Eye contact and Autism – cultural difference not deficit

In 2014 my second book was published. It is an activity-based book for Autistic teens to prepare them for employment and build their knowledge and confidence to join the workforce when the time comes. I am very proud of this book and was quite excited when it was published. The book coincided with an increase in demand for me as a speaker and consultant on all things Autism. It was a time when my Autistic  identity flourished and I delighted in talking inclusion and respect and Autistic pride.

Shortly after my workbook was released I was talking to an acquaintance who I didn’t know well but who had always been friendly. I told her about my book and how I was an Autistic advocate and speaker. She looked excited and then went on to tell me in great detail about how when she was a teacher she had taught ‘lots of students with Autism’. She recounted the tale of one eleven year old boy. The woman said that he didn’t make eye contact so she would put her finger on his chin and push his face up so he was looking at her. I was utterly horrified at this. As a teacher this woman had physically manhandled an Autistic boy under her care for the ‘poor behaviour’ of not looking at her. I somehow managed to refrain from pushing her chin up unexpectedly to see how she enjoyed it. Instead I told her about eye contact an Autism and why Autistic people can find eye contact invasive and threatening and a host of other unpleasant things. Needless to say I didn’t seek out the company of this ex-teacher again!

So what is the deal with eye contact? Many educators and clinicians and people working with Autistic people – and especially children – will tell you it is a cornerstone of communication and that it is impossible to convey attention or meaning without doing this. That is actually not true. The ’standard’ of eye contact as communication is only true in some countries and cultures. It is not universally used. For example in some Aboriginal cultures in Australia eye contact is viewed as rude and aggressive, especially between people of different ages.

Forcing eye contact for Autistic  people is based in the concept that Autistic experience is deficient or wrong or ‘weird.’

Autistic  people who ‘do’ eye contact – and I speak form personal experience here – do not usually ‘do’ it at all. I look in the general direction of the face or the bridge of the nose when speaking with non-autistic  folks as it keeps them happy and seems easier. This is not the ‘right’ way to approach the issue, but it is one I use and a lot of other Autistic  people use. Attitudes around eye contact is part of what I see as a cultural difference between Autistic and neurotypical people. Cultural differences are not right or wrong, they are simply different. Non-autistic people in Western English-speaking countries tend to look at one another’s eyes on and off when in conversation. Autistic people usually don’t.

So why is eye contact difficult for Autistics? Each Autistic  person I have spoken to on this matter has a subtly different, but almost universally unpleasant, experience of eye contact. For me, if my gaze accidentally meets the eyes of the person I am talking to, I feel like I can see into their very soul. It is horrific – too much information on a grand scale! Others feel the eyes of other people burning into their own. One friend described eye contact as being like prongs from the other person’s eyes spearing her own eyes. Kind of makes sense that we avoid eye contact!

There are a number of real problems with forcing eye contact in Autistic people – be they children or adults. Not making eye contact is not ‘wrong’. I very rarely make eye contact and if then only by accident yet I work in areas requiring significant sensitivity and emotional intelligence – both of which are things I have in spades – without having any intentional eye contact ever. The ‘need’ for eye contact I suspect relates to neurotypical people needing to feel they are being listened to, but there are ways of listening – and demonstrating you are listening – without making eye contact. The main issue I see here is the notion that non-autistic experience of communication is somehow the only legitimate experience. Diversity is about listening and respecting other views but when we are told we do it ‘wrong’ it only serves to exacerbate issues of power imbalance and discrimination.

And the obvious issue with forcing eye contact is the suffering the Autistic  person will experience through being made to do it. This will add to stress and overload and most likely contribute significantly to behavioural issues for kids – and adults! Plus it is rude and punitive about something which isn’t in fact necessary. Many Autistic  people I know – including me – have worked out some way of appearing to make eye contact without actually doing so just so that we avoid the judgement of others.

We need to stop forcing people to make eye contact and focussing on it being ‘poor communication’ not to do so. I actively listen to others, I can have my complete attention focussed on a person by listening just to the words. For me the words said – and a little bit of tonal modulation in the voice – convey all the meaning I am going to get from face-to-face communication and I have managed pretty well with that  over my forty-three years. I do not know the colour of anybody’s eyes I have ever met except my own and even that is a bit hit and miss. Please don’t force children or adults to make eye contact when it has no particular benefit for the Autistic person and is stressful, invasive and actually makes it considerably harder to listen attentively when you are trying to manage the onslaught of input form the eye contact!

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5 thoughts on “Eye contact and Autism – cultural difference not deficit

  1. Direct eye contact is considered rude in many cultures, primarily those that are relationship based such as East Asian cultures. I use eye contact to assess reaction from someone I’m speaking to, but find it can be distracting when I’m trying to listen and understand. I end up studying the physical attributes of their eyes and completely lose focus on their words. Then I’m staring and that also makes people feel uncomfortable. Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

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  2. I’m a pediatric Speech Therapist in the US and could not agree more! There have actually been studies that show pain centers light up on an MRI when you ask individuals on the spectrum to make eye contact. When parents ask me about working on eye contact I tell them eye contact is about comfort. If my patient is comfortable making eye contact then they will. If not I’ll just assume they are listening and we will all survive!! I also ask the parents “if I go to a restaurant and order without making eye contact do I still get the food?”, of course they say “yes”; I then respond well let’s work on things that will help your child get the things they need and improve their life!! That’s the important part of communicating. Almost none of that involves eye contact. Really loved your post and your perspective. Hopefully, us neurotypicals will eventually realize this is a ridiculous thing on which to work!! Best wishes!!

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  3. Dear Jeanette, this is a very insightful post. I am a social science researcher and am writing a book on gaze and communication. I would like to ask your permission to quote you in the book. Could I contact you via email to ask about this? Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

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