Look into my eyes…
Today on Twitter Pete Wharmby @commaficionado posted,
Probably the best way for non-autistic people to achieve understanding for #autistic children is to listen to #autistic adults, our experiences and advice, and not discount us.
Between us we have a wealth of knowledge, experience and empathy for young #autistic people. We are here and loads of us really want to help! A lot!
Pete, according to his profile is “Father; English teacher; politics, history and lego nerd, #autistic. Mental health. Public speaker. He/his.” He tweets regularly on autistic issues and being autistic.
What I want to share today is a Twitter thread of Pete’s written back in December which I have had waiting for a good time to publish. Seeing there is no good time due to coronavirus, I’m publishing now anyway.
The first tweet of the thread looks like this:
This is the content, via tinydiversions.com/spooler/
A thread by Pete Wharmby
Quick thread on #autism and eye contact.
Please share to raise awareness and acceptance. /1
Humans seem to love looking into each others eyes when they talk. Non-autistic people even associate eye contact with trustworthiness and good intentions, and can be extremely disturbed by any deviation from ‘normal’ eye contact. But #autistic people don’t seem the same. /2
The issue as I see it is that non-autistic people have a habitual, shared habit or structure to their eye contact – something shared by all. Not displaying this habit marks you as different, immediately. /3 #autism
But this communicative habit, which seems to include such rules as frequency, length, intensity of eye contact, as well as when it is necessary, is so unbelievably complex and instinctual that #autistic attempts to mimic it are doomed to failure. /4
But #autistic people mimic. Its what we have to do. We’re so used to being treated as different or weird that we tend to do all we can to mask and pass as ‘normal’. So eye contact becomes a kind of cursed topic. It’s inherently stressful. /5
Mimicking any behaviour is hard work, but in my experience trying to mimic ‘typical’ eye contact is a bit like trying to keep 30 Google Chrome windows open simultaneously – it grinds your system to a total halt. It’s so resource intensive! Like shaders on Minecraft. /6 #autism
It becomes associated with tension and stress, which of course breeds a vicious circle as this worsens the difficulties. Just because it doesn’t seem to be a part of our instinct. /7 #autism
But we do it, because the alternative is to be viewed as totally deficient, shifty and strange. There is no acceptable lack of eye contact. It is always viewed as bad. Imagine that – it’d be like if not being able to turn green on command was socially unacceptable. /8 #autism
The threat of being ostracised for something you simply can’t do is utterly ridiculous, of course, but non-autistic people are so oblivious of this schism in human experience that the idea of #autism barely occurs to them. /9
This is where change is needed. A society where eye contact is so important is inherently ableist, isn’t it? There’s no other word for it. It’s fair enough, I get it, but a change is needed as there’s no excuse for ignoring the existence of neurodivergency. /10 #autism
As an addendum, I think sometimes #autistic people can make and maintain eye contact well – especially with people who they can really trust. It’s something that for us builds up rather than is automatically on. /11
But even then, in my experience, I struggled to do it enough, or less than I should. Constant anxiety I’m staring or avoiding glare. It all feels so manual when I think most people experience it on automatic. /12 #autism
And forced eye contact with someone we don’t know well enough? It can veer on painful. Like a complete exposure and vulnerability. It’s really not nice. /13 #autism
So don’t force it, especially if you know the other person is #autistic. It’s basically cruel. /14
I tend to look over peoples left shoulder if I do not remember, I get told off for not concentrating when I do this, or concentrate on the bridge of their nose to compensate when I do remember. Like with Pete I have no idea how people can do this on automatic.
Another tactic I use is when speaking is to start with eve contact then make a gesture and look at the hand gesturing before looking back. Again I have no idea how people know when to look and when not to on automatic.
Reading people’s feelings. When I heed to I can use rudimentary cold reading techniques I have learned. I cannot do this on automatic either. I know if someone has said something emotional if the rest of the group go still.
I can do sociable, and love being sociable. But it is difficult and tires me out. I need me time in order to be sociable both before and after. Eye contact is difficult, not only for people you know or suspect is autistic, but also to others you do not suspect are autistic. Please make allowances.