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.
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