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Gaining a New Point of View: Speaking with Individuals About Eye Contact

Often in this space, we take the vantage point of those neurotypical individuals who are seeking to better understand the unique challenges and symptoms exhibited by those with autism. And that’s how most people who aren’t physically affected by autism respond to finding out that a loved one has received a diagnosis in a similar way: shock followed by a deep investigation into what it means to live with autism and how to help your loved one better navigate the world around them.

This week, we’re taking a different tact than other weeks, researching around the web to find personal diaries, forum comments, and other crucial pieces of insight into what it means to live with autism. In particular, we are honing in on one particular area to better understand the experience of living with autism: the issue of making eye contact with other individuals.

After all, as we’ve discussed extensively in the past, individuals with autism have a particularly hard time establishing social and empathetic contact with other people. Why is that? For one such respondent, Laura Spoerl, she emphasizes the abstract nature of it and how tiring it can be. She continues, “Looking at someone else in the eye means I am taking in everything about them as a person, and I become overloaded. It’s a constant stream of extra sensory or processing information on top of what I’m already trying to sort through in my head. It can disrupt any thought or speaking process I have going on and zaps my energy quickly.”

This sense of looking into another person’s eyes as leading to an overloading of the senses is echoed by Sydney Brown who describes her eyes as almost miniature cameras which she constantly revisits. As she puts it herself, “My eyes take pictures of the things I see, and I can mentally go back and revisit these pictures in my mind for a very long time. If I look into your eyes for too long, I become overcome with so many pictures of your eyes. It is overwhelming, and I have to look away to give my mind something else to process.”

For others, eye contact brings up issues of judgment, causing some to feel like they are being judged, something Emma Wozny echoes: “To me, eye contact feels like I’m being stared at, like I’m being scrutinized and judged. It makes me uncomfortable because I feel like I’m under immense pressure, and the tension builds and builds until finally I have to look away. It feels almost confrontational, which causes me a lot of anxiety. It’s just too much pressure, and I can’t keep eye contact for very long unless it’s with someone I trust… But despite how my eyes may wander, or if I’m even looking in another direction, make no mistake, I am still listening, and I am still interested in what you have to say.”

Others go even further, with Megan Klein remarking that eye contact can make her feel like she’s simply standing naked in front of others. But perhaps Tom Bowes’ succinct reflection best summarizes the experience and general malaise that comes with looking into other people’s eyes: “It just feels yucky.”