Concentration, empathy, and attention have long been linked to a pair of eyes meeting directly. It's often intimated that if someone isn't looking you in the eye when they speak to you, they should be treated with suspicion, or at the very least the content of what they said should be treated as such. "Look me in the eye and tell me that" is a term used almost interchangeably with "tell me the truth."
But what if it's difficult for a person to maintain eye contact? Should that person be judged as insincere, untrustworthy, or socially flawed?
For those with autism who struggle to hold someone's gaze, these assumptions are often made. And, as someone who's suffered as a result of these assumptions, I want people to understand why they're so damaging.
Difficulty in maintaining eye contact is such a known part of the autistic experience that John Elder Robinson titled his autobiography about life with Asperger's Look Me in the Eye. The Indiana Resource Center for Autism describes the many ways this difficulty can manifest:
"Some people who have autism actively avoid eye contact and appear confused and anxious when it occurs. Some seemed to make eye contact relatively early but later reported they were actually looking at something that fascinated them (such as their reflection in one's eyeglasses). When cued 'Look at me,' some make eye contact that recipients experience more as a staring gaze than as a communicative exchange. Some gradually learn to make eye contact and to read simple meanings that they have come to understand through experiences with what happens to them when a particular person's eyes have a specific look."
While research on this is limited, there are some theories as to why eye contact is hard for some with autism. It's been suggested that in children with autism, for instance, an inability to hold eye contact has to do with a reduced ability to govern eye movements.
Of course, none of this to say that eye contact is an issue for every autistic person; the saying if you've met one autistic person, then you've met one autistic person very much holds true in this case. But it's clear that it's an issue for some in the community -- and equally clear that there's a stigma attached to it.
In Look Me in the Eye, Robinson listed his inability to hold someone's gaze as one of the reasons he was branded a "social deviant." I regularly see posts in support groups on social media in which parents comment on their child with autism not providing the "desired" eye contact. And this stigma cuts both ways: I have also heard stories about people being unable to gain an autistic diagnosis because their eye contact was too good.
There are also many therapy programs designed to "encourage" or "improve" eye contact in autistic children, including in Applied Behavioral Analysis programs. Research and educational documents with titles like "Teaching Eye Contact to Children with Autism" and "Making Eye Contact A Reinforcer" further aim to "help."
The suggestion is clear, and even explicit: An inability to hold eye contact is a "social deficit" that must be "fixed," rather than a perfectly normal and acceptable aspect of the autistic experience.
I know from personal experience that such suggestions can do real harm.
When I was growing up, eye contact was mentioned during confrontations at home where my truth was demanded. "Can you look me in the eye and tell me that?" I was asked. But I can't recall either of my parents ever saying outright that I should look people in the eyes more, or that it was an expected part of communicating with others. Problems didn't really occur until my early school days, when teachers insisted that I should look the person I speak to in the eye. During these exchanges, I learned for the first time the pain and trauma that could come from meeting eyes across space.
Yes, I do mean pain, and yes, I do mean trauma.
Eye contact actually hurts me. If I meet the eyes of another and hold their gaze for more than a microsecond, I experience sharp discomfort throughout my entire body. When making eye contact, I also feel that my very soul has been laid bare -- that my every inner thought is on display, and that my mind can be read and my secrets made public. The best I way can explain it is that it's like being opened up totally from the inside out for all to see.
It's a horrible experience, to put it bluntly.
This is, of course, my unique experience. But I am seemingly not alone in it. And I have to wonder: Instead of focusing on how to teach autistic children how to maintain eye contact, wouldn't it be better to teach society that some people will look you in the eye when they talk to you, and some will not? And that this is perfectly okay?
A lack of eye contact isn't a sign that a person lacks attention, empathy, or care; there are better and more effective ways of gauging these qualities in a person.
Just because I can't hold your gaze doesn't mean I have a problem. But it's time to confront the fact that our culture does.
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