Is Eye Contact Important?
So what is the big deal with eye contact?
I’ve been told that I can’t be autistic because I CAN maintain eye contact … but guess what?
I AM autistic!
Is Lack Of Eye Contact An Autistic Trait?
Have you ever heard the saying “if you’ve met one autistic person you’ve met one autistic person”?
If you aren’t familiar with this saying it basically means that no two people are alike. Regardless of if you are autistic or not each and every person is an individual.
We Are All Individuals
So whilst you may be autistic if you struggle with eye contact you also may not be.
You may also struggle with eye contact yet that struggle is internal and so to those around you it may seem like you are absolutely fine with eye contact.
Telling someone they can’t be autistic because they don’t struggle with eye contact is absolute bull&$*^
So Why Can You Maintain Eye Contact?
The short answer here is that I was bullied into making eye contact when I was at school. I remember the exact encounter very clearly. It was double science and I hadn’t handed in my homework (thanks ADHD!). The teacher made me stand up and tell him why I hadn’t done my homework. Well, I didn’t have an answer and I struggle with lies so I said I didn’t know. Whilst rocking back and forth on my feet I remember looking at my shoes. I wanted the world to swallow me up because even though I was looking at my shoes I’m pretty sure the rest of the class were looking at me!
Then came a huge booming shouting voice “Look me in the eye when I am speaking to you”.
Honestly, I nearly wet myself. I slowly brought my head up until I was looking at the teacher in the eye and then quickly looked back down again.
“Look me in the eye, you insolent girl”.
What could I do? I lifted my head again and stared at the teacher as though my life depended on it. He told me off and I got detention but I DID learn a valuable lesson. It wasn’t to do my homework … like I said I’m ADHD homework was a struggle and many detentions followed. I learned to stare at people’s faces while they were talking to me so that I wouldn’t get in trouble again.
Did It Work?
For the most part, it did work. It felt like a very important rule when talking to adults that you looked directly at them. They seemed to like it and I didn’t get in trouble again for not doing it.
But when I was “looking” these people in the eye I was really staring through them. I didn’t stop looking until the conversation was over. I must have seemed like I was listening intently … actually I was thinking about anything but listening to these people. If I was being given important instructions I wouldn’t have had a clue because in my head I was probably singing along to a Bon Jovi song and wondering what to have for lunch.
However, it didn’t work with my peers and if anything it caused friction. I was often accused of staring at people and giving them the “deed eyes”.
They hit the nail on the head!
Dead eyes: A steady gaze with no emotion showing on the face. No smiles, no grins, no nothing … just a constant, continual gaze. And not a stare.
That is exactly what I was doing. Only I wasn’t doing it to start fights or cause trouble with my peers, which is what they thought.
Eye Contact Hurts!
If you’re forcing yourself to give eye contact at the very least it is going to be uncomfortable. But for some people, it can be physically painful!
The stress and anxiety of forcing yourself to do something that is not natural can cause huge overwhelm. This can lead to sensory overload, headaches and ultimately a meltdown or shutdown. Eye contact can be extremely tiring.
And not just for autistic people, lots of other neurodivergent folk feel this too.
But Isn’t It Important?
By using myself as an example eye contact is not important. I do not need to look at you to hear you. When I give eye contact I don’t actually listen to you as I’m so focused on staring that my mind wanders. If I’m calm and comfortable I will listen and take in information. It is really that simple.
Forcing eye contact can cause trauma. I have an awful memory yet I remember the exact details of when I was forced to give eye contact. This was mildly traumatic for me but I know other people who have experienced huge trauma from being forced to do something that is not natural.
One of my children has PTSD from an incident in primary school when they were aged 5. Whilst being told off they were looking at a picture on the wall. They were shouted at and told, “you do not look at my walls, you look at me”. Not only was this a cause of trauma but my child proceeded to tell everyone in the class that you aren’t allowed to look at walls in school!
Can you still hear someone without looking at them?
Can Eye Contact Be Uncomfortable?
Can Forcing Eye Contact Be Traumatic?
Do all autistic people avoid eye contact?
You can find more helpful content in our Content Hub
Or join Our Sensory Support Group on Facebook