Some people get offended when you don’t make eye contact with them. I was at a store today buying ear plugs (sound sensitivity blog post coming soon) and didn’t make eye contact with the cashier. I may not pick up on body language and non verbal cues instinctively, but I’ve been alive long enough and accumulated enough experience to surmise that when a person’s mouth forms a certain shape and their voice sounds a certain note or range of notes, that might mean you have offended them.
So here is a blog post devoted to eye contact. I can’t speak for every autistic person. The saying goes, if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism. The spectrum encompasses a wide variety of presentations.
But for me, a lot of my world is turned up and seems very intense. Something that a lot of autistic people experience are sensory sensitivities. These differ among each individual person. Some are very sensitive to the flicker that florescent lights emit. Some are sensitive to the buzzing or humming noise lights can make. Some are sensitive to touch and can’t stand the feeling of shirt tags or sock seams. Some can’t stand certain noises.
The important thing to keep in mind, something that even professionals tend to mistake, is that it doesn’t mean EVERY autistic person is going to have EVERY sensitivity. Some autistic people are even HYPOsensitive (undersensitive), for example, hyposensitive to pain.
I will go more into my specific sensitivities in the next blog post, but imagine that parts of your world were ramped up. Imagine that everything looked super vivid or bright and it exhausted you to look at it for long. Or you picked up every little sound and it was impossible to concentrate because you heard EVERYTHING.
And then imagine dealing with people. People are loud, confusing creatures. At least for me, I am usually struggling to keep up. Maybe I can’t focus on the conversation because too many other sounds are happening nearby. Maybe I don’t understand the other person correctly because I’m not reading the body language, and am hurrying in my thoughts to try and decode what they’re saying into something that makes sense to me. Maybe I’m in a group of people and am fighting against shutting down because there is just too much going on.
And they expect me to add eye contact? I actually don’t know how it feels for you, but for me, looking into another person’s eyes and having them look back into mine feels like I am touching a hot stove. I am being burned. It’s like an extra jolt of overwhelming input – I already described how sensory sensitivities can be overwhelming. When there is a lot going on, SOMETHING has to give.
And that’s why sometimes I can make more eye contact and sometimes I can make less eye contact. Sometimes the other input is less, and I can briefly endure the jolt. I do it to show you I can speak your language for short periods of time. If I need to underline something with body language, and the other demands on my senses aren’t too intense, I’ll look you in the eye. There’s another myth – it’s not true that ALL autistic people NEVER make eye contact.
But a lot of time that you think I’m looking you in the eye, I’m probably looking at your nose, or your mouth. I watch mouths a lot. I’ve lived a lot of years and went through enough childhood experiences with adults yelling at me to “Look at me when I’m talking to you” that eventually I learned to pacify, if not actually comply. I do it to make you happy.
What would make me happy? People clearly spelling out their intentions. People who don’t judge if I need to turn the noise down a little. People who don’t get offended if I can’t figure out how to reciprocate appropriately. The biggest barrier for me to making close friends is that I don’t know how to appropriately reciprocate a friendship. There needs to be a book for that.
It would be nice if there was some more understanding out there.