It was only very recently that it occurred to me: I rarely look people directly in the eyes.
Coming from a 36-year-old autistic person, that probably sounds preposterous. Autistic people are known for not making eye contact, aren’t we? And surely I’d have noticed such a major behavioural trait in myself?
I mean, yes, my autism went undetected for most of that time; a good reason for that would have been my ability to socially interact at least reasonably effectively. In all my life so far, nobody has ever picked up on any especial eye-contact weirdness on my part. And neither, it seems, have I.
I’ve been looking at people’s faces for so long when having conversations with them that nothing has ever struck me as odd. I’ve read accounts by fellow autistics mentioning sensory overload, information overload, actual pain, sensations akin to “looking at the sun”, when making eye contact with others.
Why have I never experienced this?
My ease with facing people when listening or speaking to them was one of the many, many reasons why — for a long time, and despite having so many traits — I never quite thought of myself as a likely candidate for autism.
And then I realised. I don’t really make eye contact at all.
There are exceptions. There are occasions when I have looked my husband, and previous significant others, directly in the eye. I can happily make eye contact with my own children.
But eye contact with other humans, outside my immediate family? I’ve hardly ever even attempted it; at least not in as long as I can consciously remember.
I look at people’s mouths.
Always have done.
My gaze will momentarily scan the other areas of the face. I will ‘see’ the eyes. But they’re not my main point of focus. I will, at times, glance to the side of the person, or down at some ‘prop’ or other that I have at my disposal — a drink, my iPad, some papers, my own child. And then I’ll focus back on the lips.
Such is my difficulty with processing speech as a principle form of communication that — most of the time — I’m following people’s lips intently as they speak, using this as a way of zoning in on speech; a way of trying to filter out other sensory input; a way to reduce distractions; a way to better enable me to keep up with what’s being said, so I can respond appropriately.
And I’ve always done this. It’s so ingrained in me that it’s only within the past six months that I’ve realised, consciously, that this is what I do.
Recently I’ve been experimenting with actual eye contact. And as it turns out, I can’t actually bear to do it for more than a fleeting second or two. I’ve never been able to do it long enough even to discover whether or not I feel pain. I don’t actually want to do it long enough to find out.
So I’ll continue to listen, lip read, and let my eyes occasionally dart across the face of my conversation partner. It’s easier. It seems to work just fine.
But to think, I’ve gone all this time. And here I am, discovering yet another thing I’ve unknowingly hidden — masked — from even myself for so long.