This post is part of a series for Autism Acceptance Month in which I will be exploring various ideas and subjects relating to autism and being autistic.
Eyes are the windows to the soul, or so the saying goes. Perhaps this is because of how much information is transmitted by the eyes. The eyes can convey so many additional layers of meaning to what is being said. Eyes can betray emotions, painting them for all the world to see. Eyes can hold so many secrets, if you are able to read them. However, for many autistics, reading the messages of the eyes does not come naturally.
A lack of eye contact is one of the most prevalent stereotypes of autism, however, much tends to be lost in the stereotype such as why and other presentations of eye contact in autistic people. The first big failing of this stereotype is that not all autistics avoid eye contact. While many of us avoid eye contact, others make more eye contact than is socially acceptable, while some autistics are able to make typical eye contact. Just like almost all other autistic traits, not every autistic will experience it and those who do will experience it at one extreme or the other.
So why do autistic people avoid eye contact so much? There are many reasons and it can vary from autistic person to autistic person. For some of us, eye contact is uncomfortable or even painful. Personally, eye contact feels like getting naked in front of a stranger. It’s too intimate, too revealing. I’m only able to make eye contact consistently with those I am comfortable with. When necessary I am able to force eye contact but it tend to be draining and distracting for me. Other autistic people have emphasized how distracting eye contact can be. Many have explained that it is difficult or impossible to follow a conversation if they have to make eye contact.
But why? Why is eye contact overwhelming, painful, or distracting for so many autistic people? It is likely the abundance of information being transmitted. So much is conveyed by the eyes that it can be too much to process in addition to all of the other sensory input that the brain must deal with. This overabundance of information can result in an autistic person feeling overwhelmed, understandably. It can also present as feeling uncomfortable or in pain which is similar to how sensory overload can present. If we think of eye contact as a form of sensory input, the difficulty many autistic people have with it begins to make more sense. Further, it can be distracting for many autistic people almost like having something beeping in your ear every time you have a conversation. Autistics and allistics alike would struggle to focus if they had to deal with something going off in their ear again and again. It’s simply too much sensory input for the brain to handle.
Meanwhile, there are other autistic people who make more eye contact than is considered socially acceptable. This is often due to difficulty reading nonverbal cues. In other words, they are not able to read the subtle signs of when to initiate and end eye contact and they do not understand the social rules governing eye contact. If we continue to think of eye contact as sensory input, then those who make “too much” eye contact are sensory seeking rather than sensory avoidant. They need more of the input than is typically needed so they end up maintaining eye contact longer than is considered acceptable.
Whether an autistic person makes “too much” or “too little” eye contact, differences in eye contact are a common autistic trait. Standards for eye contact vary so much from one culture to another, it’s no wonder many autistic people struggle to understand the rules surrounding it. No matter what level of eye contact an autistic person is able to make, their needs should be respected. Forcing an autistic person who doesn’t make eye contact is cruel as, in many cases, it is subjecting the person to great discomfort or pain. Meanwhile, those who make a lot of eye contact tend to be mocked or treated badly for diverging from the social norms. None of this is ok. Respect autistic people’s eye contact. Respect our sensory needs.