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 went unnoticed due to a young age, especially if the adult speaker was busy with their hands while talking.
But when my mother admonished me, I heard — more than once — “Look at me when I’m talking to you!” I had no trouble meeting her eyes. 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.
It feels natural with cashiers, bank tellers, dental hygienists, my handyman, nurses for wellness checks and Walmart employees whom I ask where a product is located.
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.
Truth is, I’d rather not do it. I’d rather distribute my gaze the way I do when watching people on TV who are facing the viewer.
My eyes rove about their face, including their eyes. Sometimes they settle between their eyes or on their nose somewhere. I’m never on their eyes for too long. But in person? I guess it’s a societal expectation thing.
Maintaining eye contact is easy — as easy as a handshake. But I don’t like long eye contact. I don’t like handshakes, either. I often feel as though I’m staring too hard or that it looks forced.
And I always start with their left eye. When I feel I’ve been looking into it long enough, I switch to the right eye. This is done consciously. Then I switch back to the left.
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.
Recently my NT brother gave a lengthy explanation of his personal training and high protein diet — while his body was angled away from me on a hotel lobby couch we were sharing: very little eye contact.
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.
This pattern occurs every single time I explain something lengthy that requires thought. 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, I’ll for the most part maintain eye contact – and intensely – though it’ll briefly drift.
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 drift, but I’ll make a point to get them back on theirs – and HARD.
Accidental Eye Contact with Strangers
Accidental eye contact with a stranger — whom I have no intention of interacting with — is very awkward and uncomfortable. I try to avoid it.
Accidental eye contact with, for instance, someone at the gym on the workout floor, feels unauthorized — almost like a breach. It feels like something that was not supposed to happen. I promptly look away.
I avoid eye contact when passing strangers in buildings or on sidewalks. The only exception is when I need to assert dominance and control.
One time I was walking in a seedy part of downtown towards the lot where my car was parked. Coming towards me were three unsavory-looking men.
They got some good (though brief) eye contact from me — each one of them — my silent message to warn them that they’d better not harass me.
I also one time gave Alpha eye contact to three men on a subway late at night, who had taken seats across from me and began leering at me. I glared back and they retreated.
My eyes are my weapon. To avoid eye contact, when I need to assert dominance, would send a message to potential predators that I’m easy prey!
The last thing I want is ANYONE perceiving me as skittish, submissive, insecure, easily intimidated and easy to victimize!
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 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.
My solid eye contact tells people I’m self-assured and not easily intimidated.
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 handle on the floor 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 attended a bowling social for autistic adults. Half the group bowled; the other half remained at a table to socialize.
I spoke to only one of the bowlers because he seemed more receptive to an approach by a stranger (me). He gave me perfectly normal eye contact while he was talking and while I was talking.
The people at the “social table” appeared to be giving each other normal eye contact, according to my periodic glances their way.
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.