Why I Still Can’t Make Eye Contact

Every time I leave the house and go forth among the masses, I have to remind myself to make eye contact.  If it’s someone I know and the conversation is friendly, I don’t usually have a problem meeting their gaze as I listen to them.  Like many people, it helps me feel a deeper sense of connection, and I find I am more expressive when I can see people’s faces.  But one thing I have never really been able to do is look people in the eye when I’m talking to them.  Not only that, I have to make a conscious effort to even look in their general direction.

There is a picture of me from about ten years ago that was taken while I was talking to a friend.  It always makes me cringe to look at it, because while I was talking to her, I was actually looking at someone else.  It hasn’t changed much since then.

This is something I want to work on, so I’ve tried to come up with a few reasons for why it’s so hard for me.  Difficulty with eye contact happens for a lot of reasons and I think it is something that’s unique to each person, so these may not apply to everyone.

Eye contact is distracting.  I don’t know if other people on the spectrum experience this, but for me, talking takes an enormous amount of concentration.  First I have to think of something to say, then I have to organize my thoughts (which I am not great at), and in the meantime there’s always that censor running in the background analyzing every word to make sure it’s socially appropriate and not completely asinine (“You are trying to engage in light-hearted chit-chat with acquaintances.  It’s probably not a good time to bring up pandemic flu viruses.”)  Eye contact makes it much more difficult to concentrate on speaking.

Eye contact is not part of how I communicate.  Actually, this isn’t entirely true, because I often do show understanding and empathy with my eyes as I listen.  But I don’t send people messages with my eyes as I talk.  For me, conversation is the exchange of words.  I don’t consciously add nonverbal cues to modify my words and add additional layers to the conversation .  So when someone asks me how I’m doing and I say, “good, I’m keeping pretty busy,”  I don’t send a message with my eyes that says “my toddler woke up for the day at 4 a.m and is tearing through the house like a human tornado and will you please watch him for an hour while I sleep?”  (even though I may be thinking it).  Because it’s not important, it’s not something I think of doing.

Eye contact is scary.  I think part of this is just a visceral fear reaction to eyes themselves.  I have actually had nightmares in which eyes were involved.  I mean, look at those things.

Eye'll be Seeing You

 I don’t know about you, but this is seriously creeping me out

But there’s more to it than that.  I fear the judgment in people’s eyes.  When I see coldness, or confusion, or derision there, it makes me feel like less of a person.  So I protect myself from those feelings by not looking at people.    It’s hard to say how much my lack of eye contact is AS and how much is social anxiety.

I have come to accept that forcing myself to look people in the eye as I speak will only make conversations more difficult (and who needs that?)  So my goal will be to look them in the eyebrow.  For now, I’ll try to at least look in their direction.  You’ve gotta start somewhere.

 creative commons image courtesy of jeff_golden on flickr

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16 Responses to Why I Still Can’t Make Eye Contact

  1. Alana says:

    Eye contact is tricky. Annoying because I have to remember to concentrate on it. Or else I will find myself wandering off to look at something else.

  2. suzjones says:

    I find it difficult to maintain eye contact and I don’t have any condition that makes it harder. I usually find a spot on a person’s face to focus on so it appears I am looking in their eyes. Love the photo you’ve chosen too. The photographer has done an awesome job. 🙂

    • Aspermama says:

      That’s a great strategy, and one I’ve been trying to put into practice.

      It’s an awesome photo, I’m so grateful to all the photographers who are willing to share their photos on flickr. And I really love the photos on your blog 🙂

      • suzjones says:

        Thankyou so much. 98% of the photos on my blog are mine.
        I hope you find a strategy that you are comfortable with in communicating.

  3. autisticook says:

    I can do eye contact but it’s always a conscious process and I never know when it’s too much or too little. And like you say it takes up valuable brain processing power. I tend to be at my most unfiltered when making eye contact. Which can be good in intimate relationships but is pretty distrastrous everywhere else.

    • Aspermama says:

      I know what you mean…I feel I really need that internal censor, so I avoid doing anything that interferes with it (which is actually a big reason why I don’t really drink).

  4. suburp says:

    i have been wondering about this lately, because as much as my son is definitively better at listening when NOT looking at the person, I have noticed, too, that I find it hard to keep looking at people while I am speaking myself. although I believe the AS comes from my maternal genpool (my father, my brother both displayed behaviours I now fully believe to be autistic) I believe the symptoms of social awkwardness (and anxiety) I have come from my PTSD rather than from autism. but it certainly a matter of focus either way. when someone reacts (with their eyes, or face) already to what I am saying while I am saying it, it can unbalance my speech and I might not be able to say what I wanted to say, or say it differently. but when i notice that i am not looking at the person while i speak, I also get a bit flustered and try to correct myself because it’s considered rude and wrong not to look them in the eye.. In the end, I just wish I wouldn’t even know how important it is to people so I can just focus on what I have to say..

    • Aspermama says:

      “In the end, I just wish I wouldn’t even know how important it is to people so I can just focus on what I have to say..”

      I know what you mean, it would make it so much easier to concentrate. I find myself getting flustered more than I did when I was unaware of such things.

      I don’t have PSTD, but I could see how that could make eye contact and social interactions more difficult. It’s interesting that two people who aren’t on the spectrum have left comments about how eye contact is difficult for them. Social interactions are hard for a lot of people, and empathy and understanding are so important whether the person is on the spectrum or not.

  5. bjforshaw says:

    Yes, eye contact is distracting. If I’m listening I’ve learned to aim my gaze somewhere around the person’s face, but I’m not looking, if you know what I mean: if I concentrate on what I’m looking at I miss what they’re saying. Sometimes (I’m told) I seem to be staring at a person; other times I look a bit vacant.

    I can’t deliberately maintain eye contact for long because it spooks people: they feel it is so intense.

    • Aspermama says:

      I know exactly what you mean about trying to make eye contact but not too much. It’s such a tricky balance and it’s definitely distracting-when I’m listening I have to remind myself both to look at (or near) the person’s eyes and then to look away from them for a second or two.

  6. Aspie Guy says:

    Great post! I find making eye contact during conversation difficult, as well – I can only hold it for a second or two at a time, then I have to look away. I usually do better if I have something to do/concentrate on, so I can listen to the person but look at what I’m doing. Sometimes at work, I find myself faking being busy, just so I can use that as an excuse to not lock eyes!

    • Aspermama says:

      Thanks!

      That’s a great trick-conversations are way easier when there is something other than the person’s face to focus on. I have to be careful when I don’t have an excuse to look busy or else my eyes will wander all over the place-sometimes I think people get the impression that I’m bored when I’m actually really interested.

  7. M.K. Hajdin says:

    I just got dumped by a guy I was dating because I didn’t make enough eye contact. I don’t have AS, but I had the same problem you did, for the same reasons – I could not concentrate on making light conversation while simultaneously looking the person in the eye. I told him eye contact was problematic for me, too. He asked, “Does it get better with time?” – clearly expecting more eye contact with me on future dates – and I had to tell him the truth that no, it doesn’t get better with time. It didn’t help that we were sitting across from each other in restaurants and that feels very confrontational.

    It feels a little better to know that I’m not the only person with this problem.

    • Butterfly says:

      I’m amazed to see this is a real problem for others. I haven’t made decent eye contact in so long, I’m too embarrassed to say. It’s ruined countless opportunities for me. Sometimes, it’s hard to feel human.

  8. Trish says:

    OMGoodness, I completely relate to this post. All of the posts on this blog to be honest! Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for being so open and honest- if it weren’t for people like you (the blog Author) I’d probably never have realized I have an “issue” that needs addressing (or rather a disorder than CAN be addressed as I am acutely aware that I have issues)… and now ‘it’ potentially has a name that makes sense!

    • Aspermama says:

      So glad it helped, thanks for commenting! Its such a huge relief when things suddenly make sense and you discover a name for everything you’ve experienced, and when you find people who are going through the same things.

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