Why I “can’t possibly be Autistic”, Reason #2: eye to eye?

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.


9 thoughts on “Why I “can’t possibly be Autistic”, Reason #2: eye to eye?

  1. Yes, I look most often at people’s mouths too. It definitely aids my understanding! When I’m in a situation where I need to fake eye-contact, I look at people’s foreheads. I learned that trick in high school and have used it ever since then.

    Part of the reason I didn’t realize I was unusual about eye contact was that I assumed everyone else only looked people in the eye in order to avoid getting in trouble, which was the only time I ever did it as a kid. I didn’t realize until a few years ago that most people do it naturally or actually enjoy doing it.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Oh yes, I think I do the forehead thing too sometimes. And yes, eye contact as a kid when trying not to get into trouble — me too!

    I find it so weird that my learned approach to faking eye contact — or at least maintaining some kind of gaze — is so ingrained, it’s virtually unconscious. Virtually unconscious, but not completely so.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Same with me, I rarely look people in the eye, because it makes me uncomfortable, and I don’t know how to react to what people are saying. By the way, I mentioned before here that I’ve recently been diagnosed with Aspies and my wife too. My son of 5 is also on the spectrum. He is full blown autistic. I really at this point in time have no identity. Everyone around me seems to have found their place in the world….

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I can look at people’s eyes when they are talking but usually when I am talking I find I look off to the side. Once I realized I did this I tried to change it but trying to control where I am looking makes it hard to focus on what I am saying. I’m not sure if other people notice. I would ask but most people aren’t honest about that kind of stuff even if you tell them you really want to know.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I have to force myself to look and I never know how long I’m supposed to do it for, or how often. But I’m also fine with staring into my husband or my son’s eyes and he (also autistic) can stare into mine. Though I remember having trouble with that when he was a baby. His stare was so intense.

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  6. Beautiful post, Anna! 🙂 The “Like” buttons don’t show up on my desktop computer so I can’t click them (lol) but I very much identify with what you said. I, too, can look at peoples’ eyes when they’re talking (if I need to), but as soon as it’s my turn to speak, I can’t concentrate at all, and I have to make a choice between 1) making eye contact but not being able to speak coherently, or 2) looking away and being able TO speak coherently LOL. It’s not a physical pain I would feel while making eye contact, but it’s an extreme discomfort. I describe it to my NT friends & family as feeling like you’re naked on camera in front of the whole world. Very self-consciousness-inducing, to the point where it’s overwhelming ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you thank you thank you for this post! I am exactly the same where eye contact is concerned. I also never noticed that I did anything unusual, and nobody has ever said anything to me, nor did I get the impression that people find me untrustworthy because I don’t look them in the eye.
    Since thinking more about this “am I autistic?” thing, I noticed that I also look at people’s mouths a lot. I look at their eyes for a moment or two, or I look at their face as a whole, but not focus on any part.
    I’m just so glad I read this post because it echoes my experience to a T.

    Liked by 1 person

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