between reading lips and staring at a woman's chest. If you don't assume eye contact should be made, then the difference is noticeable. Perhaps if you assume eye contact should be made, then the difference is less noticeable.
Anonymous said…
Anonymous said…
I told someone a life changing story about my child in about three sentences and she started to look at pictures on the wall of kids she didn't know at a school. I looked behind us and she said that it was the first time she was near that part of the wall and never looked at the picture. At first I thought how insensitive and rude but then decided she really couldn't help it.
When I asked her something about herself she was fully engaged in the conversation and gave eye contact and became animated. I feel better now.
Anonymous said…
"When that happens, It's embarrassing for me and for them. Even worse, their sudden hand movements distract me so that I do end up looking there. If they could just wear sensible clothing we could concentrate on the exchange of information rather than "wardrobe malfunctions"."

Don't blame them and their clothing choices (which I bet *are* sensible, especially in hot weather!). How would you like it if someone else had problems talking to you and blamed those problems on your sensible choice of clothes?
Anonymous said…
"A friend and I were recently discussing how we frequently see clothes on mannequins that we like and then try them on to find that they are cut an inch or two below where they should be in that area. It is becoming hard to find clothing that is comfortable for people who do not want to display their "rack" and it's insidious. "

Exactly! You shouldn't be accused of ableism and anti-Asperger's behavior for buying and wearing the most sensible clothes that are available to you (not even if there aren't any available in your size that have high buttons and so you're wearing clothes that show a bit of chest!!) .
Anonymous said…
Actually, I've found it works better if you don't pick one thing to look at, and instead watch their lips a bit, glance at their eyes, go back to the lips, then to the nose, then glance at the eyes, then maybe look past them, then back to their lips, and so on. If you watch most people talking, they don't stare into people's eyes continously. They are glancing around, sometimes looking at the eyelids, sometimes the lips, then the eyebrows, then back to the eyes, then eyelids, and so on. Their eyes actually move around quite a bit if you watch them. Except when you have a couple deeply in love. Then the eye thing is a little different.

Also, if someone demands that you look them in the eyes, you can try pointing out to them that you hear with your ears, not your eyes. Not guaranteed to impress them, but it can sometimes stop them in mid-tirade. Results for that not guaranteed.
Anonymous said…
Eye contact has always been a problem for me, especially when my parents gave me "the look" to make me prove I was not lying. Usually I just give an unfocused (cross eyed if very close) stare near their eyes.
Anonymous said…
Eye contact has always been a problem for me, especially when my parents gave me "the look" to make me prove I was not lying. Usually I just give an unfocused (cross eyed if very close) stare near their eyes.
Miguel Palacio said…
My dad must have detected this early in me as a kid as I remember him coaching me as a young child. He told me that he tended to look at people's mouthes and thereby learned to read lips. He could tell what people were saying from pretty far away. But he also told me that for some things people would want to see that I was making eye contact. He used examples saying that some people might seem annoyed once they discovered that you weren't actually looking at them in the eyes, or they might be inclined to think that you aren't sincere because you're not looking at them in the eyes. For that, he proposed that I look at their third eye, so to speak, and he pointed to ever so slightly above right between the eyes. We would practice with each other and he showed me how most people would not perceive me as actually not seeing them in the eyes. Later on, as I got older, and I was supposed to say speeches for class in school or recite poetry, which was required in the country where I grew up, my dad suggested I look at the tops of people's heads. Because even looking at them anywhere bear their eyes was too unnerving to me. It still was for me until recently.

Now I have finally broken that threshold and I find eyes to be utterly interesting. A window into people's souls. Unless overwhelmed for one reason or another, I tend to carefully observe people's eyes, perhaps even dwell in them. hahahaha Now I find that my gaze can be unnerving to some, yet very interesting to others.

I've always been a people-watcher and I notice that most strangers feel very uncomfortable if you look them in the eyes if they feel that there is no reason for association with them. Even when you catch them looking at you when they think you don't know they are looking, they quickly avert their eyes. I find this to be the case more in some cultures than in others.

For example, in my native country of Panama, people will meet your eyes and nod or wave even from very far away. On the other hand, in the United States, to the most part, people tend not to acknowledge you until you are practically in their face. It's as though there were a larger protective bubble. And strangers in my country of origin tend to greet you and acknowledge you even from very far away. It's like you've made a connection, and then the familial nod that follows. Sometimes if its someone you know they'll wave or you wave and the other person waves back. From these observations it seems to me that Panamanians are generally more effusive, connecting and outgoing than people from the USA. As such, I also feel more at ease and get a better vibe from people from my country of origin.

But, in my analysis, I feel that this may be what NTs might feel when approaching an Aspie. An NT may perceive this as a negative vibe.

And now even I must admit that initially I may perceive it as such, until the rest if their actions give them away as a fellow Aspie then I no longer feel there is anything to worry about, because then I also feel like I'm at home and speak that language and can for attunement in ways that don't require stuff like eye-contact.

As of about two years ago I can deliver speeches at public events, without a meltdown or shutdown. But I equate it to being like an astronaut doing a space-walk out of their capsule. It's an acquired skill, but eventually one needs to go back into the sustaining support of one's spacecraft.

Does anyone have any ideas as to why eye contact is such a horrid experience?

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