I’m an autistic woman who uses eye contact to assert authority and dominance. To observers I have good eye contact. Here’s what’s really going on.
I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder in spring of 2022.
I don’t recall any point in childhood where I struggled to hold eye contact.
It’s possible that wandering eyes in childhood went unnoticed by adults due to the young age, since kids are allowed some leeway in breaches of social rules.
Also, an adult might not really notice an averted gaze if, while they’re speaking, their own eyes are on busy hands or something they’re talking about.
But when my mother admonished me, I heard — more than once — “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” I had no trouble holding my eyes to hers — other than not wanting to look into the eyes of an angry parent.
If my gaze was intense (more on that coming), she presumably took this as either attentiveness or a sign of submission.
My Eye Contact As the Listener
When I give long eye contact, I’m always aware of it.
If the interaction is brief and of a back-and-forth nature, my eye contact feels natural, such as when interacting with the man who delivered my new washer and dryer, or with a restaurant server or bank teller.
It feels natural with cashiers, dental hygienists, doctors, nurses, my handyman and employees at Walmart and Home Depot.
Long eye contact occurs when it’s time to listen to instructions, an explanation or storytelling by a person in close proximity who’s looking right into my eyes.
My default, but conscious, response is to look right back — without any breaks.
It feels like a task or chore, but I’ve always done it — perhaps because somewhere along the way, I came to believe that this is what you’re supposed to do — just like somewhere along the way, I learned that when someone extends a hand, you shake it.
Truth is, I’d rather not sustain long eye contact, because it feels increasingly awkward the longer it goes on.
Plus, there invariably comes that point where I feel that I’ve been locked on their left eye for too long (I always look at their left eye first), and I then must move my gaze to their right eye.
But I feel a need to shift when the maintenance on their left eye starts feeling like I’m kind of encroaching on their personal space.
And when I do that, I can’t help but wonder if they’ll notice this switching.
The idea that they’ll notice it feels awkward, as though everything had been set in place, and I “unset” it by shifting to their right eye.
I’d rather distribute my gaze the way I do when watching people on TV who are facing the viewer.
When watching TV, my eyes rove about their face, including their eyes.
Often they settle between their eyes or on their nose somewhere. Sometimes I’m focused on the mouth, even though I can hear perfectly fine. I’m never on their eyes for too long.
But in person? I just feel I have to hold a steady, fixed gaze on their left eye, with the conscious switch to the right, then back to the left.
Maintaining eye contact is easy — as easy as a handshake. But long eye contact is mostly conscious, somewhat mechanical, rather than subconscious and feeling natural.
I don’t like long eye contact. I don’t like handshakes, either. I often feel as though I’m staring too hard.
So even though it’s easy, doesn’t mean I welcome it. Washing the dishes is easy, too, but that doesn’t mean I welcome it.
There’s nothing instinctive about sustained eye contact while I’m the listener.
I’ll notice details such as pupil fluctuations or blood vessels in the whites. I once noticed a smudge of mascara on the white.
On occasion in the past I’ve wondered if the person could “see into me.” I know this is ridiculous, but that’s the feeling I had gotten.
I no longer get it because I realize that humans lack the psychic ability to gather information about a person’s internal world by merely looking at a ball of goo between their eyelids.
When I prolong eye contact as the listener, I never break it until the speaker does. I know you’re supposed to break it, but I get “stuck” on the staring.
My ASD evaluator noted in the report that my eye contact “was at times intense.”
It feels intense unless the speaker is a family member. But family members usually aren’t situated such that our eyes meet in a straight line.
There’s also a degree of “desensitization” of eye contact with people I’ve known since birth. I’ve never felt I was staring or overdoing it with my parents.
My Eye Contact As the Speaker
When I’M the talker — at length, explaining something deep, complex or abstract — I can’t hold eye contact for too long because it’s too distracting. Even general face contact is distracting.
When I was a personal trainer I’d often be explaining how something works. About 10 or 12 seconds into the eye contact, it’d become distracting; my eyes would drift to the right, completely off the person’s body, while I continued to talk.
I’d have to remind myself to resume the eye contact. Then it’d drift again; I’d have to remind myself again.
I presumably did this all throughout childhood, but two things come to mind. First, kids don’t give lengthy explanations as much as they will when grown up. Second, kids are expected to “Look at me when I’m talking to you,” not, “Look at me when you’re talking to me.”
This pattern occurs every single time I explain something lengthy that requires thought.
Since my autism diagnosis, I’ve actually found I’m giving even less face contact when speaking at length, because now I know why my eyes have always drifted: It’s surely tied to my autism — viewing the listener’s face is a sensory overload.
But if my speech is brief, eye contact feels natural.
Talking to Several People
I’m always aware of gaze distribution. I shift eye contact from one person to the next, making sure that everyone gets the same amount so that nobody feels shorted or left out. Yes, this is what goes through my mind.
I make sure not to look into anyone’s eyes for too long because I want everyone to get an equal amount.
I hate this gaze distribution chore, but it has to be done, because let’s face it: If I keep my eyes off everyone while explaining something, they’ll be less attentive.
Arguing or Debating
If I’m arguing with someone or need to really drive home a message, I’ll make a point to hold longer eye contact while I’m doing a lot of talking. And often the eye contact is intense.
If I’m really angry, my eyes will bore a hole in theirs. If the argument requires a lengthy explanation that requires thought, my eyes will still drift, but I’ll make a point to get them back on theirs – and HARD.
Premeditated Eye Contact with Strangers
If a verbal interaction is premeditated — the subsequent eye contact is not accidental. It comes with premeditated interaction.
For instance, one of my autistic special interests is big ponytails.
One day I noticed an older woman on the gym floor with this glorious ponytail.
I had to compliment her on it — but not before I first sized her up to see if she’d be receptive.
As I approached, I was seeking out eye contact to vet her. She turned, eyes meeting mine, and smiled. I complimented her.
One day in the gym locker room a stranger asked what I was drinking. I gave her eye contact with my answer.
One day I was standing at a cable machine at this gym, between sets. In my peripheral vision I noticed a man looking around for something.
He paused and looked at me. Peripherally, I could tell he was looking at my eyes. I “read” this to mean he wanted to know if I was using a handle-pulling piece that was on the floor.
So I looked at his eyes — not because I needed to for my benefit, but because I wanted to let him know I was aware he wanted to ask me something.
He asked if I was using the piece. The premeditated eye contact lasted a second.
Yes, an autistic can “read” these kinds of intentions. They’re pretty straightforward and lack an emotional component.
As an Alpha type, I NEED to make eye contact when in a situation where appearing insecure or submissive could work against me.
This is crucial when dealing with various contractors or jerks off the street and everything in between, because you never know whom you’re dealing with. Avoiding eye contact gives power to the other person. I don’t want that.
My solid eye contact tells people I’m self-assured and not easily intimidated. If I give good eye contact as the listener, this “makes room” for drifting while I’m the talker!
Gaining Information from Someone’s Eyes
I don’t gain much information by looking at people’s eyes during brief interactions.
The transient eye contact just happens. I don’t know why. I gain information from their words, tone of voice and the way they’re talking, possibly body language.
However, I’ve watched my parents’ eyes during dynamic interactions — but that’s different because I’m emotionally bonded to my parents whom I love dearly!
Bottom line: Eye contact is easy, but I’d really prefer to do less of it when I’m the long listener and long speaker.
Sometimes I avoid short eye contact, like if in between sets at the gym, someone approaches, points to a weight plate and asks, “Are you using this?”
I’ll say, “No, go ahead, take it,” without meeting their eyes. I felt no need to.
A man, who worked maintenance for my new house’s builder, came to my house recently to see why the garage door wouldn’t open. I gave him eye contact; I needed his help!
All in all, with everything just said, the net verdict is that I’m an autistic woman who gives good eye contact — but often a mechanical experience that doesn’t feel instinctual. I can stare anyone down, but I also wish Western society’s rules on eye contact could be more relaxed.
What about other autistic people?
I’ve been to a number of autism social events in the four months since my ASD diagnosis, interacting with many autistic adults.
With the exception of one man who barely gave any eye contact, all the others have executed normal-appearing eye contact.
I’ve asked several if they were faking it, and only one affirmed this (she was looking behind me).
The others confirmed direct eye contact — as normal-appearing as any neurotypical person’s. This includes sustained eye contact with me and among each other.
This thread on autismforums.com contains posts by autistic people affirming their good eye contact.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer. In spring 2022 she received a diagnosis of Level 1 Autism Spectrum Disorder.