Friday, 11 March 2016

Autism: Eye Contact. And why it is different, not in need of fixing.

Imagine you have a young friend who is Blind.
How offended are you that they don't make eye contact with you?
Imagine you have a young friend who is autistic.

How offended are you that they don't make eye contact with you?

Neither young person is being disrespectful.

Even as an adult, I find eye contact painful and exhausting.

I'm going to generalise.  There may be some autistic people who enjoy eye contact.  I've just not met them yet.

The best explanation I had was from a Professor a few years ago.  He said that in our brains, eye contact is wired directly into the 'Is this a predator about to eat me' alarm-bell-centre.  The moment we stare into human eyes, it's like being three feet away from a hungry tiger with an attitude problem.  No, it's not paranoia.  It's different brain wiring.  What would your reaction be if faced with that tiger?  Fancy talking about the weather, or are you going to freeze in panic, or run like heck?

Well, that's our brain's reaction when faced with staring eyes from a human.  No, we can't just decide to have a different attitude, any more than you could with the tiger.   Our brain is using the tiger-response-wiring.  That's the brain design.  Once you stop looking into our eyes, we can relax with you.  Generalising.

I see just fine out of peripheral (side) vision.  When I'm with friends and family who really know me, I can sit side by side with them, and have the most wonderful conversation.  Same as you would if you were driving and there was a passenger in the car with you.  You don't have to make eye contact.  Same as if you are speaking on a telephone.  You don't have to make eye contact.

Worse still, if I am making eye contact, I can't hear.  It's one or the other. Which do you want? So many teachers insisted on eye contact.  I could then not hear a word they were teaching me.  What a pointless waste of their time and mine.

I will sometimes appear to be making eye contact. I've taken my glasses off. I can't see you.  That's a compromise.

What happens if people train us to make exhausting, painful eye contact anyway?  Well, it gives us a clear message that our pain and exhaustion means nothing to them.  In their view, they are the only important person in the room.  (Remind me which group is supposed to lack empathy...)

Forcing or bribing us to make painful eye contact?  That's not a social interaction out of genuine friendship, that's a power game. 

And, even if someone teaches me to stare at eyes, I cannot use eye contact meaningfully.  I cannot see what the eye contact messages mean.  I cannot use my own eye contact to 'mean something' either.    The effect is spooky, offputting, a bit scary for people.     It doesn't work.  It doesn't get us extra friends.  It doesn't get us anything at all.  Other people have brains that decode eye contact with lightning speed.  They can spot tiny changes in pupil size in the eye.  Tiny movements.  Tiny muscle changes in the eyelids, Tiny movements of eyebrows.  All automatically decoded and responded to.  It's an amazing communication system.   They can spot a 'fake eye contact' automatically.  All we can do is fake it. Our brains generally do not have any of those automatic eye-contact-decoding bits.  So it's a ridiculous thing to ask us to do.  In exactly the same way as it's ridiculous to ask a Blind friend to do it.

We are not broken versions of you that can be fixed by making us do painful things.  We are different, and we communicate differently.  We still value you.  We still want to be friends.  We do not hate you or find you boring, just because our eyes work differently.  We are not being lazy or rude, or 'shifty' by looking elsewhere.  Our lives are not going to be better by training us to look at your eyes.  At all.  It hurts.  Don't keep asking us to do painful things because you feel better if we do.  If I'm in a room with you and chatting with you, you are valued. 

Respect us, by being relaxed about eye contact. Let us decide where to look and when, and don't make a big thing about it.  If you are uncomfortable about the lack of eye contact, own your own problem.  Don't force us to be your solution.

Thank you for listening.