We have launched our ‘Answers from the Spectrum’ project. Each week there will be a question about life on the Spectrum. It is open to anyone who is on the Autistic Spectrum to answer and give us their views. A chance to enlighten parents, carers, teachers and the public about how Autism is for you. The questions will be posted on Iris’s Facebook page every Monday https://www.facebook.com/…/Iris-Grace-Paint…/609967369017975 , if you know of anyone who would like to be involved please do spread the word. I would like this to be very much an interactive project, so please send in any questions that you might have to firstname.lastname@example.org and I will add them to the list. Thankyou.
Question for this week:
We know that eye contact is a very social type interaction. Some on the Spectrum actively avoid it and appear confused and anxious when it occurs. I have learnt that there needs to be flexibility and understanding while trying to engage in this way.
I would like to ask what it feels like ? Why this face to face contact is so uncomfortable? How could we make those situations easier? Or is this just another stereotype and as time goes by eye contact becomes not so much of an issue?
Please only answer this question if you are on the Spectrum, if you would like to remain anonymous message me on this page or email me at email@example.com and I will post your answer. Thankyou so much for your support and willingness to be involved, your answers will be incredibly valuable to us all x
Answers from the Spectrum
‘eye contact makes me uncomfortable because it makes me feel threatened. especially with strangers/persons I don’t trust. sometimes I don’t know where to look. I’m also afraid to accidentally look at somone wrongly. I can make eye contact with certain relatives and my boyfriend. patience and understanding can make it easier. pressuring us to look at you is not helpful..it makes things worse.’
‘I’m 25 and I was diagnosed with high-functioning autism/Asperger’s at 20.I usually feel uncomfortable making eye contact with people, especially people I don’t know, because I have this feeling that the length of time I spend making eye contact is weird – like it’s too long. Sometimes I can make that work for me, like when I used to babysit and I needed the kids to take me seriously. That sometimes works as a substitute teacher, too. In other settings, I tend to keep my eyes down or elsewhere in the room, only making eye contact briefly if at all. Prolonged situations where I’m sitting directly across from someone and interacting with only them are especially awkward, no matter who it is. (This is one place where group settings are actually easier, since no one is expecting to make frequent eye contact.) I read a lot of novels, and I know that eye contact can be a form of flirtation or otherwise used to signal romantic interest, so I especially avoid eye contact with unfamiliar men to make sure I don’t get myself into an awkward situation.
As for making it easier… I think having seats arranged so that we aren’t sitting directly across from people makes things a little easier. Even if the seating is slightly offset, it makes me feel less pressured to make and maintain eye contact. And I’m personally a fan of people who put interesting stuff on their walls so I have something to look at.’
‘I’m not on the spectrum (as far as i know) but here is a video about eye contact from someone who is. They have a lot of informative videos. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QXM9Mj5Zd7I
‘I’m an Aspie woman in my late 50s. For me, eye contact feels very intense, invasive, and uncomfortable – I don’t seem to gather the same useful information as others from it and it’s something I have to engage in consciously. To me it feels a bit threatening and aggressive, but I’ve learned that for a lot of other people this is not the case. For them, it’s friendly and necessary. I do recognize that it is also a really basic way to acknowledge someone’s humanity and to show respect. In service situations, for example, I try hard to make eye contact. I don’t want to leave cashiers, counter staff, wait staff, etc. feeling like I’m rude to them because that’s not my intention.
However, I also recognize that some people use eye contact to be deliberately intimidating, “scary,” and controlling. I’m very susceptible to this – part of my chameleon characteristics of blending in and going along with a social situation in order to minimize unwanted attention on me – and I have to be on guard about it. I live and work in a busy urban environment where there is an expectable level of interpersonal aggression and violence. For this reason I must also pay attention to what’s going on around me. I can’t just blithely avoid eye contact in order to avoid social contact with random strangers because this could actually be dangerous. So, it’s a bit if a balancing act for me and I have to do my best to try to understand people’s intentions toward me.’
‘Im 40, got aspie label at early 20s. I have no desire to look into eyes of random people. It is like asking me to focus especially on the lightbulb on lamps, or always stare at the left shoe. The lightbulb will hurt my eyes and I forget about the shoes cause they just dont interest me. I wouldnt even stare at my cats eyes – it is rude and show domination and power. So thats my main reasons to avoid eye contact: I forget or I dont feel interested in your eyes – or I dont feel the urge to participate in mental battle of power.’
‘I find cats a lot easier and less stressful to be around in general.’
‘My son who will be 13 in May and verbal, answer to this question was, and I quote, ” I can see everyone’s emotions when I look in their eyes, like if they are sad or angry.” So he said he doesn’t look in anyone eyes he looks in between them.’
‘I found this answer incredibly deep. Wow. I’m not on the spectrum but reading this made me feel a heavy burden in my chest. They say the eyes are the windows to our soul and I’m sure there are some souls that must feel so threatening.’
‘Eyes are like windows to the soul. To expose mine feels like I am taking my clothes off in the middle of a busy shopping centre. So I don’t make eye contact. I have only ever been able to make eye contact with one person for a long period of time and that is my boyfriend, this I have always felt comfortable doing with him. No idea why. I also feel like if I was to see other peoples’ eyes it would be like they’re naked in front of me. Which gives me a situation that I’m not sure how to deal with. I agree with the idea of seeing emotions in eyes. Sometimes if I am struggling to understand the emotion being presented to me I may sneak a peak at their eyes to give me a clue. Doesn’t always help though, sometimes makes the situation a little more complicated. (I am a high – functioning aspie, aged 22, diagnosed last year)’
‘Wow, I have not been diagnosed, but this is exactly how i’ve felt about eye contact my entire life. I once had a coworker tell my ex at an after work function that my entire office thought I was shady and untrustworthy because I avoid eye contact. The coworker was someone I admired. It really hurt to know that my discomfort/vulnerability was being misread. This happened in 1997. Since then, I have made an effort to give eye contact when dealing with people who don’t know me very well. I don’t want them to think I’m a shady character. I still catch myself looking away because I’m so uncomfortable. It “hurts”. I believe my spouse is an Aspie and our daughter was diagnosed with ASD at 2 years old. My daughter and I do eye contact exercises and both have improved because of them. I do think it’s a fear/trust/vulnerability issue. She just started pre-K and she isn’t making eye contact with the teachers or students there. While I don’t want to make her do anything that makes her uncomfortable, I worry that her lack of eye contact may be mistaken for disinterest.’
‘My mum is very big on eye contact. She’s never understood why I can’t which used to make her shout at me and then would probably end with me in tears wondering what an earth happened. It has always been a struggle. Being diagnosed was the best thing I ever did. My mum does understand to a degree why I can’t now, but I am with you. It hurts to do it. Sometimes I feel like my eyes are burning if I do it or I feel embarrassed. My mum always used to take my lack of eye contact for disinterest. She doesn’t anymore because of my diagnosis. Your daughter should be okay, as she’s been diagnosed people are more likely to be aware of why she doesn’t. You are already being a brilliant mother just by doing what you’ve done for her so far. I wish I’d had a similar role model as a child. ‘
‘UK Aspie here! Eye contact is so intense it almost hurts. More than a few seconds induces the beginnings of a panic attack. I don’t understand both why and how people focus on the eyes for so long in a conversation. I feel completely raw and like someone can touch my insides and like I can do the same to them and it’s an invasion. Best way for me to deal with it is have something ‘busy’ to do with my hands, that I can watch whilst speaking/listening. I feel much more comfortable and safe then. Also, if I do need to make eye contact, a kind of ‘squint’ makes it less intense. Kinda just looks like you’re thinking harder. Haha!’
‘I am 30 and have Asperger’s. I find eye contact less something to actively avoid and more something that’s completely uninstinctive and very draining. my eyes want to look at lots of things, including things happening in my mind and not in the outside world. i’ve also got to divide my energy among my other senses and have enough left over for remembering what I’m doing and trying to handle my emotional reaction to things.. concentrating on one thing means either not being able to see the other things at all, so I walk into a lamp post, or letting the other things run wild, so my eyes start trying to see everything at once and have a migraine. watching the things in my mind is important too or I will start having very bad intrusive thoughts and have a panic attack.’
‘the things in my mind, yes! There’s always more going on visually for me than just what is literally in front of my eyes. I don’t need any consciousness altering substances to get to mental/intellectual/psychological/spiritual places other people yearn and search for… This is where a lot of my art comes from and I have such a hard time verbalizing it. In some ways I think what I experience every day as “normal” is a state other people hunger for. If they only knew.’
‘As an aspie girl who has only just discovered that I am on the spectrum at 20 years old, I do find eye contact uncomfortable. I wouldn’t say it’s one of the harder things for me, but I suppose that may be because I’ve never really gave any attention to whether I give eye contact or not. However, I have noticed that I tend to look either at a persons mouth or above their eyes when talking to them. Something about eye contact does make me feel awkward and some what vulnerable. I’m ok giving it to children, but find other adults hard. I find other people trying to give me eye contact extremely difficult, as I feel as though I’m being scrutinised or judged, and makes me feel under some kind of pressure.’
‘I have Aspergers Syndrome but was late to be diagnosed, as I was told I had it when I was about 15, so I had already gone through most of secondary school and had a difficult time. I definitely had a major issue with eye contact, as I felt like it was very personal. People say that the eyes are the entry to the soul (or something like that), so when I would look at someone in the eyes I would feel like I’m invading their privacy and I didn’t like that. It also felt uncomfortable as I worried that I was looking at them for too long or too little and I didn’t want to look like an idiot. I still have issues with eye contact, at 19 years old, but I can hold direct eye contact for longer than I could before. However, where possible I will avoid it. Hope this has helped a bit, but I feel that everyone on the spectrum feels differently and dislikes eye contact for different reasons.’
‘I forgot to mention that at school it is the hardest time with regard to eye contact. I would constantly be reprimanded for being insolent and rude because I did not look at the teachers when they were talking to me, and as I wasn’t diagnosed until the last year of secondary school it meant I went through 4 years being misunderstood. Schools need to change their approach and realise that there is more to people than they think and it’s not just rudeness or insolence.’
‘This is so interesting! I’m not on the spectrum, but I do have ADHD, and I’ve always found eye contact very hard for all of the reasons mentioned.’
‘Hi, everyone! I like the way you, Arabella (if I spell it out correctly!) refer to eye contact as a way of ‘social type of interaction’ rather than a social skill. And I like the way our friends say they ‘don’t like’ making eye contact rather than saying they ‘can’t.’
I feel good just by these expressions. For me, who is a would-be high-functioning autistic girl (because I haven’t diagnosed with it yet), eye contact is quite a natural thing. I do it willingly as a way of communicating and I enjoy it. You know, by saying this, I’m not trying to show how I’m closer to people living father from the spectrum. I’m sorry if this makes you feel bad.
I actually feel awkward to say this here because I don’t have the eye contact problem very seriously. But I just wanted to introduce my case, hoping to help introduce the diversity of the spectrum. And thinking about what I do and don’t like doing helps me cope with my status of the spectrum because I’m sure I’m autistic to some extent.’
‘I am an adult (60) with autism and live on my own and work to support myself. it is and has always been a struggle but I am happy to do my best. I have always noticed I am very uncomfortable with eye contact especially with men and some boys… I would ask myself why and came to realize it was because of how I felt . I felt threatened by the energy I was facing and when faced with females it mostly seemed softer and gentler. later in my 20’s I realized also that I felt overwhelmed by strong personalities and that I was perceiving that energy directly and it hurt inside to maintain eye contact or physical presence… so I would isolate myself to find a peaceful place. I learned to meditate and this helped me a lot to comprehend what I was feeling. even with my close family I would be secretive and avoid contact and eye contact at times as I felt better by myself than sharing their energy in interactions. and yet I loved them… it was confusing to me and calmer to be on my own. social situations like parties have always been very uncomfortable, I would find I could speak to one person but not many… and when I am with groups or at work in ‘light’ social conversations or flirtatious people I run for the hills…eye contact not even an option!. also I notice when I am speaking or answering questions my eyes are going all over, looking around as I am thinking and answering. at one point I learned to speak in front of a group and I could do it well if I didn’t look at anyone in the face but above their heads until the thoughts were expressed then I could resume looking at the eyes in the group before going on speaking. thank you for this opportunity to share and learn from each other! I hope it helps many!!!!’
‘Found this very interesting! Eyes are the window of the soul I must say even though I’m not on the Spectrum. Was very shy growing up, would turn beet red if someone looked at me! More of a Chatty Cathy now!’
‘On the spectrum, and like other I find eye contact extremely uncomfortable. For me, it’s almost painful, so I hardly ever do it. However, I find I can look at eyes in photos and paintings without any problems. That’s made me wonder if there’s some neurological explanation.
I know that a person’s eyes are in constant movement; people with autism/Aspergers have highly-tuned senses and (perhaps) slightly different neurology; is this why we are so uncomfortable with looking at others’ eyes? We can subliminally detect the tiny, constant movements and are unsettled?
As I said, it’s a theory.’
‘It doesn’t help with the sensory issues I have, that it’s a constantly moving object I’m expected to track’
‘Not diagnosed or anything, but I personally have pretty severe social anxiety. Eye contact is uncomfortable, I don’t know why, it just is. With people very close to me I don’t have an issue with it (my husband and kids, not my parents). I actually learned from a book on management to look at someones forehead instead. Apparently it comes across as confident .I actually have been a manager and do well in a leadership position, which sounds completely crazy for someone with social anxiety.. but I find it easier to lead than to follow, as long as I know I am supposed to lead.’
‘Hi, my name AJ and I have asperger’s. I am 30 years of age. My autism makes me feel special, creative, and sometimes like like outcast. When people try to tell me I can’t win,or tell me I can’t do something. It empowers me me further. It me years to learn facial expressions and learn to make make eye contact. It was very hard to learn to get use to making myself get comfortable with this. But with me it was like evolution . I believe in one saying “life finds a way” ‘
‘From a 48 year old male with Asperger’s Syndrome (diagnosed two years ago): for me this is not a problem. In fact, I notice it when other people do not make eye contact. Having said that, I do not know if I engage in eye contact as often as “normal” people. I do not avoid it however. The only time I cannot maintain eye contact is, if a young beautiful woman looks at me intensely. I do not know where shyness ends and AS begins, or that shyness is a symptom of AS.
As far as I know, eye contact has not really been an issue when I was younger. Shyness has been, though.’
‘Asperger’s / high functioning autism, 38 yr old woman here … I find eye contact extremely intense and overwhelming. It literally wipes out my ability to understand anything else. I once told my boss, I can either look you in the eye or understand what you are saying, but not both. (She seemed to get more okay with my eye gaze avoidance after that.) Like a lot of the comments said, it’s more than just eyes, it’s like, I don’t know, a flood of someone else’s emotions, emotions I don’t understand and can’t interpret. Imagine if you were talking to someone and right beside you, two people were having a loud argument in a foreign language. That’s kind of what it feels like to make eye contact, only it’s visual, (obviously). Constant eye contact is “staring” and thus rude; avoiding eye contact is “evasive” and “sneaky”, but no one will tell us what frequency is allowable! Is it 5 seconds on 2 seconds off? So I just avoid it. I’ve discovered at work that if we’re both looking at data on a piece of paper, no one minds if I’m not looking at them. Or if I’m working while I’m talking, and paying attention to my work (I’m an analytical chemist so paying attention to what I’m doing with my hands is important!) no one minds that I’m not making eye contact.’
‘I was always in trouble as a child for being rude, cos I didn’t look at ppl. For me, I was more afraid of getting into trouble, so I learned… I’m now 45, and if I had my way I would wear sunglasses 24/7. Another major hurdle for me, not a blessing, as NTs would see it – apparently I have amazing blue eyes (they look ordinary to me) but ppl always want to look directly into them, and stare for ages, but there is not much I can do about that. I’ve learned to say thankyou, but while others think I’m “lucky”, I find it excruciating. When you don’t look ppl in the eye, they think you’re hiding something or perhaps lying? It’s exhausting. After reading so many other comments, I suppose this IS a kind of a blessing in one way – I don’t have to ‘measure’ the eye-contact time so much, because the person I’m talking too usually looks away first.’
‘I have tried many different ways to avoid eye-contact, but NTs read so much into it. I’ve been labelled rude, ignorant, ‘up myself’ etc, you name it… It’s not fair that ppl make interpretations and it has made it very difficult in life to nurture my own strong sense of self, however, I have made it to an age where I’m learning to be my own person. Forums like this and others I’ve seen have helped me a great deal. I am wired differently, but I am not wired defectively.’
‘Allowing myself to disengage from the general uncomfort of eye contact allows me to scramble my thoughts and develop more coherent and socially appropriate responses to help me better blend into my environment. I just need a break from it. My eyes darting with the pings of my thoughts is freeing. If I’m forced to engage, I lose momentum toward an appropriate response. All in an effort to appear normal: the end game.’
‘I hope it is fine for me to contribute as a deeply-perceptive person who has been severely challenged by real-time social interactions for the barrage of sensory impulses they involve. I find the opposition that comes with direct eye contact rather intrusive and disruptive to my sense of coherence and flow – when I face others it physically feels confrontational, even overpowering at times. Not the case so much when we are side by side; or I am able to sit on my own on the side or at the back of the scene from where I can observe and/or interact with a sense of self-autonomy much more preserved. Non-oppositional strategies have worked wonders as they seem to allow the individuals’ spheres of self-regulation and control to co-exist more peacefully.’
‘For me, face to face eye contact feels like staring in the sun. So looking away or anywhere else is like putting on sun glasses.’
‘My son who is on the spectrum told me that words come out my mouth not my eyes so he is focusing on what I am saying therefore he looks at my mouth.’
‘I wasn’t going to reply, I am on the spectrum in a tenuous way but the boy who said he can read people’s emotions in their eyes and that is why it is overwhelming was dead-on right. I had a hard time as a kid making eye contact because so much was revealed in the eyes and it didn’t always match what was coming out of the mouth and was always too intense for me. I could even tell people’s life stories based on the eyes– personality, job, marriage status– which got me half-jokingly dubbed a psychic but I was never that. I just look and it is there to see for those who truly look and thus too much to process. The eyes ARE the window to much. I do it now because I have learned to control what I see and block the rest but it took YEARS of practice with no guide because I was the only one like me in my world that I knew of. This is why this page intrigues me so much. Iris is much like me but she has YOU and that is beautiful to see.’
‘You’ve completely nailed it – it’s the lies that come out of ppls mouths that don’t match what their eyes are saying’
‘It doesn’t even have to be “lies.” They are just saying one thing but that is not what they are thinking and different truths are revealed in the eyes. It was all upsetting for me as a kid.’
‘I vaguely remember the disturbing feeling of eye contact… it seemed to push me out of the moment… as if it forced my thoughts to glaze over making me feel a bit out of control. As a boy, my father helped me to learn to look into peoples eyes when in conversation. Now it is no big deal at all. Just took a bit of time for me to get used to it. (HFAspie)’
‘I wouldn’t think it’s something you can help or improve on?? Maybe I’m not trying hard enough! That’s what people tell me all the time about everything about being autistic. I wish they could feel it but I’m not sure I can fully explain because I don’t always know what feeling I’m having. I know I don’t “read” people by looking at their eyes or I’d be a better judge of character lol, it’s just uncomfortable with strangers ie: someone serving you on the till because it just is. It feels too personal for me, I always fall in love with a mans eyes first so it feels a bit inappropriate to look into other peoples. I look at people I know when I talk to them but I have become aware that I look away when I’m trying to think, the face is too distracting and I can’t focus my thoughts. If I have a one on one meeting I over stare till my eyes are sore because I don’t want to appear rude by not looking at the person and that’s super uncomfortable I get very cross by the stereotype that all autistic people don’t make eye contact, both my children do but they both look away when they’re confused or telling me a long story, I think like me they’re just trying to concentrate. At 38 I’ve also had a long time of people telling me I’m weird or they’re disappointed in me, if I don’t look at their face I don’t have to see that, I’m very visual and have awful visions of unpleasant things, incidents of loved ones looking at me, as I perceive, like they hate me, stick in my head and add to me feeling worthless and unloved. I don’t get a lot from looking at peoples faces or I get their expression wrong and while I’m trying to process it you can then see they’re looking at you with that “well, come on, answer the question or say something” face and that just panics me and makes an answer or comment less likely lol’
‘Years ago I had a conversation with a brilliant woman who also happened to have ASD. She quite obviously had a difficult time maintaining eye-contact and as my own twins had just recently been diagnosed, I took the liberty to ask her why it was so difficult. She very graciously offered me this piece of insight. She said, “Oh, you know exactly what it is like. When NT people look into someone’s eyes and tell a lie, you feel the same things that we feel, but we just feel it a lot stronger.” That revelation completed changed the way I looked at autism and myself. We all are truly on the spectrum somewhere and we are all capable of empathy for a person with ASD. It was this moment when I realized that I could “think” like my children, and if I could do that, I could also teach them.’
‘It’s not something I find goes away forever, certain people for me are easier to maintain eye contact with then others, I have one friend that I have no problem keeping eye contact with, but most my friends I usually will look away out a window or over there heads when I’m talking to them. I definitely find it harder to maintain eye contact with most people after I’ve spent long amounts of time by myself. It’s something that can come and go I find, some days it’s worse then others. I don’t worry if I find myself avoiding eye contact, I’m not being rude, it’s just easier to talk or tell a story sometimes when your not constantly looking at someone:P I also notice a lot when I’m having a conversation about something I’m really interested in, I’ll get really into a topic and start rambling on about it, then when I finally look at who I’m talking to my mind will suddenly go blank and I’ll completely forget what I was talking about. That happens every once in a while, I always find it really annoying when it does:P’
‘I find it interesting what some people are saying about how sometimes words don’t match the eyes, I hadn’t really considered that as to why I have trouble with eye contact or who I can trust to talk to. definitely noticing lots of things up here I hadn’t really considered before, but definitely can relate to!’
‘For me it’s a sensory processing issue and there are a couple different issues: the first is that if i’m going to process spoken words i’m hearing, i need to block out as much other sensory input as possible. after my teachers insisted i look at their eyes when we were talking, i quickly got “but don’t stare!”. except i *can’t process what i’m hearing* if i have continual visual input. so i hyperfocus on one part of the face — and if it’s near the eyes (including forehead and nose) that reads to allistic people as being stared at. One problem wth looking at other people’s eyes is that they move; they aren’t looking straight at me most of the time. and i track them and try to figure out what they’re looking at, which makes me lose the audio processing and mental processing (ie i can’t tell what i’m hearing and i forget what i was trying to say). But if i do look into eyes that are looking back at me, i can’t help seeing the mini image of me reflected in them — and then i also lose what i’m saying/thinking/hearing, because there’s a tiny me in their iris! i’ve caught myself waving to myself far too many times over the years. (i’m 53). In my 30s started watching people’s mouths. (in fact after my tbi in 97 that caused a lot of memory loss [since resolved], i thought i was doing some sort of lip reading beacuse i could only tell what people were saying if i could see their lips. it’s only the past 5 years that i’ve realised that by hypefocusing on the mouth, i’m blocking out most of the visual input — and if i hyperfocus hard enough, i can block out background sound and just hear the voice, too.’
I am a 47 year old female, diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome last year.
A degree of discomfort akin to pain
emergency bells ringing in my brain
Invasion, threat, I’ve seen too much
too loud too deep too great a touch
My cats know how to do this right
a soft glance is so much more polite
Then turn away and close your eyes
and maybe dream of house mouse pies