close up of a green eye

Why is eye contact an issue for autistic people?

It is a myth that autistic people cannot make eye contact. It is possible for an autistic person to look into the eyes of another person. However, the experience is described as uncomfortable, awkward or even painful. Magnetic resonance imaging has shown differences in brain pathways between autistic individuals and neurotypical counterparts. Eye contact has been shown to cause overstimulation. Avoiding eye contact decreases this unpleasant sensation.

Everyone’s experience is different. For me, I’m able to make eye contact when listening to a person. But when I’m talking, it’s as though the eye contact overstimulates my brain, it causes me to lose focus on what I’m saying. To keep eye contact, as I’ve been socially conditioned to believe I’m “meant to”, means I need to use inordinate amounts of energy. Looking away helps me focus, to think more clearly and feel calmer.

Should I “look more neurotypical” by holding uncomfortable eye contact? Or is it ok “give in” to my desire to look away?

Should autistic people be made to make eye contact?

In Western cultures, eye contact shows interest, attention and trustworthyness. A lack of eye contact communicates shyness, lack of interest and is even considered rude. But in China or Japan, it is disrespectful for a student to give a tutor eye contact. Intense eye contact signals aggression in some African cultures and among some Middle Eastern societies the use of eye contact is governed along strict gender rules.

How would it be to observe the differences between neurodivergent individuals as cultural differences rather than rude?

Requesting that an autistic individual give “standard eye contact” i.e. doesn’t stare but looks intently for a few seconds and looks away occasionally is confusing. It’s one of those unwritten rules where it’s not precisely clear exactly how much eye contact you’re meant to give! Too much and you’re staring (which is rude), not enough and you’re rude! We don’t do well when there’s not a clear rule!

Imagine, if you’re the recipient of “standard eye contact” from someone and this leads you to believe they’re trustworthy. But how does giving calculated eye contact make you a more trustworthy person, especially if this actually means you’re missing half the conversation?!

What are the draw backs of autistics giving eye contact?

black female looking distressed

Imagine you’ve been told you have to do something that doesn’t make sense to you, that causes discomfort, even pain. This thing doesn’t benefit you at all but you have to do it to be accepted, to be liked and to be trusted. You may even have been told you’ll be excluded, be disciplined or lose your job if you don’t do this thing… How would you feel?

If an autistic person is concentrating on giving eye contact, they’re less likely to be able to concentrate on the conversation. Some have been told there’s a formula to follow—that uses a ridiculous amount of energy. Autistic people feel high levels of anxiety and stress. Some may even find themselves dissociating because it’s overstimulating pain pathways in their brain. When making eye contact and trying to take in all the other sensory information at the same time, this can lead to sensory overload and even meltdowns and shutdowns.

What are the solutions?

When I spent a short period of time in a wheelchair, people would often pull up a chair to speak with me; sometimes people would kneel on the floor. People accommodated my height difference with no problem. It was unhelpful when people asked the person I was with “would she like a drink?”, assuming wheelchair = inability to make decisions was inappropriate.

Lack of eye contact does not equal rudeness, untrustworthiness or lack of attention. Once we adjust to this understanding, we can make accommodations and help autistic people feel more comfortable with being themselves. For example, when sitting people people in a restaurant, I like to sit at right angles (rather than opposite), then it feels less awkward for both individuals to gaze away anytime. As a counsellor my chairs are angled so my client can easily look out of the window, they are not forced to look at me.

It may take a while to adjust but that’s ok. We need to move away from “look at me when I’m talking to you”. It’s ok to say “can I just check you’ve heard me?” and it’s even better to say “how can I make this situation easier for you?”.