In my previous blog, Autism Meets Star Wars, I mentioned how Star Wars affected me as an autistic individual, and what it was like for me to take a leap of faith to audition for the upcoming 7th installment. Now I wish to present to you a new factor among autistic individuals that I too experienced. That factor is eye contact within the autistic person.
Have you ever noticed how your child, or a friend or person you know does not maintain eye contact when speaking to him? Well, I was like that as a child and people found me so weird just because of how my physical focus appeared. There were so many times when my mind would draw blank, and face would be facing a person, object or dead air, and that would be during a conversation another person was having with me. The kind of response I would get was “William, quite staring at her” or “William, are you paying attention to anything I say?”
People would always seem to think that snapping their fingers into my eyes, or screaming at me was a good way to get my attention, when truthfully; it just motivated me to ignore them on purpose.
I could never get used to looking people in the eye until I reached my late teens. However, that doesn’t mean that I was ignoring them or not understanding them. I struggled with eye contact because I felt like negative messages were being sent to me. I hear the audio coming from the person’s mouth, but no matter how loud they speak, the eye contact would just immediately mute their voice. As an autistic person, I used to be really judgmental over another person based on the expression of their eyes. The other persons brows could dawdle, which I may interpret as crazy, or the other person’s brows could remain still but in a curved position, which I may interpret as evil. Those types of interpretations could really throw me off guard and make it difficult for me to pay attention to what the opposite person is saying.
Another thing that keeps me from making eye contact is that I felt like an invisible beam or force was being fed from the opposite persons eyes into my very own, and it felt intimidating for me. I always preferred not to focus on what intimidates me, which is why I did not maintain eye contact at the time. Instead, I would focus on an object that is very near to the person’s eye so that it looks like I am maintaining eye contact, like the person’s ear or earring, hair, necklace, freckle on the forehead, or an object that is past the persons face but very close like the counter, the refrigerator, chair or lamp. At first when I was a little kid, I would always turn my face away from the opposite person, but when I was told that it is rude to not look at them when being spoken to, I would make it look as if I was maintaining eye contact, when in fact I am not to protect myself from being intimidated.
You may also notice that some autistic children like to focus on the opposite persons mouth instead of the eye during a conversation. According to Temple Grandin, autistic children preferred to look at the mouth because they are very visual learners, and they can only learn with pictures or words laid out in front of them. Audio is very hard for them to pay attention to. They may either not be able to focus on listening to the audio, or the opposite person may either be speaking too fast, or stammer, or jump around on various topics that it becomes hard to focus on. Temple Grandin stated that when autistic children look at the mouth of the opposite person, they can see the words coming from the mouth, which would make it easier for them to interpret what they are saying.
The last thing that prevents me from making eye contact is when my mind completely goes blank. As I stated earlier, people would scream or snap at me to get my attention, when it fact it would only cause my mind to think nothing because of fear that person sent me, and thinking nothing would cause my body to become very still, and I would not be able to pay attention to my surroundings, like an incoming object, another person approaching or talking to me, or a task that I need to finish. It would take minutes, maybe even hours for me to snap back into reality, and once I did, I would refuse to pay further attention to the person who snapped or shouted at me.
Another thing causes my mind to go blank is because my mind is focused on something else, and it usually takes a lot of effort for me to draw my focus away from what I set it on, to something else. For instance, while my body is facing the person talking to me, I would be able to see a solid image of that person. But sooner or later, my mind would become set on something that attracts me, like Star Wars for instance. As my mind draws closer and closer to the action scenes from the movies, that solid image I once saw of the person speaking to me would slowly fade away to the point where I only see small portions of that person, and more images from the movies that thrill me. Or I may be able to snap myself back and see the solid image of the person talking to me, but in the background, the person’s voice would be muted and all I’m hearing is music and battle sound effects from the movies.
When you encounter an autistic child or person that is having trouble making eye contact with you, that doesn’t mean they dislike you or are not listening to you. A good autistic saying is, “I don’t have to look at you to understand you.” Bear in mind though that their lack of eye contact will not always be permanent. You can slowly help them get used to maintaining eye contact. Most of the time, it depends on trust. If they know you well enough to trust you, they will be certain enough to judge if you are worth looking in the eye or not. Now in order to maintain their trust, is patience. As you read this blog, I strongly urge you to not scream or physically get emotional with them, because they will want to avoid you, and don’t be surprised if it takes days for them to be okay with you afterwards. Autistic people can be very insecure as well. If you show signs of frustration, like deep sighs, angry faces, over the top body language, they will think that you dislike them and not want to be around you. Even if you assure them that you do like them, and are not upset with them, they will not be convinced. Always remember patience and understanding where they come from is the key. That helps you build your trust between you and the autistic person, and trust will help them become more comfortable with looking you in the eye.
For Temple Grandin info please view: My Experience with Autism