A brief post about eye contact
These are my son’s eyes, cut from a photo taken 5 years ago. I know from my studies into facial recognition that the chances of anyone recognising him from this picture are slim, so here he is.
Before I even knew very much about autism at all, I learned that eye contact could be difficult and uncomfortable for autistic people. I was aware that my son found it hard and we used to encourage him to at least occasionally glance at people he was talking to, just to check they were listening (or still awake!).
While he was in the assessment process there was an incident at school and I was called in after school to speak to the deputy headteacher. I was perhaps at my most vulnerable at the time, parenting a child presenting with significant support needs, feeling pretty confident that he was autistic, but still facing mostly unsaid, though sometimes blatant, criticism of my parenting and ill-informed assumptions about the source of his behaviours.
When I was called in, the deputy head told me what had happened and then turned to my son to ask for an explanation. He looked away, probably thinking, and she grabbed and held his face to make him look at her. I froze in shock. I cannot remember what I did at the time, though it is one of those memories which brings with it a deep visceral response even now, 8 years later.
I made a complaint and she never dealt with him again. I still can’t quite believe she did it. He was probably 5 years old. He was in the assessment process for autism. He wasn’t looking at her. Did it really matter? Do we hear better if we look at the source of the sound when it is right in front of us? I don’t think it mattered and I don’t think not looking means not listening.
Since then we have been lucky to have a succession of teachers who, to be fair, have quickly grasped that eye contact does not increase my son’s ability to listen or enhance his concentration. In fact, it does the opposite. He concentrates best when he looks most distracted. If he is made to look at the teacher (supply/locum teachers nearly always expect this as they don’t know him) he hears nothing. He is too busy in the conscious and, to him, unnatural act of looking at a face.
Like many of these autistic commonalities, I hadn’t even realised I had a problem with eye contact. Like many of my autistic realisations, I didn’t know I was different until I knew I was different.
Today was a bad eye contact day. I don’t know why. Sometimes it comes fairly naturally and I am completely oblivious to making eye contact. Today I was conscious of where my eyes were looking during every encounter with a human. In the office, in a meeting with my boss, in meetings with clients and in the lift with colleagues, I could not work out what to do with my eyes.
Once you’re aware that you don’t know where to look it becomes all-consuming. It is hard to concentrate on the matter at hand when you are hyperfocused on your own eye gaze.
Should I look at your eyes? Am I staring? When did I blink? Am I blinking too much? This was raised in my assessment, I blink a lot in eye contact situations. What if I look at your mouth? Then I get distracted and fascinated by your facial hair, the peculiar shapes of your wrinkles or your wonky teeth. And I realise I’ve been staring and forgotten what we were talking about. Perhaps I should glance vaguely in the direction of your eyes but focus on a spot just behind you? Hmm, now I look vacant and bored. And round and round it goes. Note taking is a useful avoidance tactic here.
My son describes experiencing physical pain when forced to maintain eye contact. I don’t find eye contact painful but I have found that some other people’s eye gaze can be quite intimidating. It can also verge on hypnotic, drawing me in and creating a strange compliance in me that isn’t usually present! A former boss had this effect and I now avoid her as I feel compelled to sustain eye contact with her and can’t disengage. If anyone can shed light on this I would love to hear your thoughts 🙂
Eye contact can be forced, it can be painful, it can be learned and it can be intermittent. Thankfully, there are plentiful other ways to demonstrate we are listening, aware of and interacting with other people. Which way our eyes are pointing has little bearing on these activities.