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Autistm and Eye Contact

by Sally Willbanks
1 Comment(s)
Autistm and Eye Contact

I’ve been thinking a lot about eye contact recently.  Both of my autistic kids have different atypical ways of making eye contact.  My daughter, who is nine, can look at you while you speak, but if she gets into an animated conversation and tries to say her part, her eyes flit and roam all over the place, almost like she is grasping for invisible words in the air.  We repeatedly did an experiment not long ago.  She tried to make eye contact with me while she spoke, and she lost all of her words.  She would completely forget what she was saying.  This amused her.  It seems the more excited she is by what she is saying, the less eye contact she makes.  My seven-year-old son can make quite fleeting eye contact with people he is close to, but upon meeting people, not only can he not make eye contact, but he can barely even face their direction.  His eye contact has improved (by neurotypical standards) over the years.  When he was three years old, I realised that I didn’t know what colour his eyes were, as his eye contact with me was limited and he always looks out from very dark, long eye lashes.  His eyes are a beautiful slate grey, by the way.


These differences got me thinking about eye contact and why it is more difficult for autistic people.  I turned to my trusted Instagram audience to ask them.


Here is what they said:


“Eye contact is very personal and intimate.  For me, it’s very hard to let people close to me and I think that’s why eye contact feels so uncomfortable.  I have no problem with it when I’m close with a person and know I’m in a safe space.  I think you’ve mentioned that your daughter has dyspraxia. I have that as well and I suspect it’s the main reason for my speech and language difficulties.  Eye contact is horribly uncomfortable. But I think that discomfort coupled with the dyspraxia is what makes my mind go blank, so to speak.  I can make eye contact with and speak to my partner all day every day. But if he does something that hurts me, even in the most minute ways, I can’t look him in the eye or speak to him.  It’s incredibly frustrating and I’m sorry that your daughter goes through something similar.”


“It just feels uncomfortable as hell.”


“For me it’s not that eye contact is painful or uncomfortable to me. It’s hard to explain.  It’s just that I can focus so much better and give better answers if I can look away or around.  I do that without even thinking about it.  Or I just look at mouths.  Eyes are just distracting for some reason.”


“It just feels so uncomfortable.  It makes me anxious, even with people I’m close to.  I’ve forced myself to do it in abusive situations and felt like a superhero, I would get such an adrenaline rush.  But otherwise, it’s just too much.  I look at people’s faces when they speak.  When I speak, I look anywhere else.”


“It’s just extremely uncomfortable.  Feels super invasive.”


“When I have to make and hold eye contact, it's hard for me to process the conversation and to get the words out.  My brain thinks in pictures and I have to picture what is being said to me and I have to picture what I am saying otherwise it's hard to say what I want or to focus.  Also, it burns, and it is painful to make eye contact for a long period of time.  As I got older that part of masking kept dying down.”


“I actually have no idea, good question - I don’t want people to see ‘in’ to me - so I can only do it when I feel safe... it’s not looking into their eyes that’s an issue for me, it’s them being able to see into mine... 🤷🏼‍♀️”


“I just feel terribly vulnerable, like the other person could see right into my soul.”


“Because it is very, very intense contact, I can feel it almost physical, close to painful and I can't focus on the conversation at all.”


“It’s distracting from listening to the conversation.”


“It causes me to much anxiety.  Like I feel intimidated. I’ve read from other auties that they find it intimate, and it makes them uncomfortable.  When I am standing up for someone, I can look in the eyes without thinking twice.  Hope any of that helps you.”


“Perceived pressure.  I struggled with it forever.  When I was 16, I started feeling weird about it, so I literally googled “how to look people in the eyes” and I still rarely do it now, figured out I’m autistic like a year and a half ago now 🥴.”


“It’s uncomfortable but in a violating feeling way.  Like someone is touching me (I don’t like being touched either). It’s almost painful.  I don’t force my daughter to either.  I’ve in fact mastered how to make it look like I am when I’m not.”


“Makes me feel like a turtle without a shell.  Feels like people can see into my soul.  Feels invasive, aggressive.  I find it difficult to talk or think and make eye contact.  Makes me feel dizzy and sick.  At times it is painful.  The overthinking involved having to focus on eye contact makes social situations exhausting.”


“I think for me it is difficult because neurotypical eye contact is very specific (looking away every few seconds) and is expected in all contexts whereas I don't find it necessary.  It is annoying to have to do it "manually" every time I talk with someone.”


“Need to focus on what someone is saying, and eye contact is super distracting.  I feel very uncomfortable just staring into someone's eyes.  It feels wrong.”


“Personally, I find it far too intimate and intimidating.  If I make eye contact, it brings me the same kind of pain I get when in sensory overload.”


“Because it gives me so much information that it overwhelms me.  Not at everybody but with a lot of people it does.  It seems for me the eyes never lie so... It is mostly confusing when someone tells you something and the eyes tell you different…does this makes sense?”


“Makes me uncomfortable and nervous.  Why that is I don’t really know.  And I only have this when I’m overwhelmed already.  And I’m just aware that the other person can see my face, like I’m communicating with my face, while I just want to process what to answer and what to do.  And I can only do that properly without looking at something like a face.”

“I just feel terribly vulnerable, like the other person could see right into my soul.”


I find these responses so interesting, with two common threads.  While some people talk about the discomfort of eye contact and it feeling invasive, other people describe the inability to listen or to speak while making eye contact, due to too much information to decipher.  For some people it is almost painful and makes them feel like they are being exposed.  For others it interferes with their ability to concentrate. 


What I would like everyone to take away from this is that autistic people are not being rude when they do not make eye contact.  They are not lying, omitting the truth, being deceitful or distracted.  The neurotypical norm of making eye contact for a few seconds and then looking away only to engage in eye contact again is not the autistic norm.  We should never force people to make eye contact.  We should never tell children to “Look at me when I’m speaking.”  We need to change our expectations of people regarding eye contact (as well as many other differences!) and understand that their way might not be our way, and there is no malice, boredom, dishonesty or distraction involved.  In fact, autistic people are probably even more engaged than we perceive them to be.  Let’s listen to these voices and make some changes in our attitudes and beliefs.  Autistic people have enough on their plates and do not need to meet neuronormative standards for eye contact.

by Sally Willbanks



For me it’s about sensory integration, which I don’t always have. If I’m looking at you, how can I also be listening to your words? One thing at a time!

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